Time-Limited Philanthropy: Raising the Stakes, Focusing the Mind

black and white hourglass

With support from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, NCFP spent months planning an April retreat in New York for foundations that are planning to spend down or considering the option. A pandemic intervened, so last week, we held the gathering online. It’s not an ideal way to meet new friends and share candid conversation, admittedly, but it worked surprisingly well. And it seemed to spark enough interest and desire for more conversation so that, when life returns to normal, many participants will want to try again—this time in three dimensions.

One theme that struck me throughout the conversation was how thoroughly a defined time limit changes almost every aspect of a foundation’s life, from vision to program strategy to financial and personnel management to communication. While a perpetual institution has the luxury to say, “Here are some things we’re interested in and want to pursue,” a time-limited foundation must (if it’s going to be frank and effective) say, “Here are the things we intend to get done by Date X.” It must tell its grantees, its funding partners, its employees and Board, and virtually everyone with a stake in the issues it has adopted: This is what we will do, year by year, till the end. The deadline raises the stakes and focuses the mind.

What impressed me last week is how clearly all the participants in the online meeting seemed to recognize this fact and to be eager to grapple with it. In earlier years, when time-limited philanthropy was still an unfamiliar niche idea, some foundations seemed content to set an end date on their calendars, but then proceeded as if they were still living in perpetuity. And, to be fair, that’s a perfectly reasonable approach if one’s end date lies 20 or more years in the future. It’s nearly impossible to plan year-by-year events that far ahead of time.

But in this recent gathering, the prospect of coasting along, business-as-usual, in the face of a deadline was nowhere in sight. The whole discussion reflected a sense of urgency, a need for clarity and planning, and an obligation to be accountable for both time and resources, in ways that are starkly different from the contours of a perpetual operation.

Plans are Worthless, but Planning is Everything

Of course, we all recognize that time—even just a year or two—can upend even the best-laid plans, and no institution can promise without caveats that it will achieve anything by a date certain. The point of all the discussion about focus, accountability, and planning was that these things are indispensable for organizing and executing an effective philanthropic program, and ending it well, even if events demand that the plans be revised. As Dwight Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

I’ve been in plenty of discussions about time-limited philanthropy that hovered serenely over generalities like whether foundations ought to last forever, how satisfying it is to spend vigorously for a short time, whether doing good today is worth more than doing good tomorrow, and other philosophical matters. But last week’s discussion zeroed in on the hard stuff: How do you organize a time-limited operation? How do you execute so that you accomplish the greatest amount possible? How do you face the end and prepare your grantees and staff to face it? And as the end approaches, how do you retain and motivate talented people who know their jobs will disappear?

These are bracing issues, sometimes difficult to grasp and even harder to resolve. But they made for an invigorating three hours of conversation and shared wisdom. Presumably, that will be even more true when we’re eventually able to resume—somewhere in real space, this time, face-to-face.

Interested in joining an ongoing peer network of family foundations currently considering or actively in the process of spending down? Join NCFP’s Strategic Lifespan Peer Network.

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.