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It's Later Than You Think

March 10, 2009

(Bruce Trachtenberg is executive director of the Communications Network, a stand-alone 501(c) dedicated to helping advance, promote, and encourage the adoption of effective communications practices in philanthropy. This post, his first for PhilanTopic, has been cross-posted to the Comnetwork blog.)

Sun_eclipse Reading a recent Urban Institute report by Francie Ostrower about donors that opt to limit the life of their foundations rather than establish them in perpetuity, I was surprised -- as apparently the report's author was -- by "how infrequently limited life foundations linked their longevity plans to their overall philanthropic mission, strategy, and impact." That observation called to mind two things. One, that for many foundations the oft-repeated quote "Nothing focuses the mind like imminent death" didn't apply. And the second was an exercise we once used to kick off a strategic planning session at a foundation I worked at in which everyone present had to answer the question: What if the foundation ceased to exist tomorrow? Who would miss us?

In light of the Madoff affair and the rapidly sinking stock market, one needs to be careful when talking about limited-life foundations, sunsetting, or spending down. That said, it can be helpful -- especially from a communications vantage point -- to think both retrospectively and prospectively about your foundation as if its time were limited. Imagine you were a communications director charged with coming up with the annual report to end all annual reports. What would it say? How would you describe your foundation's accomplishments? Would you have the evidence to back up your claims? Or would those achievements rest on a pile of anecdotes destined to fade over time? Could you tell a story rich with lessons? Would your foundation be remembered for the impact it created and in a way that positively highlighted what philanthropy can accomplish when done well?

If you work at a foundation, why wait for the final eclipse to grapple with these questions? They should be top of mind every day -– along with a host of others for which you should have ready (or regularly updated) answers should anyone ask what your organization has done, is doing, or hopes to accomplish.

Don't wait until it's too late.

-- Bruce Trachtenberg

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