Philanthropists have consistently weighed the importance of accountability, legacy, and impact as the pillars that outline their approach to effective philanthropy. The concept of strategic time horizons has emerged steadily over the past couple decades, and come into sharp focus in recent years (and increasingly so in 2020) as an equally important pillar. Whether responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, pooling resources to fund movements, or providing sustainable financing to address complex systemic racial injustice, time horizon has important implications for how philanthropists can be strategic and impactful.
During a recent webinar hosted by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Strategic Time Horizons in Philanthropy: A Conversation on Foundation Perspectives and Experiences, the panelists respectively highlighted how their different approaches to strategic time horizons allows them to better serve their mission.
Representing the in-perpetuity perspective was David R. McGhee, Vice President of Organizational Excellence and Impact at The Skillman Foundation, an organization with deep roots in education based in Detroit, Michigan. The spend-down perspective was shared by Lori Bezahler, President of Edward W. Hazen Foundation, which recently decided to spend down all its resources to address systemic injustices in the United States.
After an overview of key trends and research findings in RPA’s time horizon publications, the webinar quickly dove into a rich discussion around the intersection of longevity, impact, and spending, which included the following themes:
Operating by Values
An organization’s values are often the primary decision driver for its operations, activities, and actions. This applies as well to strategic time horizons. As David shared, “When it comes to strategic time horizons, what drives our conversations in this space is our ethos, which is ultimately our values.” For The Skillman Foundation, one of the core values that defines its organizational mission, policy, and operations is the importance of partnership. A big factor in driving its long-term approach is that the foundation is dedicated to being a trusted partner in the education field in the city of Detroit.
For the Hazen Foundation, its values similarly factored directly into its time horizon decision, but netted a different result. As Lori shared, as they considered their future, the foundation questioned “How can we sit back comfortably without really questioning whether we’re doing everything we can do. Were we meeting the urgency of this moment with our own urgency? Were we meeting the courage of the field with our own courage?”
Grantees as Partners
For both The Hazen and Skillman Foundations, the importance of viewing grantees as partners, committing to practices that reduce the sense of hierarchy, and promoting greater collaboration and commitment is key for fulfilling their individual missions, regardless of time horizon choice. For Hazen in particular, these partnerships played an essential role in enabling it to spend down in a way that is responsive to the needs of not only its grantees, but the field and movements the foundation cares about. Lori noted that they were able to communicate with every current grantee before the decision was publicly announced, and in fact had a series of conversations discerning not only the grantees individual needs, but those of the movements they were funding. What emerged was a three-pronged strategy to facilitate the foundation’s spend-down process: 1) generating a new generation of leaders; 2) ensuring organizational sustainability; and 3) deepening connections and collaborations.
Developing New Solutions for Sustainable Impact
Organizations that are plugged into the dynamics of the field and the evolving needs of their grantees often regularly test new and innovative ideas. This is not only a means of staying relevant, but of challenging conventionally held wisdom. As David shared, The Skillman Foundation developed a President’s Youth Council, engaging passionate and fearless 12- to 24-year-olds to inform the foundation’s work, strategy, and investments.
The Hazen Foundation used its transition to a spend-down funder to interrogate its own practices. As Lori shared, “So much of what we do in foundations—including this sort of default position of perpetuity—is grounded in assumptions; and when we look at those assumptions, how do we think that they either reinforce white supremacy or dismantle it.” One of the assumptions the foundation has “dismantled” is the written proposal. “This was partly our own sense of deciding what is really important about an organization’s work–which is not the ability to communicate in a grant proposal.” Instead of written applications, Hazen now holds a series of interviews and gathers rigorous data through a coding system, while also allowing potential grantees to own the way they provide information. Thus “proposals” might include, for example, organizational newsletters, social media, video clips, and even previously formulated proposals in addition to the interviews. This change was transformative in advancing the foundation’s overarching commitment to equity.
Fulfilling Organizational Mission to Meet Community Needs
For The Skillman Foundation, weighing donor intent and community is first and foremost centered around the question of “what the organization itself can do to fulfill its mission, and meet the needs of its community,” which has to come before any other strategic conversation, including about strategic time horizons. A flurry of spend-down and accelerated spending announcements in 2020 from both local and national foundations led The Skillman Foundation to investigate a similar model. Top of mind during this analysis was the thought “that the world today looks fundamentally different than it did a handful of years ago, and in our current context, than it did even just a handful of months ago. So one of the things that I don’t want any of us to assume is that the current systems, the current providers, and the current organizations are actually fully equipped to meet the future needs.” In deciding to remain in perpetuity, David noted, “We’re a piece of the puzzle, we’re part of a larger ecosystem.” He also cited the desire to be there for support going forward. “As the world and our systems and communities begin to change and take new shape and transform, these institutions and individuals will need the tools and the resources to rewire and prepare to work in a different way.”
Both participants had advice to share with organizations that might consider re-examining their own time horizons. David suggested:
Consistently questioning how the foundation can avoid coming in as a hero, but instead as a host of good ideas and good solutions, and in a way that promotes justice.
Maximizing the networks in the ecosystem to reduce repetition and increase efficiency.
Finding success in strengthening grantee partners and communities served, rather than through completing a logic model.
Prioritizing outcomes over outputs.
Lori shared insights particularly relevant for those that might spend down such as:
The need to understand that the dynamics of an environment are unpredictable, constantly raising questions around a foundation’s actions and role.
It is a balancing act to maintain flexibility; “we have an expiration date, so we have to consider how we can consistently be responsive rather than rigid.”
Confronting risk aversion is necessary, especially as a spend-down foundation that cannot have a do-over.
Ultimately, this rich conversation, which also explored questions of staffing, an evolving role of a foundation’s board, the importance of technology, and more, highlighted that an organization’s choice of time horizon is based on numerous strategic factors that include among others donor intent, community needs, or urgent societal needs. As Lori shared, “It’s not about finding the right answer. It’s figuring out the answer that’s going to help your institution have the greatest impact moving towards the mission that is your north star.”
To hear the full discussion, please visit: https://www.rockpa.org/strategic-time-horizons/ to access the recording of the webinar.
For more on strategic time horizons, read RPA’s latest publications, including a two-volume guide, Strategic Time Horizons in Philanthropy: Key Trends and Considerations (Vol. 1) and Strategic Time Horizons in Philanthropy: Strategy in Action (Vol. 2), and compilation of case studies, In Their Own Words: Foundation Stories and Perspectives on Time-Limited Philanthropy. Both publications detail the intersecting factors that are part of the calculus of an organization’s time horizon decision, as well as guidance on steps and important considerations once a decision has been made.