Spend Down / Essays
ACBP President Jeff Solomon
and Vincent McGee
With Charles Bronfman
Getting Out While Starting Up:
21/64 and Slingshot
Sharna Goldseker, Executive Director of 21/64 and Jenna Weinberg, Interim Director of Slingshot
When Legacy and Field-Building Go Hand-in-Hand
By Jen Bokoff, November 2015
Family philanthropy represents a vibrant, time-honored part of the funding world. Grants illustrate values that the family holds core to its identity, and each grantee becomes a living extension and embodiment of those values. I have known aspects of the work of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP) since I was a teenager, when the Birthright program was first presented to me as a way to learn about and strengthen my Jewish roots. I have now been humbled to work closely alongside the foundation’s staff for more than two years as a partner in communicating their spend down strategy. I have learned through this blog series about the foundation’s values and legacy, the strategy and process behind spending down, and opportunities to encourage field building along the way. I’m pleased to share some of these insights with you in this second-to-last series post.
First, some observations about ACBP:
- The trustees and staff collectively value community, trust across generations, creativity, innovation, stimulating conversation, and cultural connection. These values come through in everything tied to the foundation – the office, the partnerships, the network, the speaking engagements, and the desire to engage in this blog series.
- Charles Bronfman and Jeff Solomon lead with a quiet but dynamic energy. Their work is their passion, and I see that reflected in every conversation with them and the rest of the staff. I observed a true power in this style of leadership, where showing kindness, thoughtfulness, inquisitiveness, and flexibility fosters strong relationships and unlocks interesting partnership potential.
- The decision to spend down was made thoughtfully. What has made the spend down actually happen thoughtfully has been the incubation of efforts that will carry on various aspects of ACBP’s mission, continuation of legacy projects through new giving vehicles, early and often dialogue with peers, partners, and staff, and buy-in from the family’s next generation.
- Communicating a legacy – everything from who communicates it to what they say and how – is hard, plain and simple. There were some aspects of this that ACBP had figured out, and some that the foundation had not. Throughout this series, I really valued our ongoing dialogue and fine-tuning of work process to make the posts in this series candid, useful, and dynamic in communicating a legacy grounded in values and carried on by the next generation of leadership at its partner organizations.
I wasn’t sure how deep we could go with ACBP in a nuanced conversation about spend down. That’s why we started with the idea that we’d just do 12 posts. We quickly realized that when it comes to talking about spend down, there’s a lot to discuss.
- There are really, really fascinating challenges to spending down. The close of the Green Environment Fund, for example, was a known consequence of ACBP’s spend down, but so was the incubation and growth of 21/64. Jason Soloway’s departure was catalyzed by the announcement, but the same can be said for program associate Amanda Levine’s arrival and enthusiastic spirit. There are many grey areas when deciding to close doors, and listening to diverse voices weighing in on a range of topics is fascinating.
- Everything is about timing, and those timing decisions have to work together. Considerations about office leases, planning grant cycles and final grants, communication with stakeholders, staff departures, the last tax filing, distribution of artwork, and plans for delightful retirements all depend on one another. They must be carefully coordinated, and nothing ever goes perfectly. So, being nimble is essential, as is having staff from various roles coordinate early and check in often.
- Having a point person spend significant time reviewing every paper file and coordinating legacy-related efforts is essential. There’s a lot that goes into final decisions related to what is said, saved, transitioned, and discarded, and it’s not necessarily a role for senior leadership. Amanda has been a thoughtful partner in this blog effort – an important piece of ACBP’s legacy work – because she is able to honor values, organize information, and navigate dynamics with the best interest of the foundation in mind.
Before this project, I admittedly hadn’t engaged very often in thinking about foundations spending down or debating the benefits of a perpetual vs. a time-limited existence. Now, I’m a champion of hosting this conversation more deeply across Foundation Center and continuing to partner with more foundations that are spending down in the future with the intent of building knowledge throughout the field. Why?
- Foundations that are spending down and eventually exiting the field hold incredible knowledge – both about the specific issues where they have focused funding, and about the spend-down process and all of its related considerations. Without intentionally capturing that wealth of knowledge, a lot gets lost. But by documenting what is possible to document and making that accessible, there’s potential for others to be more strategic by having access to more experiences and information.
- Since we started the series, I’ve heard increasing interest in the topics the posts are raising. From questions around severance and hiring to operational questions around assets and distribution of remaining funds to strategic questions about preparing grantees and providing final capacity boosts, there are a ton of issues specific to foundations with an end in sight. Funders often feel that their situation is unique, yet these blogs allowed for connections around common themes.
- Through work with other time-limited foundations – like the palliative care special collection of resources that we developed with Atlantic Philanthropies and the webinar for nonprofits that we hosted with the Lia Fund – and of course through work on this series, we’ve confirmed what we already thought we knew: knowledge shouldn’t be proprietary. What’s valuable to one could be valuable for all, and we want to leverage our platforms to promote increased transparency.
- Partnering with a foundation for field-building takes trust, which needs to be built over time. The ACBP team and the GrantCraft team built it together, but it took many months. In this case, my “do-over” would be to have done a planning retreat with more stakeholders much earlier in the process, because we discovered so many commonalities later in the game than I would have liked. From this, a learning, too! Trust can be built quickly (and sometimes has to when time is limited), and nearly always comes from a place of people appreciating people. Taking a step back and not diving right into work, but instead getting to know one another’s personalities and styles, leads to more thoughtful and productive work in the long run. This will very much be woven into GrantCraft’s field-building approach going forward, where a getting-to-know-you component will intentionally be built into every project.
Family philanthropy can be a gift – and at times a challenge – to partner with as a third party. My respect for ACBP has grown with each post in this project, and I am very proud to have helped to elevate their work in strengthening both philanthropy and their focus areas. I raise a glass to this foundation for the work it has done and the candid, transparent spirit with which it has shared what its staff, grantees, and partners have learned.
Jen Bokoff is the director of GrantCraft at Foundation Center.