Effective Family Philanthropy: The Kendeda Fund

Kendeda Fund Executive Director Dena Kimball with her mother Diana Blank, Founder of Kendeda Fund

The Kendeda Fund is Writing its Last Checks — and the Last Chapter of a 30-Year Story of Giving

About 30 years ago, Diana Blank began to ramp up her philanthropy through what became known as the Kendeda Fund, drawing the name from her three children, Kenny, Dena and Danielle. Tapping into wealth derived from the Home Depot empire, which was founded by her former husband Arthur Blank, Kendeda was a lean operation, and Blank preferred to remain an anonymous donor for many years.

Much like family philanthropy writ large, the Kendeda Fund has come a long way in both the size and sophistication of its giving. Blank’s daughter Dena Kimball took the helm of the foundation in 2014, Blank and Kendeda went public in 2015, and over the years, the fund has given over $1 billion through forward-thinking portfolios tackling climate change and land conservation, the rights of women and girls, gun violence prevention, racial and economic justice in Atlanta, and more.

But the core of the foundation has always been Blank’s commitment to humbly moving money out the door, and in that spirit, the 81-year-old and her Kendeda Fund join Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies, S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, and many others that have embraced the power of spending down. The foundation is slated to sunset at the end of December.

One big difference between this final chapter of the foundation and its early years is that Kendeda’s final days are very much a public project, as staff openly share the lessons they’ve learned while they wind down, including through a revamped website and podcast, “Stories from the Kendeda Fund.”

I recently connected with Kimball, former fund advisor Tene Traylor and fund advisor David Brotherton, who each spoke to the final years of Kendeda’s spend-down. In our conversations, I found out more about Diana Blank’s philanthropic path, including her decision to spend down, how grantees were supported in the process, and what Kendeda hopes the sector can learn about the power of giving it all away.

“Getting her hands dirty”

Born Diana Latow in Long Island, New York, Blank grew up in a Polish-Catholic family of modest means. She started working in human resources at an accounting firm, where she met then-accountant Arthur Blank. In 1966, the couple married. Twelve years later, Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus cofounded Home Depot, which would eventually become the largest home improvement retailer in the United States and provided the family with an ever-expanding fortune.

Growing up, Dena Kimball said that her parents helped her and her siblings understand values around work and developing their own senses of accomplishment. The word philanthropy wasn’t explicitly referenced. “I probably didn’t even hear that word until I was 20-something,” Kimball said. A lot of the lessons she learned from her father were around business and the community of care with his employees. From Diana Blank, Kimball learned the value of really getting her hands dirty by directly engaging in the community. “We talk about time, talent and treasure. Her message was around time,” Kimball said.

Arthur and Diana Blank split amicably in 1993. The primary source of Diana’s assets initially consisted of stock in The Home Depot obtained through a divorce proceeding. It was around this time that Blank decided to start giving some of her wealth back. She did much of this early philanthropy with the help of Atlanta Women’s Foundation, Tides Foundation donor-advised funds, and her longtime financial manager, Barry Berlin. It’s notable that much of this work was done anonymously, including major gifts to local institutions like Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding Hospital. Blank also eschewed institutional trappings like a formal board, preferring to run things informally. Many at Kendeda refer to these early days as “checkbook philanthropy,” a form of less-structured, hands-off giving. Even so, the foundation and its anonymous donor became a major presence in Atlanta and beyond.

As Kimball was getting older, she recalls that her mother offered a general invitation for her and her two siblings to join the foundation. “She was cognizant early on that we were trying to build our own lives and that we had other commitments,” she said. For Kimball, that meant attending Emory and then receiving a master’s in public policy analysis from Harvard, before working for several nonprofits during the early and mid-aughts. Some were small, like one grassroots nonprofit where they were “sweating payroll.” Others were large and enjoying their heyday, like Teach for America, where Kimball worked at a time when there was seemingly boundless opportunity.

Then, around the time of her mother’s 70th birthday and Kimball’s 40th (their birthdays are one day apart in September), Kimball recalls doing a bit of reflection. She felt accomplished enough in the nonprofit sector and knew that her mother, at this point, had already started talking about spending down the Kendeda Fund. “I realized that if I ever wanted to work with her, you don’t have forever,” Kimball said. She also reflected on the close relationship that she had with her mother over the years, when the two would often talk openly with each other about the world. When Kimball had her first child, some of that relationship changed, with Blank stepping into the role of grandmother. Coming aboard Kendeda in 2012 was one way to continue their close relationship.

Setting a date, beginning to spend down, and operational reserves

When Dena Kimball first joined Kendeda in 2012, the agreement was that she would just run the girls’ rights portfolio, drawing on earlier experiences working for organizations like GirlVentures in the Bay Area. But it wasn’t long before Blank asked her daughter to run the whole show. This led to a very candid conversation.

Kimball made it clear that she was game as soon as the conversation began. But she also wanted to get clarity on how much autonomy she would have. “I asked her at that point, ‘Mom, I will do it regardless. I love you. But I want to ask you something. Do you want me to run it the way you’ve been running it, or do you want me to run it the way I would run it?’” Kimball recalled. But Blank affirmed that she wanted her daughter to truly lead. “She let me bring myself into that work,” Kimball said, adding with a laugh that she’s been waiting more than a decade for her mother to go back on her word. But she never has.

Around this time, Diana Blank also decided to shed her anonymity and make Kendeda more front facing, agreeing to a long interview with the Atlanta Business Chronicle in 2015. The decision was rooted in several reasons, including that Kendeda was making its then-largest gift, a $30 million grant to Georgia Tech toward environmental sustainability. “I just wanted to be treated as a person, not as a philanthropist,” Blank said in one episode of “Stories From the Kendeda Fund.” But through the years, she realized that Kendeda itself had grown, and that “the Kendeda name had gained some respect in the philanthropic community and was encouragement to other people who were wondering ‘should I or shouldn’t I.’”

Kendeda Fund had already started its spend-down before Kimball arrived, but her mother had set an ambitious date of around 2015 or 2016. Kimball didn’t think that was possible, short of writing a bunch of huge checks in a haphazard way. So the two sat down and put together a basic Excel spreadsheet of Kendeda’s program areas to get a sense of which organizations would need support and when. Based on their assessment, they settled on a runway of 10 years to complete their spend-down. On December 31 2023, Kendeda Fund will close its doors.

One big question when such a process gets going is how grantees will be informed and appropriately supported to continue their work. Kimball said those conversations happened early and often, especially around the 2016 and 2017 mark. A firm timeline also required Kendeda itself to take a hard look at its portfolio and really think about who was core to getting them to that finish line. Then they had conversations with each of their grantees about their plan over the next few years, and how those grantees fit into the plan. Kimball explains that sometimes, those conversations were as overt as Kendeda saying that they had $1 million over the next four years to potentially give to them. They would then talk with that grantee about how to best structure that payout.

“Does it make more sense to give more of that money sooner? Or later? Or structured in a particular way? So there were a lot of explicit, individual, one-on-one conversations with each grantee,” Kimball said.

Before the pandemic hit in 2019, Kimball also started to realize that the foundation was in a place where they had some additional resources that they hadn’t yet deployed to a particular program. Diane Ives, a long-running Kendeda staffer who runs the People, Place, and Planet program, came up with a novel idea to invest in some of her core grantees’ operating reserves programs. Kimball was such a fan of the concept that she decided to scale that effort all across Kendeda, focusing on core grantees and particularly smaller organizations (budgets smaller than around $5 million) that didn’t yet have at least three to six months of operating reserves.

“We said to them that we want to invest more in your operating reserves, knowing that we are not going to be around… We see our role as not replacing every last dollar of funding, but giving you an addition source of resilience to sort of weather future storms,” Kimball said.

Through its Operating Reserve Program, Kendeda ended up investing in 38 of its core grantees, providing up to a month and a half of their operational dollars, which the grantee then had to match. In total, they invested about $8 million to $9 million in the program. Kimball said the matching dynamic here generated a lot of good, much-needed dialogue between executive directors, development directors, boards of directors and their funders about their responsibility to organizational resilience when faced with the prospect of extra money.

Kimball doesn’t mean to paint the picture that all of these conversations were easy. But she says integrity, transparency and open conversations were key. She also says part of the process has involved making peace with the fact that it wasn’t always going to be easy.

Kimball noted one grantee as an example of how this process played out — American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and its program in India, which Kendeda had long supported. AJWS was adamant that this program was critical and that they were looking at a real cliff. So Kimball said that if they could raise money for their India program, they could take Kendeda’s dollars that they were paying out in 2020-2023 and create their own mini-reserve program and use that in the future for a smoother transition. Kimball estimates that AJWS has raised about $6 million in replacement dollars.

“That’s the kind of partnership we’ve tried to have with our grantees. Now, are some people going to hurt when we’re gone? Of course. But I think we’ve tried to do our part to make sure that’s not the case,” Kimball said.

On Atlanta equity and spending out the portfolio

Tene Traylor, fund advisor at Kendeda from 2016 to 2022, is a veteran of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. She came to Kendeda after she saw a job posting for an equity fund advisor position, emphasizing that she had never seen something like that before in Atlanta. Traylor started becoming explicit in talking about equity herself in the mid- to late aughts and helped spearhead the Neighborhood Summit, focusing on grassroots change in the community and bringing in leaders like attorney and civil rights leader Angela Glover Blackwell.

She notes that the Annie E. Casey Foundation had long published data about huge disparities in Atlanta related to early childhood. In 2016, other studies began to tell a similar story when it came to income inequality. Kimball, too, saw these issues when she returned to Atlanta in 2012 and believed it was something Kendeda needed to tackle.

As she stepped into her new role, Traylor’s first goal was to embark on a “listen and learn tour” for several months, documenting, interviewing and researching the leaders and organizations doing on-the-ground equity work on Atlanta’s historically Black Westside. “We were transitioning from doing great, but non-equity-related grantmaking. How do we invest in people of color who are working in this same space?” Traylor asked. She ultimately settled on two grantmaking focuses: economic opportunity and educational transformation.

Traylor essentially inherited an old portfolio that focused on local Atlanta issues, and transformed it into one that truly centered equity and voices on the ground, including longstanding organizations and new equity groups. The spend-down added important clarity and urgency to Kendeda’s work.

Like Kimball, Traylor believes that on the whole, her grantees are prepared for Kendeda’s closure. “They all knew that we were spending out. That was not a secret. For our core grantees, we projected out their support. I was able to tell them by 2019, most of them had received documentation on how they were being spent out by ’23–’24,” Traylor said. There was a level of trust-based grantmaking too, she adds, where Kendeda had to invest in what they knew was to come without expecting formal grant reports.

At the helm of the equity fund, Traylor helped relaunch Atlanta Land Trust, which aims to secure permanently affordable housing across Atlanta, and she cofounded Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative, which works to support the “the engagement, capacity and leadership necessary to build Black wealth in Atlanta and across the South.” Traylor highlighted another organization called Village Micro Fund, a social impact fund that offers education, resources, technical assistance and cultural support to African American entrepreneurs, launched by Morehouse College alum Donte Miller and Georgia Tech graduate Harriett Williams, who at the time were both recent graduates. “But they were ready. They just needed someone to support them,” Traylor said.

Traylor also tried to develop relationships with national funders so that her grantees would be supported for the long haul. Her goal here wasn’t just putting a spotlight on one grantee, but helping them understand the philanthropic ecosystem in Georgia, and the importance of culture and place. And she spoke to Kendeda’s role as a validator for national groups.

David Brotherton, fund advisor for Gun Violence Prevention also spoke to how he navigated helping his grantees through the spend-down, including helping them find new sources of funds. “We were not only transparent about when the checks were going to end, we gave them coaching and validation for replacing our funds once we were done,” he said.

Looking back and looking ahead

While the story of the Kendeda Fund began with anonymous giving, its final chapter has been unfolding very much out in the open. The foundation has been eager to tell its story, including through its impressive, revamped website focused on the spend-down process. The hope was to create a lasting space where others could learn about Kendeda’s approach as a case study. Rather than asking for final reports, which Diana Blank said they would likely barely read, they instead wanted to center grantees by asking them where they saw their fields headed — giving them the last word, so to speak.

There’s also the Kendeda Fund’s email newsletter, a long-running podcast and blog posts that Dena Kimball penned. Why such an emphasis on storytelling? Well, Kimball explained that in a world where a billionaire is created every day, she feels like, unfortunately, the same 50 stories are told again and again. She’s more interested in focusing on people like her mother, who departed from the typical trappings of what she calls “philanthropy ‘strategery.’”

Kendeda Fund did not have a traditional board and instead put a lot of trust and faith in its fund advisers, which Kimball admits wasn’t always perfect alchemy. Still, she believes this lean structure allowed them to be nimble, make decisions relatively quickly, and keep program staff focused on grantees instead of “reams of strategy and board books.”

She also made an interesting comment about Kendeda’s long-running work in Montana. Their funding in the state has taken the form of conservation and supporting Native communities, as well as housing affordability and income inequality work in Bozeman. That economic component is something not discussed enough in Western conservation, but Montana is now serving as a second home for many wealthy transplants (Blank herself is a nature lover who eventually bought a townhouse in the state). Kimball is proud that Kendeda advanced a more “alternative conservation ethos,” one that kept in mind not just planetary needs, but economic and justice needs, as well.

Or, as Diana Blank prefers to call it: “People, place and planet.”

Given that Blank has devoted so much of her life to supporting these principles through philanthropy, it does raise the question of why she wanted to spend down in the first place. For Kimball, it all comes back to the idea of legacy, which is bandied about both when it comes to family foundations and philanthropy writ large. But too often, she feels like legacy has been wedded to the idea of perpetuity. And Kimball is glad her mother pushed her to think of family legacy in a different way.

“For a lot of people of wealth, legacy has been put into a box of passing on an institution of charitable giving from one generation to the next, and the next. I think she has understood that family legacy — and she would hate that word, even — can happen in so many different ways,” Kimball said. “And it’s happened, I think, in a very powerful way by virtue of her choice to spend out because of a sense of urgency, because of a sense of trust that others will come along and do great work, and that she doesn’t need to try play it out through all eternity.”