Imparting Sustainable Change: Limited-Life Versus Longstanding Philanthropic Organizations

Does the longevity of a philanthropic organization matter if its mission is achieved? If your organization follows a limited-life approach to philanthropy your answer is most likely “no.”

In its March 2017 report – “A Date Certain: Lessons From Limited Life Foundations” – The Center For Effective Philanthropy explores how limited-life groups impart change under a short period of time. The report shares insight from 11 limited-life groups on the “ways in which they grapple with several important issues along their journey to pursuing their goals in a finite period of time.” While the length of the journey may be different, the road is paved with similarities as both limited-life and longstanding philanthropic groups seek to create sustainable change.

The report reveals that most limited-life foundation participants say the greatest benefit of the model is the sense of urgency it creates to be strategic and produce results. However, selecting the limited-life model is not an easy decision. The report shows that many limited-life groups don’t start out that way. In fact, nine of the 11 groups that participated in the report switched models after their establishment. The perspective provided in the report is useful to consider if your organization is considering a switch of models.

  • Define What Success Means Against Your Mission – Of the 11 foundations interviewed for the research, all have identified that they will cease operations, or “spend down,” by 2026 and have actionable plans in place to achieve this. The motivation behind this approach is to focus the organization’s efforts solely on making the most impact possible. When considering a limited-life philosophy, take a deep look at what success means for your organization and how long you really need to achieve it.
  • Evaluate Your Current Strategy – Most leaders who participated in the report emphasised the desire to leave their grantees in a position for future sustainability and success. To accomplish this, leaders made the tough decision to narrow their support to fewer grantees or fields well before the final date to spend down. Take the time to evaluate how your organization is working toward accomplishing your mission and if there are ways to make your efforts more targeted. Where can you realistically make the most impact during your time of existence and into the future once your doors have closed?
  • Communicate Transparently with Key Stakeholders – According to the report, most leaders agree that over communication with grantee stakeholders “in a direct, transparent, and timely way” is important. Grantees, followed by organization staff, will be the most affected audience at the spend down date, and communicating clearly, openly and consistently will help everyone be prepared when it comes. Having a defined date for accomplishing your goals can also help to frame communication around an issue or need.

In addition to the above considerations, the report offers perspective in the areas of investing, staffing, archiving, working with stakeholders and evaluation. Whether you are a nonprofit with a longstanding outlook exploring the limited-life philosophy or currently a limited-life group looking for best practices, the report can be an educational resource for those working to create impact.

We at Public Interest Registry strive to bring non-commercial audiences information on a variety of topics, so we encourage you check out the report. There may be strategies that could align with your mission or cause and, as always, please share what you’ve found to be successful below. If you enjoyed this article, and found it to be useful, please “heart” it.