The Sloping Reality of Spend Down

This is the third consecutive piece of the series that examines issues relating to employee attitudes and relations within a spend down environment.   

Immense change is part of life for any foundation that is spending down. Employees are naturally concerned about their futures, while management is focused on smooth organizational transition.

So it is no surprise that of all the managerial issues presented in time-limited foundations, those involving human resources – and the emotional toll attached – claim the greatest amount of energy and deserve a great deal of thoughtful and purposeful attention.

Two recent pieces in this series captured ground-level dynamics of employees choosing to leave or join a time-limited foundation. And so here, it’s logical that I address some of the personnel management issues that have emerged during this period at The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP).

From the inception of ACBP in 1986, Andrea and Charles Bronfman understood that staff was the most important resource. Our founders manifested that understanding in a variety of ways – some practical, some symbolic – but all with the objective of developing, incubating, supporting, and integrating staff as key players in realizing ACBP’s philanthropic mission.

One example of this was the existence of a full-time human resources manager and an information resources management professional on our staff. While this may appear standard, even mundane, for us it was not. These positions could well have been outsourced, considering the relatively small size of our staff. But their in-house presence underscored the centrality of their roles and the high value placed on personnel in the overall ACBP framework.

Neither of these positions exist now – one is outsourced and the other has been absorbed by an existing staff member - even though ACBP is still slightly less than two years from complete spend down. This simple fact well reflects the sloping reality of operating a spend down environment, and doing more with less in a thoughtful and deliberate manner.

In 2009, ACBP notified its regular annual grantees that support would terminate in 2012, the same year that we ended any consideration of new grants.  Clearly, at this turning point as ACBP reduced annual grantmaking, it had a responsibility to examine its costs and shift and reduce program and support staff.

We moved to shift some of the staff resources remaining at ACBP to the 11 initiatives incubated by the foundation that would have sustainable operations beyond our 2016 closing.

Some of the foundation’s operating programs – including Slingshot, 21/64, Reboot, and the Green Environment Fund - had been spun off as independent organizations, taking staff with them.

In this way, we looked to the superb capacity-building example of the Irene Diamond Foundation, which placed its personnel with grantees – aligned with their needs – and made special grants to support positions and ensure employees’ economic security and professional growth.

For us, notification of employees began in 2010 and has been generous in terms of time and severance benefits. Our collective ACBP counsel exists to help and advise in job searches for those requesting that support.

From 2011, when ACBP publicly announced its spend down, to today, the number of employees has declined by 60 percent, or 12 employees.  Yet despite the new normal, including a move to a less expansive headquarters office, our work continues in grantmaking and stewardship, and we in fact attract new employees who are excited to work in support of our mission and derive professional lessons from a foundation at this late stage of its life. Working close to a living donor in an organizationally flat structure with less staff is a unique opportunity.

Still, there was and continues to be a natural anxiety permeating the culture.  This is to be expected. Transparency, honesty and generosity are, indeed, mitigating factors. Nevertheless, such mitigation is but one aspect of the human resource culture of a foundation and those of us responsible for the leadership of time-limited foundations should not delude ourselves into believing that stresses are not present.

We need to manage it by expediting decisions and communicating them, or sharing reasons for any ambiguities.

This is the seventh post in the “Making Change by Spending Down” series, produced in partnership by The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and GrantCraft. Please contribute your comments on each post and discuss the series on twitter using #spenddown. See related content below for more posts in this series.