Lessons from Limited Life: The Brainerd Foundation

Ethan McCoy

Accompanying our recently published research on the approaches of limited life foundations, CEP produced case studies of three of the foundations featured in the report, titled A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Life Foundations. Here, we share the third and final of the three cases, on the Brainerd Foundation, a Northwest-focused family foundation in Seattle, WA that provides funding and expertise so nonprofits, communities, and decision-makers can better protect the region’s air, land, and water. The foundation plans to spend out its $18.2 million in assets (as of 2015) by 2020.

You can download the full case studies here.

Why the decision to spend down?

As Codirector Ann Krumboltz explains, the decision to spend down came about because of donor Paul Brainerd’s concern “about the urgency of the issues that the foundation focuses on: strong environmental policies and protecting priority ecosystems,” and his desire to see change in his lifetime.

As Brainerd writes in a 2008 letter, which is posted on the foundation’s website, “Despite all that we have accomplished, the ecological challenges before us are as significant as humanity has ever faced. I believe we must each do whatever we can to protect the natural resources that sustain this planet because the need is nothing short of urgent.”

How has the foundation approached the process of spending down?

Codirectors Keiki Kehoe and Krumboltz explain that there are two distinct phases to the foundation’s spend down. The first stage, after the decision to spend down was made, focused on how and when the spend down would take place. The foundation then incrementally honed its programs in preparation for a launch of three “sunset initiatives,” which Krumboltz says are designed “to leave the environmental field better as we exit.” By 2015, the foundation’s trustees decided that a spend-out date of 2020 would give the foundation enough time to accomplish its goals through the sunset initiatives.

These three initiatives — to “inspire the next generation of conservation philanthropists,” “strengthen the capacity of emerging conservation leaders and activists,” and “support a culture of innovation within conservation advocacy organizations”— launched the second, and final, phase of the foundation’s spend down. “Our sunset initiatives are really aimed at building the next generation of donors and leaders for conservation, and helping organizations that we’ve been supporting all these years as they transition into the future,” Kehoe explains.

“It’s important to respect the grantee community and think about what they require as we close because many are dependent on — and understandably so — foundation dollars,” Krumboltz adds.  “It’s incumbent upon us to address this as we close our doors so that they can thrive beyond our time horizon.” The foundation has actively engaged its grantees as partners in the development of its sunset initiatives.

For example, in 2015 the foundation convened grantees for a “design lab” to explore the challenges of effective conservation advocacy. Through this process, grantees were invited to tell the foundation what kind of investments would be most valuable for strengthening the field. As a result, the foundation launched its advocacy initiative by creating a fund for grantees to experiment with new advocacy approaches. The following year, it brought grantees back together to share what they had learned to inform the next phase of the work. Similarly, the foundation reached out to its grantees to inform its emerging leaders initiative. Staff surveyed and interviewed grantees about the gaps in conservation career pathways and created a grantmaking strategy based on their insights.

What changed when the spend-down decision was made?

Kehoe explains that the foundation experienced a fundamental shift in urgency when the decision to spend down was made. “When your time is limited, you think differently about what you can accomplish and the importance of not being spread too thin and not trying to work in too many different arenas,” she says.

The fact that the foundation decided to launch three new initiatives in its final five years required a significant shift in focus and resources, including gradually honing its programs. This meant
ending relationships with many grantees over the course of several years to allow the foundation to have the resources to invest in its sunset initiatives. If successful, these initiatives will increase the flow of funding to conservation groups in the region, build the bench of conservation leaders, and strengthen the ability of conservation leaders to be effective advocates.

As the foundation has honed its portfolio to a smaller set of grantees, the size of its grants has grown somewhat larger for many grantees. The grant details have changed, as well, as the foundation is working to structure grants in ways that are most helpful to grantees. For example, Krumboltz shared a story about one interaction she had with a grantee. The applicant had originally come forward with a request for funding for new programmatic work, but after an honest conversation about where the true need was, both determined that a capacity-building grant was actually where the foundation could best support the organization’s work. “There’s no pretense here,” Krumboltz says, recalling the interaction. “We want you to have what you need so you’re stronger when we can’t fund you anymore.”

Another change resulting from the spend-down decision has been the foundation’s approach to communications. Since its inception, the foundation has sought to elevate the work of its grantees while choosing to maintain a low public profile when it comes to its own work. As its sunset date nears, the foundation is continuing to highlight the work of its grantees, but is now also expanding its communications to include more reflection and transparency about what it is learning. This increased commitment to communications includes, for example, launching an online publication on Medium.com where staff share insights, lessons learned, and reflections on the foundation’s grantmaking.

How has the foundation communicated the spend down to grantees?

Kehoe and Krumboltz explain how being clear and transparent with grantees about the spend-down decision and process has been a priority for the foundation. Krumboltz says that all grantees are given at least a one-year notice before the final grant. In addition, the foundation asks grantees to tell them what the structure of the grant should be to best position them to move on past the foundation’s sunset. These alternate grant structures might include requiring a match as a way to spark other donations to the grantee, or a shift from project-based funding to general support to increase spending flexibility for the grantee.

As Krumboltz further explains, “It’s a case-by-case basis, but our goal is always to help grantees increase their resiliency.” For example, for a smaller grantee for whom Brainerd’s support is a large portion of its budget, conversations about how to mitigate a drop in funding is different than it is with a large, national nonprofit.

How is the foundation supporting staff during the spend down?

The Brainerd Foundation has made a commitment to supporting its staff in preparing for career changes after the spend out. Krumboltz explains that staff have frequent discussions about long-term career plans and the foundation has built a professional development line item into its budget.

What has been the foundation’s approach to evaluation during the spend down?

The foundation tracks data internally on its progress toward its goals and also commissions external evaluations. To help inform its strategy, it has maintained a practice of commissioning a large evaluation every five years from an outside firm.

With the end date only three years away, however, the foundation is holding off on another large evaluation. “We know our grantees so well, and it’s pretty much the same group as when the foundation had its last evaluation,” Krumboltz says. “We’re on this course and so investing in an evaluation to change the course doesn’t really make sense.” The foundation might consider a large-scale evaluation after it closes its doors but has yet to make a decision. The results of this evaluation would be accessible to the wider field as part of an archive of knowledge, which the foundation has already agreed will be held by Paul Brainerd’s alma mater, the University of Oregon, after 2020.

What advice would you give to other funders in the process of spending down or considering the decision to spend down?

“I think it’s important to think about how you exit the field and don’t leave people falling off a cliff,” Kehoe says. “We’ve always had it as a core value to respect the grantees. But we see foundation — even those that are not spending out — make abrupt shifts in direction that leave people dangling. We don’t want to do that to our grantees or to the larger Northwest environmental movement.”

Download the full publication of case studies here, and download A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Life Foundations here.

Ethan McCoy is senior writer – development and communications at CEP.

limited life, research, sunsetting foundations
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