The Urgency and Focus of Limited Life Philanthropy

David Willoughby

We knew from our inception that ClearWay Minnesota had 25 years to make a difference. Formed as part of the 1998 Minnesota settlement with tobacco companies, we oversee three percent of the state’s tobacco settlement funds and pursue a mission to improve the health of all Minnesotans by reducing tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke through research, action, and collaboration. We function under the oversight of the Ramsey County District Court, independent from the politics of the state government and legislature. While most of the tobacco settlement was diverted for other purposes, ClearWay Minnesota remained mission-driven. We knew we had a limited amount of time — until 2023 — to make life-saving changes to Minnesotans’ health and bring about a dramatic shift in our state’s culture. So we hit the ground running.

The three stages of our limited life…from 40,000 feet

We have approached our goal to create impact in a limited timeframe in three distinct phases.

The first third of our limited life was devoted to building out a successful plan. There were bumps in the road, but we also had policy, cessation, and research victories. We found great partners with whom to collaborate — and who will carry the torch after we’re gone.

The second third of our life was about advancing the core of a great tobacco control plan with statewide and local action, such as the Freedom to Breathe Act and tobacco price increases. We kept an eye to the future, when we would no longer exist and tobacco control efforts would depend on other organizations and legislative funding.

The final third of ClearWay Minnesota’s life — where we currently are — is a strategic shift envisioning a smoke-free generation and advancing the policies that make it possible. We are doubling down on our commitment with a vision that will live on long after our limited life ends.

Limited life advantages make a difference

Limited life foundations benefit from organizational focus and an inherent sense of urgency.  Long before the final phase of a limited life organization’s existence, the ticking clock drives us to be different from other foundations, nonprofits, and government agencies.

A 25-year lifespan made our mission incredibly clear. We remain laser-focused and true to our strategies. We trust science and spend our time on what does the most to reduce tobacco’s harms. Policy proposals, awareness-raising campaigns, and cessation support services are all built on a foundation of scientific evidence. Sometimes, we had to take a pass on issues that seemed admirable, but which didn’t have solid research behind them.

Our evidence-based, focused strategy is making a measurable difference in the lives of Minnesotans. Since 1999, the adult smoking rate has declined from 22.1 percent to 14.4 percent in Minnesota. That’s a decrease of 35 percent in 15 years! That 35 percent represents thousands of moms, dads, sisters, and brothers across Minnesota who didn’t lose their lives prematurely due to smoking. And it represents thousands of people leading healthier lives without tobacco-related disease and disability.

Ongoing evaluation, honed strategy

Our limited lifespan has forced us to develop a structure of ongoing evaluation of our progress. This evaluation has distilled a strategic plan summed up in four points:

  • Support policies that reduce tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Support Minnesotans in quitting tobacco use
  • Create an environment that supports a tobacco-free future for Minnesotans
  • Plan for ClearWay Minnesota’s limited life

Each strategic point is dependent on the other. Let’s go back to that dramatic lowering of the adult smoking rate over the course of 15 years and see how our support of policies that reduce tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke made a difference. One high-profile example is ClearWay Minnesota’s role as part of a coalition that successfully added restaurants and bars to our state’s clean indoor air act, which protects more employees from secondhand smoke in their workplace and reduces Minnesotans’ exposure to secondhand smoke when they go out for dinner or out with friends. This also helped change the culture from one in which smoking was accepted to one in which citizens expected clean air in all indoor public settings.

A necessary complement to support for policies that reduce tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke is support for Minnesotans who want to quit. In 2001, ClearWay launched QUITPLAN® Services, a statewide cessation support service. Whether a person’s quitting decision is driven by increased awareness of the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke, changes in clean indoor air policies, or changes in social norms, QUITPLAN is there with counseling, nicotine replacement therapy, and other cessation tools. So far, QUITPLAN has helped more than 150,000 Minnesotans in their efforts to quit.

Envisioning a smoke-free generation

ClearWay and its coalition partners are now focused even more emphatically on preventing young people from ever taking up tobacco. If young people don’t start to use tobacco products in their teens, they likely never will. This will have a positive impact long after we close our doors. As we look ahead over the next five years, we’ve set four policy areas as priorities: raising the tobacco age to 21, restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products, keeping tobacco prices high, and funding tobacco control and prevention efforts. This helps us target resources and take the right steps to advance policies within the realities of our political environment. This focus also keeps us from getting distracted, maintains clean messaging, and helps avoid tobacco control fatigue among the media, legislators, other government officials, and the public.

Limited life has made our vision 20/20.  As an organization, we don’t take a week off because every day counts. We align our practices with our vision and strategies, and we don’t divert from the plan. We can’t, because we are fighting a formidable foe. Tobacco hooks people before they realize what is happening, and then kills more than half of the people it hooks. But we are full of hope. With more Minnesotans quitting and fewer starting, smoking and secondhand smoke exposure will continue to decline, improving health and perpetuating the trend toward a smoke-free future. It won’t happen in ClearWay Minnesota’s lifetime, but we’ve helped set the stage for this vision to become reality within the lifetime of today’s children.

ClearWay Minnesota is one of 11 limited life funders featured in CEP’s recent research report, A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Foundations.

David J. Willoughby is the chief executive officer of ClearWay Minnesota, which works to enhance life for all Minnesotans by reducing tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke through research, action, and collaboration. Willoughby also leads the Funder’s Alliance, a group of state foundation executive directors from across the country who work on tobacco control. Follow ClearWay Minnesota on Twitter at @ClearWayMN.

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