Sunsetting As A Metaphor for the Cycles of Program Support

by Jeffrey Solomon

Four foundations actively engaged in supporting activities to improve the quality of life in Israel as a Jewish, democratic state are leaving the scene within several years of one another.

Ford Foundation Israel (in cooperation with the New Israel Fund), The Kahanoff Foundation, The Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund and The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies will exit the grantmaking scene between 2012 and 2016.

This coincidence of timing led to the development of a session at the recent Jewish Funders Network Conference in Tel Aviv, to explore “What Happens After?”

In a discussion led by Yael Shalgi of Yad Hanadiv, and including Susan Beresford, former President of the Ford Foundation; William Forster, formerly of Bridgespan and current CEO of the Jacobson Family Foundation; and me, several key points were made:

  1. Even perpetual foundations sunset programs, strategies and directions. There is a rhythmic and regular shift in funding with some funders returning to an area many years later, having learned lessons over time.
  2. While foundations act as if they are the center of gravity, indeed, the programs and NGO’s engaged as activists advancing a field are the real centers of gravity.
  3. The closing of a foundation cannot erase the knowledge inventory created by the grantmaking and professional activities of that foundation. The energy force of the foundation continues to contribute, albeit from different venues.
  4. Too often, perpetuity is a default position in creating a foundation. Time limitation with additional resources being used in a shorter time frame might well be a more popular choice were it part of an intentional conversation with donors and/or trustees.

The reality of foundation behavior is that the reduction or elimination of a grant should be anticipated early in the relationship between the grantmaker and the service provider. The literature reports that the least reliable form of ongoing revenue is foundation support.

Nevertheless, many grant recipients approach each grant ending with the five phases of grief reported by Elizabeth Kubler Ross in the discovery of a fatal disease: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

We must recognize that we are still in the infancy of private foundations within the Jewish community and Israel. Collaboration, while growing rapidly, is not yet the norm. “Honest brokers” who can bring together growing and declining funders are few and far between. Transparency is still not the norm in foundation behavior.

These framing issues will be changing over the next several years, resulting in sunsetting as a less traumatic and more normative component of nonprofit life cycles.

In the interim, The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and several other sunsetting foundations are hoping to change the culture by being open and available case studies in the evolution of the philanthropic field.

Jeffrey Solomon is President of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.