[This is the first of three consecutive pieces in this blog series to examine issues relating to employee attitudes and relations within a spend down environment. In February, ACBP Program Associate Amanda Levine will offer her perspective on joining ACBP during its final years. And in March, ACBP President Jeffrey Solomon will write on managing and supporting talented staff during spend down.]
by Jason Soloway
In 2011, The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP) announced it would begin to spend down its financial resources and close its New York-based foundation in 2016. This decision needed to be treated with great sensitivity, as it would have a significant impact on the organization’s many stakeholders, including its grantees, programs and employees.
At the time of the announcement, I was a vice-president at ACBP and one of my tasks was to serve as the point person to the outside consulting group helping us think through the spend down process. We understood that ACBP was a substantial funder to many organizations and that our announcement ran the risk of generating considerable anxiety. As such, our goal was to work with each grantee to mitigate the impact of our closure.
While much of the focus was on external stakeholders, what became increasingly clear was the additional internal challenge of addressing ACBP’s employees. ACBP is a family foundation where staff turnover is low and relationships run deep. A foundation that broadcasts that it’s effectively putting itself out of business in five years creates an unusual situation for employees.
What is the impact on a staff member who knows his or her job has an expiration date? Does this knowledge influence the quality of his or her work? Does he or she start looking for a new job? Moreover, how can the organization ensure it will retain the necessary talent to see itself through to the end?
When staff reductions began, they were spread among different departments, and while each specific circumstance varied, all were related to the decision to spend down the foundation’s assets. As the number of employees began to shrink, other staff members knew their time was soon, but did not know exactly when or how they would be let go.
Senior management was aware of the strained atmosphere created by the spend down and tried to communicate their strategy internally. Despite best efforts, continually evolving plans resulted in the delivery of ambiguous messages that triggered unease among the staff.
While I was not privy to specific timelines for all of our employees, I had a general idea of who was going and when. I had a positive working relationship with many of my colleagues and they turned to me to express their frustrations, concerns and tears.
I listened to each employee and gave honest and realistic feedback based on what I knew. This translated into spending a lot of time reviewing resumes, writing letters of recommendation, and taking calls as a personal reference.
In terms of my own career, I felt that my job was secure for a year or perhaps two, but this was never directly articulated to me, so I began to consider my next move. Having been at the foundation for almost ten years, and in the sector even longer, I imagined (perhaps naively) that a professional opportunity would emerge when the time came for me to leave.
At the same time, I saw this as a moment to re-evaluate my career. While I deeply valued philanthropy and believed in its broad mission to improve the world, I knew working at a not-for-profit was not the only path to satisfying my career goals and ambitions.
I had always been enamored with the restaurant business. I grew up immersed in the industry, as my dad was an owner of an Italian restaurant in Toronto when I was a child. But since I was not professionally trained in the field, I had a difficult time figuring out how to translate my passion into a career. I couldn’t see myself as a garde manger or sous chef working the kitchen line. This is work for the young and fit. I’m neither.
Slowly, I began to envision a path that made sense and decided it was the right time to make a move. I resigned from the foundation and enrolled in a culinary management program in New York. I was apprehensive, frightened and emboldened.
A few shorts weeks into my program, I sensed I was on the right path. This played out in the simplest of ways. Every day at 8 a.m., I sat in class eager to learn. To my classmates, I was insufferable, constantly jabbing my arm in the air with questions. To my teachers, I was exasperating, as my enthusiasm elicited both curiosity and horror.
I have since graduated from the program and become a partner in a New York neighborhood bar. While school provided a foundation of knowledge, the bar was my front row seat to understanding how the business functioned on a day-to-day basis. In October, I opened a restaurant in New York’s West Village and am planning to open another one in the East Village in the spring.
What has been the most surprising about my professional transition is how my work in the philanthropic sector has informed my new career. Writing a strategic plan for a not-for-profit organization requires the same discipline and focus as developing a business plan for a bar or restaurant.
At ACBP, we spent a lot of time and energy creating partnerships (industry-speak for fundraising) on behalf of our grantees. In the restaurant world, one of the greatest challenges is identifying potential investors. Who of sound mind would invest in a business run by a wide-eyed and inexperienced operator doomed to failure? Fortunately this is a skill-set, familiar to any veteran of philanthropy, in which I’m well versed.
In addition, the skills that translated from my first career go beyond the technical. In New York, where people are hungry to connect to one another, bars and restaurants serve as a social hub and nurture a sense of community. That value, of creating a meaningful, supportive and rich community, was at the heart of much of my work at ACBP.
On a fundamental level, philanthropy is well defined: improve the world. Similarly, the mission of a bar or restaurant is also clear: feed people and make them happy. In both cases, in order to do it well, it’s about planning, values, and execution.
In the days preceding my resignation from ACBP I considered my upcoming decision carefully. Knowing the foundation was going to close helped me to focus and prioritize what was most important. This rare glimpse into the future is a parting gift for which I will always be thankful.
Jason Soloway is a former vice president at The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. He managed grants focused on the environment, education, identity, and the arts, and consulted on issues related to multigenerational philanthropy. He serves on the boards of several nonprofits in the U.S. and Canada.
In 2011, Jason earned a degree in Culinary Management from The Institute of Culinary Education, and in 2013 an Advanced Certificate from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. Based in New York, he is a partner of Mother’s Ruin, a neighborhood bar in Nolita, and the owner and managing partner of Wallflower, a restaurant in the West Village. He is opening a new restaurant in the East Village in the spring of 2014. Find him and he’ll feed you good things.
[eJP note: “Making Change by Spending Down” is a new commentary series of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP) – in partnership with the Foundation Center – to share insights and lessons of ACBP as it spends down its endowment by 2016 and closes. Each month various stakeholders will contribute new posts that will explore how ACBP’s decision to spend down affects a broad range of interests: from mission, employees and grantees, to investments and legacy. Decision makers across the social sector will benefit from the first-hand knowledge and community of learning being created.