Spend Down / Essays

Thinking Outside the Box: How Partnerships Grow a Foundation’s Impact
By Amanda Levine, June 2015

One thing that particularly strikes me about what we do here at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP) is that we operate programs within the foundation; we don’t just write checks. But you already know that from reading other posts in this series. Partnering isn’t done the same way everywhere, and what I particularly appreciate about our model is that it includes sharing strategies about how to start a new project, and engaging individuals and organizations to recognize the value of pooling resources together and challenging other funders to put up the funds.

Our relationship with our grantees is an open door; we look to our grantees to show us what it means to execute programs--specifically our operating programs--and our grantees look to us as the funder, the board member, and the mentor. We take on an active role, not a passive one. Our grantees are our partners.

During the heyday of ACBP, Andy, z”l, and Charles Bronfman, along with Jeff Solomon developed strategies to ensure that every investment the foundation made leveraged all of the resources that we had in our wheelhouse. This included spending more time with grantees to come up with new initiatives, and sharing proposals to like-minded funders.

In a spend down environment, the collaborative model is even more in focus because a spend down foundation strives to keep its mission alive through others. It is important to Charles and Jeff that they continue to champion best practices for organizations whose values resonate with those of ACBP.

I’ve seen many nonprofit professionals and donors walk through our Park Avenue doors in the past two years for the main purpose of communicating with our staff about how they can best serve their respective communities. Because of my familiarity with our research, Jeff and Charles often ask me to look up reports that ACBP has published so we can share with these guests. I think this gives each nonprofit professional a unique look into the way that we have used preliminary research to explore a particular field and tackle thematic challenges, and particularly the emphasis that strategy has in all aspects of our day-to-day activities at ACBP. In a way, this example is another way that partnerships get created.

As a spend down foundation, ACBP could focus on its own legacy with the subject of the story being its founders. But, ACBP has always instead centered on growth of its programs and partners. As Sharna Goldseker, executive director of 21/64, mentions in the Getting Out While Starting Up podcast on GrantCraft, ACBP’s founders have always wanted grantees and the operating programs to be at the forefront of the website, not themselves. In fact when I was onboarded into my current role, I connected with just as many staff from our operating programs to learn about our work as our staff itself. The sheer fact that these programs are becoming independent means that there will be new voices to engage so that they may keep growing and evolving in their field.

Charles is interested in engaging other donors and members of communities he is passionate about all over the world. When innovators in the field of next generation engagement, Jewish identity and peoplehood, environment, and health come to Charles with novel ideas, he often meets with them to brainstorm around leveraging donor resources and optimizing service to communities in need.

For example, Charles is on the board of the Mount Sinai Medical Center, which proposed a project for personalized medicine. Charles applied his father’s philosophy that no two people have the same chemistry to a thoughtful discussion of the project’s aims around preventative and restorative care. Charles then pledged half of the funds required for the project as a challenge grant, where Mount Sinai needed to fundraise for the other half.  One of the major contributors to this project was the National Institutes of Health, whose contribution allowed the project to create its electronic medical system for determining personalized care. Mount Sinai’s Biobank has been instrumental in customizing the exact course of action for each patient. Creative and unexpected trajectories can happen when donors take a risk in challenging grantees to create new partnerships with others that care about the issue.

It’s a treat to work for a donor whose perspective on his life and his work involves connecting with people on a substantive level. But, as Charles once reminded me, nothing is eternal. Our connections will evolve–especially after the spend down is completed; staff of our grantee organizations will eventually change; programs will update their approaches; the context of the world we live in will undoubtedly continue to introduce new factors. Indeed, nothing is eternal. But if ACBP is just one example of an organization that creates a vision for partnerships, our partners and our programs will continue to motivate each other to think outside of the box.

Amanda Levine is a program associate at The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. She focuses on communications, research, and development initiatives relating to core programs, such as Birthright Israel, that strengthen Judaism in North America and enhance social awareness in Israel, and spend down issues relating to ACBP and major grantees.