Spend Down or Act Like It!

By Dave Peery 

These past few months we’ve been configuring salesforce to manage our grantmaking and relationships.  It’s so nice to have – still needs some tweaking, but a lot better than our tired spreadsheets.  While doing this, I’ve had a chance to look over our historical list of grants going all the way back to 1979.  I can’t help but wonder, what have we achieved?  As I look at each grant individually, I can site the good that has been accomplished, but if I had to summarize what we did in one sentence, what would I say?

Right now we’re preparing for our family board meeting in early February.  There’s a lot to cover – highlights from 2010, new partnerships, lessons learned.  But one thing we need to do is pose some questions to the board that will really make us think about where we’re headed, and what changes we need to make.  The kinds of questions I want us to think about are along these lines: If we closed our doors today, would we feel we accomplished something?  If someone told us this year was our last year to make a difference, what would we do differently?

Our foundation was initially established to exist into perpetuity, to grow the endowment and involve future generations – all the typical reasons for doing so.  However, the idea of spending down is exciting, and takes a lot of guts, as it forces you to confront how you are going to make every last dollar matter before it all runs out.  Alternatively, the endowment squeezes out a drop each year that is then distributed far and wide, and often feels like a literal drop in the bucket.  When you’re committed to solving a big problem, that drop feels hardly adequate.

What I’m inviting our family to do, and any other funder for that matter, is to either spend down, or at least adopt a “spend-down mentality”.  Previously we’ve had neither the capacity nor the issue-focus to wisely spend-down, but we can move towards approaching each year as if it were our last.

We have family friend who after adopting a child from Ghana, became aware of the thousands of orphans in Ghana who are undocumented and therefore suffer terribly in the streets and in substandard orphanages.  He is now working in partnership with the government of Ghana to account for every undocumented child in the country, and place them into a loving home. Successful or not in this endeavor, he will have worked for something beautiful. My point is, let’s not let each year pass without working towards something great.