October 20, 2014
Over its eighteen years of existence, the French American Charitable Trust focused its grantmaking on strengthening community organizations in the United States and France. (We are a bi-national family.) So when we made the decision to spend down the foundation in 2012, we soon realized we had boxes and boxes of files to sort through – not a task on my to-do list I was looking forward to!
Fortunately, a colleague suggested I get in touch with Brown University, which has a program on community organizing and was looking for additional resources. The librarian at Brown asked me to send her a complete accounting of our files, which included documents ranging from board meeting notes to program assessments to grantee reports. She was interested in all of it, and her staff was able to sort through the files, catalog and archive them, and make them available to students and faculty. What a relief!
But we had more to do. Some of our documents were more relevant to the philanthropic community, and we didn't want those to only be available in Providence, Rhode Island.
Spending down wasn't a tough decision, but because there are only a few foundations that invest in community organizing, exiting the field was. Still, we felt we had some interesting learnings related to programs, technical assistance, and evaluation we wanted to share. In addition, we wrote comprehensive reports on the foundation's activities at five and ten years and as we were preparing to close our doors. Because they contain reflections about working as a family foundation, the steps we took to help build the community organizing field, and lessons learned about strengthening our grantees to promote their sustainability, those reports were the most relevant documents to our peers, and we wanted to make them available to people in a way that was easy and convenient.
To that end, we posted our final report on the homepage of our website so that if you searched for FACT, you'd be sent right to the report. Our thinking was that, in an age of information overload, the easier it was to find our most helpful lessons, the better. That final report also includes additional resources that people looking for more in-depth information can explore at their leisure.
We could have shared a variety of other information, such as our financial documents, the key lessons learned by board and staff, our experiences working with consultants, and so on. However, what we decided to leave behind for the philanthropic community was information about FACT's core mission – to strengthen the capacity of community organizations that elevate the voices of people with regard to the societal and political issues that concern them – along with the lessons we learned in pursuit of that mission, our failures and successes, and what we achieved over the course of our foundation's lifespan. Learning from our lessons is what will serve the philanthropic community best.
We have colleagues involved in spend- down situations who decided to leave behind different types and amounts of information, and it's clear that what foundations in spend-down mode decide to share with the broader philanthropic community inevitably varies from foundation to foundation.
I don't personally believe that many people will slog through hundreds of pages of documents, and so my advice to those who find themselves in a spend-down situation is: Prioritize the documents and information you want to share, and make sure the material that's of most interest to other funders is on point, presented concisely, and easy to find and access. For the rest, there's always a library somewhere that will be delighted to preserve and archive the material for future generations and the community. Find that library and let them slog!
Diane Feeney is a director of the French American Charitable Trust (FACT) and president of FACT Services Co., Inc. - the trust's San Francisco-based administrative and service company. As FACT Services' first staff person, she was instrumental in designing the trust’s grantmaking program and strategy and, beginning in 1995, in hiring its U.S. and French staff. Over its lifetime, the French American Charitable Trust awarded $59 million to community-led and social justice advocacy organizations in the U.S. and France. In June 2012, after eighteen years of grantmaking, the directors of FACT chose to voluntarily sunset its grantmaking program. Feeney currently chairs the development committee for the Center for Community Change, a national advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., and directs a small grantmaking program that supports NGOs working to prevent sex trafficking in Central America.
This post originally appeared on the GrantCraft blog as part of GrantCraft's "Making Change by Spending Down" series, which is produced in partnership with the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.