Thinking about the Quixote Foundation’s “Spend Up!”

27 April 2010

This is a big week for fundraising conferences, what with the Council on Foundations get together in Denver (MoJo’s own David Corn was out there talking about gun violence issues). Judging from the twitter stream from @QuixoteTilts, the gathering of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (#epip10)  just prior to the CoF meeting was a rollicking good session, with some pretty fundamental questions put on the table about the who’s, why’s and wherefore’s of philanthropy.

It’s no accident that the Twitter voice of the Quixote Foundation was there and delivering a pretty interesting comment flow for the rest of us. As even a cursory look at their website will tell you, Quixote points its lance at the big questions, pointing its grantmaking at what it believes are the key opportunities for change. Full disclosure: Erik Hanisch, who with his wife Lenore and their great staff run this show, sits on my board of directors; Quixote is a grantmaker for Mother Jones.

And no surprise that a couple of weeks ago Quixote announced that it would be “spending up” its corpus between now and 2017 because they believe it is the “best way for our foundation to have a perpetual impact.” Joe Brown over at Slope Resources blog, Done by People, has a very good discussion of what Erik and Lenore are talking about, and just how unusual it is for a foundation to make this sort of choice. (I haven’t been able to touch base with her, but I wonder if Helen Brunner’s experience with foundation spend-down at the Albert List Foundation some years ago played any role in their decision).

This announcement – and a conversation I had with Erik soon after the foundation went public – got me thinking about the risk-taking DNA of organizations, especially in the non profit sector. One of the big problems for foundations and NGO grantees alike is that over time we tend to become insulated from the information – some would call it market signaling – that tells us it’s time to change. Foundations in particular (but it’s also true of bigger NGOs that sit on top of a fat – or is it phat? – endowment or a steady stream of donations) can really get stuck. And moving them off the dime can be a hard, contentious, aggravating, and often completely misguided exercise.

So how does an organization stay – or become – nimble, attentive, public facing – sensitive to the changes in the habitat in which it operates?

To me, this is one of the most interesting things about Quixote’s decision. Because as Erik explained, Quixote’s willingness to change – in fact, its very name and point of view – was built into the organizational culture by Erik’s father, Stuart. As Erik related to me, his dad made it clear from the beginning that he never wanted this foundation to be a burden for his descendents, but to be a source of excitement and engagement for them. He made sure that the foundation by laws were flexible enough so that the “kids could do what they wanted to do,” as they interpreted the values and goals of this quixotic foundation. And he knew, Erik said, who he was leaving this legacy to: he trusted his son to do the right thing, left the doors open to change.

That says something not just about how to conduct philanthropy. It also says something about the core relationship – here, between father and son – upon which this institution has been built. There is, I guess you could say, love, hope, and humility right there at the center of things.

Is this sort of donor intent essential to a foundation putting itself on a brave and risk-embracing path? Probably not. But it clearly makes it so much easier when the fundamental values of an organization recognize it right from the beginning,

One Response to “Thinking about the Quixote Foundation’s “Spend Up!””

  1. Anthony Says:

    Nice post . Thank. i ll must share it .

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