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The Transparent Spend Down

September 23, 2013

The following post by Charles R. Bronfman, chairman of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP), is the first in a new blog series, "Making Change by Spending Down," produced by ACBP in partnership with GrantCraft, a joint service of the Foundation Center and the European Foundation Centre. In the post, Mr. Bronfman explains how he, his late wife, Andrea, and ACBP president Jeffrey Solomon arrived at the decision to spend down the foundation by 2016; why he and Solomon decided to take extra steps to create transparency around the spend-down process; and what they hope the added measure of transparency will accomplish.

We welcome your comments on this and every post in the series and encourage you to discuss and/or share individual posts on Twitter using the #spenddown hashtag. To learn more about the project, visit the GrantCraft Web site.


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

Those principles became the foundation for The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, 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 foundations created in perpetuity, Andy; Jeff Solomon, the president of our foundation; and I decided that ACBP should fulfill its mandate. While several other foundations had chosen this course, we decided to keep our decision to ourselves. But as more foundations chose to be time-limited and publicly announced their decision, we decided to go public with ours 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 road to 2016.

This post is the first in a series of posts -- to be penned by executives within ACBP, and beyond it -- where that transparency is on display and, we hope, informs a significant degree of peer learning within the broader funder 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 -- something that does not yet exist.

(Running time: 10:58)

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.

The answer is no. 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 also add 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 journey, 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 thirty-one 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, across the board, 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 a sustainability model which ensures that our grantees have time to 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 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, with your help, we will have created a compelling case study and lasting body of knowledge by the time we close our doors in 2016.

-- Charles R. Bronfman

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Posted by John Esterle  |   October 01, 2013 at 02:48 PM

Mr. Bronfman,

Great to see ACBP and Grantcraft working together like this on such an important issue. The foundation I lead, The Whitman Institute, has also made the decision to spend out (we will close our doors in 2022) and so we look forward to hearing more about ACBP's unfolding story, including lessons learned.

We applaud (and share) your intentions to spark dialogue about the assumptions underlying existing in perpetuity and are exploring how best to do that ourselves. Needless to say, we admire ACBP's commitment to telling their story in such a transparent way and will follow your joint effort with GrantCraft with much interest.

I liked that your video interview was included along with this post and appreciate a number of the points you made, especially your recommendation to change the current 5% rule regarding annual expenditures.

John Esterle
Executive Director
The Whitman Institute

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