A Timely Topic: Perpetual or Limited-Life Philanthropy?


The past week has seen a flurry of dialog on the topic of foundation life spans, highlighting the choice between permanence and planned spend-down.

  • On March 30, in an Op Ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Ray D. Madoff (Forum on Philanthropy and the Public Good at Boston College) and Rob Reich (Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University) sought to frame the issue with some historical context on the debate (which is by no means a new one) and critical questions for consideration by today’s philanthropies.
  • The following day, Francie Ostrower (Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at University of Texas at Austin) wrote a piece for Nonprofit Quarterly citing research that suggests foundation performance has less to do with the choice between perpetuity and spend-down than with how the values of donors and trustees are expressed through these strategies.
  • On Monday of this week, Sherry Magill (Jessie Ball duPont Fund) lent another layer of perspective to the issue, her letter to the editors of the Chronicle of Philanthropy casting into high relief the compounded value (literally!) of an endowed fund as a perpetual grantmaking instrument serving the community.
  • Since then, Madoff and Reich have fostered additional conversation with a two-day conference on “Perpetuities, Limited Life, and the Responsibility of Philanthropy to the Present and Future.”  Though the event was invite-only, video of a “Perspectives From the Front Line” session should be available to the public in the coming week.
  • Later this month, the National Center for Family Philanthropy is hosting a webinar featuring lessons on spend-down from the Noyce Foundation and the Orfalea Foundation. The April 14 webinar is free to NCFP Friends and members of any of its Family Philanthropy Online Partner Communities.  If you can’t make it to the webinar, you can still read about the two foundations’ experiences on the NCFP blog: The Noyce Foundation: Ten Core Principles for Hands-On, High Impact Philanthropy and Lessons from the Orfalea Foundation Sunset.
  • The Atlantic Philanthropies has also shared much of what it has learned through its own limited-life strategy, fueled by founder Chuck Feeney’s commitment to “giving while living.” Learn more in this SSIR article “A Good Ending” [subscription] on best practices in spending down, co-authored by the Atlantic Philanthropies’ President and CEO, Christopher Oechsli, and La Piana Consulting founder and Managing Partner, David La Piana. See also “Making a Graceful Exit” a companion piece by David La Piana with recommendations appropriate not only for foundations winding down entirely, but for those seeking to exit a program area responsibly.
  • GrantCraft also has a wide variety of resources on foundation spend down strategies

With such a diverse and growing array of perspectives and resources, we agree with Madoff and Reich on at least one thing: that “the time” for conversation about perpetual and limited-life philanthropy “is now.”

What are your thoughts?

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