You Can't Take it With You

 Today we have a guest post from Keneta Anderson, a consultant with the Quixote Foundation. I have been so impressed with the foundation's decision to spend down its assets in its efforts to create real and lasting social change. From Keneta: Early this month, Quixote Foundation announced its intent to spend everything, using the entire endowment between now and 2017.  Quite a few people have asked why this small family foundation would decide “not to go on in perpetuity.”  The answer?  Quixote Foundation is working in perpetuity—but that’s different than staying in business forever.

The folks at Quixote Foundation see the next few years as a landmark chance to make the most of their particular foundation’s assets.  They’re convinced their greatest impact will come from spending everything over a short term.  In their view, infusing all the money now will be more catalytic than doling it out in smaller amounts over an indefinite period of time.

This strategy means giving up the exacting control foundations often want to have over programs and results. It also means releasing a certain amount of social power, and the prestige associated with having a foundation.  But it doesn’t mean giving up anything at all in terms of legacy.

For Quixote Foundation, the point is to be an effective change agent, even if that means not being a foundation anymore in the institutional sense. They call their choice “spending up” instead of spending out or down, because who they are as a foundation will be fulfilled, not diminished, by putting more money into action.

Quixote Foundation was started by “Stuart” Hanisch in 1997.  Stuart’s son Erik says his Dad “Set up the foundation so when he passed away I had complete freedom to do what I wanted with it.”  Despite the founder’s strong affinity for specific grantees, he trusted his son to move the foundation’s goals forward without bylaws constraining that work to a particular form.  This wasn’t by any means a lassez faire decision, it was a thoughtful choice made at a strategic time to place Erik in charge of generating results.

In turn, Erik sees spending up now—investing everything in pinnacle opportunities and trusted leaders—as a way to create “Something that’s going to have a life of its own beyond our directives; continuing the spirit of the people who have come before and are with us now, and who carry it into the future in a way we can’t even see or envision.”

Quixote is a “family” foundation after all. Unless parents want to land in the tabloids, they can’t dictate a child’s actions forever.  At some point they have to relinquish authority and trust the children to carry on in their stead.  For some foundations, that letting go might be as simple as funding leadership networks or general operating support.  In Quixote Foundation’s case, it means spending all the way up into progressive causes.

There is quiet power in foundations willing to know their goals, choose their opportunities, spend everything, and trust others to carry the work forward more dynamically and effectively than if they’d tried to remain in control.  Asked what his Dad would think about the decision, Erik mused, “He’d say ‘Wow.’ He’d be amazed. He would have had no idea we’d ever end up with the results we’ve had so far, and in this particular place…and he’d be proud.” That, for Quixote Foundation, is continuing in perpetuity.

Keneta Anderson is a strategic, brand and communications consultant who works with Quixote Foundation and other progressive corporate and foundation clients.  Hear more from Quixote Foundation by following QuixoteTilts on Twitter.