The Transparent Spend Down

[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.

The series – which will run for a year or more – is being disseminated through the Foundation Center’s PhilanTopic, Transparency Talk and GrantCraft blogs and here on eJewish Philanthropy.

In the first installment, The Transparent Spend Down, ACBP Chairman Charles R. Bronfman writes about the decision to spend down and the commitment and importance of being transparent about the process.]

by Charles R. Bronfman

My parents were my greatest mentors. They taught me the meaning of philanthropy through their active involvement in so many causes. Creating initiatives to address social, cultural and community needs now, and facilitating positive change for the future, were and remain guiding principles.

Those principles became the foundation for The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP), which my late wife, Andy, and I established in 1985. All along, we believed in creating programs with long-lasting effect and which could and would make a real difference in the world.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, after doing our homework about perpetual foundations, Andy; Jeff Solomon, the president of our foundation; and I decided that ACBP should fulfill its mandate by 2016. While several other foundations had chosen this course, our decision was privy only to us. But as more foundations chose to be time-limited, we decided to go public in 2008.

In an open letter to the philanthropic community three years later, Jeff Solomon and I announced that we would spend down ACBP by 2016.

That’s not news anymore. What is, though, is the transparency we vowed to establish around the spend-down process, a conscious effort to share our experiences – expected and not, good and bad – on the way to 2016.

This post is the first in a series – to be penned by executives within ACBP, and beyond – where that transparency is on display and, we hope, informs a significant degree of peer learning within the broader community.

Our expectation is that the series will invite much commentary and become a repository of diverse perspectives, creating a continuum of thought and observation and a sustained philanthropic dialogue on spend-down issues – a platform that does not yet exist.

Coverage of time-limited foundations, or any examination of related issues, is nonexistent, at worst, and sporadic, at best. So my ACBP colleagues and I want to help fill the void.

Since we announced ACBP’s 2016 closure, we’ve been asked whether, by being so public about this process and committing to a high level of transparency, we’re advocating for other foundations and philanthropic entities to similarly declare “mission over” and exit the stage.

There isn’t any one correct course or lifespan for a philanthropic foundation. Personal and family considerations will lead to different conclusions about any foundation’s ideal lifespan. I would only encourage that this needs to be a discussion among donors and their families rather than a default in legal filings.

So rather than advocating for one course or the other, we are, by example and open discussion here and elsewhere, putting time limiting out there within the range of available and serious options for any foundation that is nearing a turning point, defined generationally, financially, and/or in terms of mission.

The ACBP turning point is multi-dimensional and driven in part by my children’s desire to continue and define their own philanthropic journeys, informed by their own passions and energy, just as my generation of Bronfmans did following the fine example set by my parents.

While my children and their spouses are equally committed to doing social and community good through philanthropy, their priorities and areas of interest certainly may differ from my own, and ACBP’s, as they rightly should. Times change, and so do needs.

To a large extent, ACBP will, by 2016, be able to point to a variety of markers underscoring that, over its 31 years of grantmaking, it accomplished what it set out to do in Canada, Israel, the United States, and elsewhere.

I wouldn’t gauge this in dollars. I’d look at real effect, measurable results, and the transformative value of the programs we initiated and the organizations we supported. Our professional colleagues who have had major responsibility for our programs’ successes will, we well know, continue as social entrepreneurs and philanthropic leaders in the future.

For sure, needs addressed by these programs and initiatives may remain, in whatever form, after ACBP exits. We are committed to sustainability models to ensure that our grantees can adjust to an altered state of philanthropic and managerial support.

And come 2016, I’m not going anywhere. My philanthropic activities will continue, albeit without the formal structure and overhead of ACBP.

Yes, we believe that our journey has been unique. But there are enough commonalities between us and many other fine foundations that we believe, and hope, that an analysis of our path will be meaningful. And that we will have created a compelling case study and lasting body of knowledge as we approach 2016.

Charles R. Bronfman is chairman of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies

cross-posted on the Foundation Center’s PND blog