Why Document Spend Down?

By Charles Bronfman

I hold no brief for spend down foundations or for perpetual foundations. In 2001 we chose to spend down the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP). Right from the get-go, we decided to be a proactive foundation by taking on niche issues that both appealed to us and that were not being covered or adequately addressed by others. Also, measurement was an integral part of our philosophy. We believe that everything can, and should, be measured. Too many in the philanthropic world pat themselves on the back, and applaud themselves for having saved the world or at least part of it. We always hoped that whatever applause we received would be based on the achievement of preset goals.

It must be obvious to you by now that we at ACBP have always conducted our philanthropy like a business. It has to be the heart and the head combined. Through this approach, we have been able to collect data and measure results to improve our overall performance.

When we began to tackle some of the practical decisions around our own spend down, there wasn’t much information for us to integrate into our strategy. We felt like an outlier in the field because we were going through a process that had little definition in existing reports and resources. So, documentation of our efforts and process felt essential. Since that time, we have shared our ideas about spend down in the two books that Jeff Solomon and I wrote together, at conferences with other spend down foundations, and in various publications. We also began this blog series to share learning more broadly in the field, with our spend down colleagues and our non-spend down colleagues.

Featured authors in the last year of this blog series have addressed issues related to human resources, evaluation, grantee sustainability, and generational concerns in a family foundation. Over the next year and a half, we will share perspectives on topics including grantee capacity building, decisions made in both creating programs and in exiting a field, and the end game. We have always been interested in documenting the process because it is not our goal to do it better than anybody else. We just want to share the information with other foundations that want to do the same thing. That’s why we’ve been doing these blogs. We are willing to have this open dialogue with the sector in order to be totally transparent. Knowledge building is a two way street. We can all learn from each other.

We chose blogging as our primary documentation medium because it is widely accessible and to the point, innovative, and versatile. We’ve documented our programs and knowledge; however, in each case we seek to determine if the documentation is better to keep internal or to share publicly. After we spend down the internal documents will reside in an institute that shares our mission.

Throughout the lifespan of ACBP, we have learned that the assets of a family foundation include not just money, but also capital, time, and human resources. In many cases, that’s the power of the living donor. Using convening opportunities with the right people has often advanced our objectives. My job in steering ACBP from the initial stages up through the end game has been an important factor for ensuring impact in the areas that we support.

I will still be involved in philanthropy in those areas that have meant so much to me over the years. I intend to stay active in the philanthropic world whether it is through The Charles Bronfman Institute for Personalized Medicine at Mt. Sinai hospital, Historica Canada, McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, Birthright Israel, or other initiatives.

We gave all of our grantees at least three years notice that we would be eliminating our grants due to the spend down. With our incubated programs, it was a different, scaling back process. We started these programs from the ground up, and when we knew they would be successful, we would look for additional partners and gradually decrease our own involvement. It is my hope that these programs will continue to have conversations with us and our stakeholders and choose to document their own milestones so that others may learn from them.

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

[eJP note: “Making Change by Spending Down” is a 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 GrantCraft blog and here on eJewish Philanthropy.]