Beldon Fund

Final Impact Assessment: Legacy #10

The Beldon Fund:
Final Impact Assessment

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By creating a roadmap for spend-out foundations, Beldon’s work has informed and advanced the field for a growing number of donors.

“One of the things that is powerful about the nonprofit sector is that we learn from what’s gone before. We have sedimentation of experience-our own fossil fuel of civil society advancement. Beldon did a huge service in being out there very early.”

When John Hunting implored his fellow philanthropists to spend out their assets he spoke with a fierce passion reflecting his deep commitment to save the planet before it was too late. What he could not know at the time was that he was on the leading edge of a wave that would sweep the philanthropic sector.

According to research published in Philanthropy magazine, fifty years ago only five percent of the total assets of the largest 50 foundations were held by spend outs, but by 2010, nearly a quarter of the assets were held by spend outs. This trend reflects the changing nature of philanthropy and the growing role of foundations headed by living donors. Many of these donors want to maximize the impact of their resources in their lifetimes and are choosing to spend out their assets to achieve specific goals.

The Beldon Fund was not only ahead of its time, it laid the groundwork for others who have come since. Beldon’s strategy for spending out was carefully designed to leave a body of work from which others could learn. The foundation documented its programmatic and administrative decisions, distilled lessons from its experiences, and made everything public by posting it on its website and keeping the website up as a resource after the Fund closed. Former staff and board members wrote articles, conducted interviews, traveled the philanthropic circuit, participated in spend-out working groups, and talked with colleagues who were curious or considering similar paths.

Interviews with the heads of other spend-out foundations reflect the value of Beldon’s contribution to their work. For some, the fact that Beldon “went first” helped increase the comfort level of the work they faced.

“They were hugely helpful and influential. The fact that John talked about it publicly made it much easier for me to do the same thing. It was a big scary endeavor when you have grantees depending on you. It made a huge difference.”

“It made our board feel more confident that there is a template, that it has been done.”

The philanthropic sector has many consultants, lawyers and financial advisors, but foundation executives found that these advisors lacked experience with spend outs and were not focused on the kinds of issues they faced. For them, the documentation of Beldon’s experience was extremely valuable.

“We’re looking very closely at Beldon’s experience not on the program side but more on how we communicate, what kind of planning we do for staff, those more administrative things.”

“I was just thrilled to find not only the printed materials, but that they were actually able to give me the nuts and bolts spreadsheet. ... What to look at five quarters out and severances packages. ... The nuts and bolts were a lifesaver. No one had produced that. The lawyers were busy telling me about other things. This was not in their sights.”

And many were keenly interested in Beldon’s experience preparing grantees for its departure. Beldon’s early and clear communications with its grantees were seen as a model, as was its focus on capacity-building in the final years. Inspired by Beldon, some tried to emulate its efforts to build the capacity of grantees, with mixed results.

“We had difficulty getting grantees to understand the reality. Some didn’t want infrastructure support or technical assistance, or to do capacity-building. They were angry and in denial. ... You can be telling them for five years, and they don’t get it.”

“[Beldon’s] capacity-building ... was very influential to us. We did a similar thing with our grantees in last four years. ... We had a small stable of consultants to help with fundraising and management issues. ... We left our grantees strengthened.”

Beldon’s decision to invest staff time and other foundation resources in telling its story was an act of generosity toward the sector. Those who are spending out on the heels of Beldon have clearly learned from its experience and taken relevant pieces back to their own foundations. Time will tell how enduring Beldon’s impact will be, but five years out it appears to be strong.