Transparency Talk

Category: "Spending Down" (3 posts)

Spending down? Don’t forget your knowledge!
January 14, 2021

Ashleigh Halverstad Headshot
Ashleigh Halverstad

Ashleigh Halverstadt is the former senior evaluation and learning officer of the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, a spend-down foundation that concluded operations in December 2020. In this role, she worked with program staff and grantees to design and implement evaluation strategies, forged partnerships with field-building initiatives to advance philanthropic evaluation practice generally, and, in the Foundation’s final years, led knowledge management efforts culminating in the launch of a Candid Legacy Collection.

On December 31, 2020, the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation concluded operations, following 64 years of grantmaking and a 2009 decision to spend down its assets. Throughout its life, and particularly during the spend-down years, the Foundation invested in knowledge creation. As our operations drew to a close, we preserved much of this work in a Legacy Collection hosted through Candid’s knowledge management platform, IssueLab.

S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation logoBuilding and sharing knowledge was a hallmark of the education and environment strategies that animated the Foundation’s 12-year spend down. Like many “systems change” funders, we were working to address entrenched problems of mind-boggling complexity. We knew we could not act—or learn—alone if we wanted to make progress. Solutions only come into focus when social sector actors learn from and with others, especially those closest to the ground.

As our sunset approached, we wondered: What would come of the knowledge we’d produced and supported? During the spend down, we invested more than $80 million in research and evaluation related to our strategic initiatives, and we published a few dozen resources of our own. We worked hard to share knowledge through our website and email distribution, and, more importantly, through our partners. But we knew our website wouldn’t live forever (it is currently expected to remain live for at least one-year post-sunset) and that we wouldn’t be around to support the ongoing knowledge dissemination efforts of our partners.

S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation Legacy Collection
After much consideration, we decided against establishing a formal, comprehensive archive of all our records (read more about that here). We felt a responsibility, however, to create a permanent, publicly accessible home for our knowledge products—and that led us to IssueLab. IssueLab is one of the social sector’s largest open repositories, which already makes it a sensible place to store things. Plus, when a resource is added to IssueLab, it also gets disseminated through knowledge aggregators such as WorldCat (the world’s largest library catalog) as well as other Candid properties and partners. When we learned that Candid was launching the Legacy Collection service, specifically designed for organizations that are closing their doors, we knew it was a good fit.

What did it take to actually do it? I spent much of the last year leading the creation of the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation Legacy Collection in close partnership with Lisa Brooks, director of knowledge management systems at Candid. For the benefit of anyone considering a similar undertaking, this piece offers a behind-the-scenes look at the process we worked through, and some of the lessons learned along the way.

Compiling knowledge products. First things first: What were we going to put in this collection? We knew it would include all self-published works as well as reports from evaluations of our major initiatives. I took responsibility for compiling these resources; in my role as senior evaluation and learning officer, sitting within a team that also held responsibility for communications, I was deeply familiar with these products and knew right where to find them.

But what else? We supported grantees in countless knowledge-building efforts over the years, but we never had a system for gathering and storing the products of their work. The fastest way to find these resources would have been to ask program staff. But we knew staff didn’t have the bandwidth in our final year of operations to track down all of the knowledge products that had been developed with our funding.

So, we decided to leave it up to staff discretion. Rather than create a Foundation-wide policy about what to include, we invited program staff to identify the resources they felt would be most valuable to highlight—and to submit those resources to me via a shared spreadsheet. I hosted a workshop to orient staff to the Legacy Collection and followed up with written instructions and supporting materials (e.g., draft email copy for reaching out to grantees about the opportunity).

Participation varied, with staff submitting anywhere from 0 to 30 resources. Some expressed a desire to contribute but simply did not have the bandwidth. Others required a little nudging. Many had questions about what was eligible for inclusion, what was worthy of inclusion, how to handle intellectual property, and more. I worked with staff (and in some cases, grantees) one-on-one to navigate their individual circumstances, a process that proved to be more time-consuming than I anticipated.

Lesson learned: Relying on the institutional memory of staff to inventory knowledge products is not an efficient strategy—but it was the best one we had. If we had known years ago that we would be building a Legacy Collection, we could have developed a policy about what would be included and a knowledge management system to support it. For example, we could have collected grantee knowledge products through our grants portal as standard practice, or tagged knowledge-building grants in our database for easy searchability later.

“If we had known years ago that we would be building a Legacy Collection, we could have developed a policy about what would be included and a knowledge management system to support it.”

Respecting intellectual property. As we began to compile knowledge products, one of the tricky things I ran into immediately was the matter of intellectual property. Many of our grantees copyright their work. Copyright law protects against the unauthorized distribution of a knowledge product. This means IssueLab can link to a copyrighted knowledge product, but holding a copy of that knowledge product on its servers without permission can be problematic. Linking to a resource is fine—until that link breaks—so we wanted the contents of our collection to be hosted on IssueLab wherever possible.

We felt a deep responsibility to ensure that we were treating our grantees—and their intellectual property—with respect. Although our standard grant agreement enables the Foundation to use or publish grant-funded work products at its discretion, we didn’t feel right about including grantees’ knowledge products in the Legacy Collection without their consent. We decided to seek grantee approval for every product we wanted to include. In most cases, grantees were delighted to be featured because they want their work to be as widely disseminated as possible. Still, this process added a layer of work for everyone involved and extended our timeline for finalizing the contents of the collection.

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation ToolkitLesson learned: Copyright often runs counter to our goals in the social sector! Many organizations opt to use open licensing for their work instead (more on our own journey with this below). And some funders encourage their grantees to use open licensing. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has an excellent tool kit on this subject. If we had put an open knowledge policy in place at the Foundation early in the spend down, we would have been better equipped to build the Legacy Collection and to engage with grantees about the various tools available to support easy, permanent access to their knowledge products.

Building and designing the collection. While I coordinated with staff internally to gather knowledge products and grantee approvals, I worked with Lisa to process the incoming materials and create the collection.

Importing knowledge products to a collection is not quite as simple as just uploading the files; someone has to manually develop metadata for each record (i.e., data about the file—publication date, author, abstract, etc.). Candid offers several options for document integration, ranging from do-it-yourself to full service. We opted for full service: I provided Lisa with the files, and her team generated the metadata, which saved me a lot of time. I did review and edit the metadata, though, and in a few cases, I had to consult with program staff or grantees to get it right.

“Importing knowledge products to a collection is not quite as simple as just uploading the files.”

As the collection started to come together, Lisa and I began to meet regularly to talk about thorny issues and how to handle specific files, and to make decisions about the customization of the collection. We created pages describing the Foundation and the collection’s treatment of intellectual property, developed a taxonomy for the contents, and configured the search function. It was a true partnership—Lisa has deep expertise in knowledge management, and it was a luxury to have her sound advice and guidance throughout.

Both document integration and design were complicated by the fact that we were adding material to the collection on a rolling basis up until the Foundation closed. Keeping track of it all was a real challenge, with an inventory that ultimately exceeded 200 items. It also meant that Lisa and I had to revisit the metadata and the taxonomy for the collection multiple times.

Lesson learned: The process of building and designing the collection would have been much simpler if I could have just handed our knowledge products over to Candid in a single batch, and then dealt with metadata and design issues all at once. Real life doesn’t work like that. We built our Legacy Collection inventory iteratively over the course of six months. This required careful organization and constant communication with Lisa to keep track of all the moving pieces.

Open Publishing Policies and Principals
An open knowledge policy and procedure for handling and sharing knowledge products funded and/or produced by your organization.

Applying open knowledge practices. Creation of the Legacy Collection provided an opportunity for us to think deeply about our self-published work and how to make it as freely, easily, and permanently accessible as possible. We benefited immensely from Candid’s thought leadership and resources in this space, and we became advocates for open knowledge. In our final year of operations, we implemented open licensing and digital object identifiers (DOIs) for all of our self-published work.

Prior to 2020, most of our publications made no mention of copyright. I thought this meant they could be distributed and used in any way. But as I later learned from Lisa, original work is automatically protected by copyright when it’s created, even if it’s not marked with a copyright symbol. Without knowing it, we had copyrighted all of our work as “all rights reserved” by default—in direct contradiction to our goals! Since we wanted our resources and lessons learned to be as widely disseminated as possible, we decided to apply Creative Commons licenses to all of our self-published work. Details about the licenses we chose are available here.

Equally important, we wanted this body of work to live on beyond 2020. We don’t know how long its shelf life will be, but as long as folks find it useful, it should be accessible. DOIs make this possible. A DOI provides a unique, permanent, unbreakable link for a digital knowledge product—a real dream for an organization like ours that won’t be around to maintain URLs. I’ve become an evangelist for DOIs and can’t understand why we’re not all using them, especially since Candid provides them for free! DOIs have been ubiquitous in academia for years because they make knowledge products easier to discover and track online. We decided to assign DOIs to all of our publications.

I’m really proud that we implemented open licenses and DOIs, but doing it in our final year of operations was a little tricky. Most of our work was already published by the time we put these decisions into effect, and though not strictly necessary, we made the effort to go back and update each document to include information about its license and DOI. Our communications firm graciously accepted the charge, but for their sake, I wish I’d surfaced the issue earlier.

Lesson learned: Creative Commons licenses and DOIs are incredibly valuable tools for sharing and preserving knowledge, yet they’re underutilized in the social sector. They’re especially essential for organizations that are going out of business and won’t be around to field intellectual property inquiries or maintain URLs. Considering that these practices are free and easy to implement, we should all be using them—and the sooner we start, the easier it will be.

Reflecting on what we’ve built. Now that you’ve had a behind-the-scenes tour of what it took to create the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation Legacy Collection, you may be wondering: Was it worth all the trouble? The answer is a resounding YES! Sure, we encountered a few bumps along the way, but the time and resource investments were minimal compared to the benefits of preserving the knowledge we’ve built during our spend down. Contrary to its title, we didn’t create the Legacy Collection to pay homage to the Foundation’s legacy. We did it because we believe that knowledge is power—and that we have a responsibility to make it accessible to all.

The Parting Glass
July 20, 2015

(Jane D. Schwartz was the Executive Director of the Paul Rapoport Foundation. This is the twenty-third 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. This post was originally published on GrantCraft's blog.)

JDS_WEB4_180_180_s_c1In 2009 when the board and staff of the Paul Rapoport Foundation decided to spend out in five years, we focused initially on conveying our decision to our grantees with total transparency. We then looked to develop effective guidelines, assist applicants in creating strong grant applications, and work with grantees to develop viable exit strategies once our final multi-year grants concluded. We were so focused on these activities that we were all taken by surprise when we realized it was 2014 and that our grantmaking was actually completed. After 27 years of supporting all of the major organizations in New York’s lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual (LGTB) communities—providing start-up funding to many, ongoing general operating support to many more, and essential infrastructure development in our final spend-out period—the actual closing date was upon us.

Throughout the preceding decades the Foundation’s board and staff had engaged a number of excellent organizational consultants to help us with strategic planning, including during our final spend-out decision. All of them—either formally or informally—reached out to us to urge us to plan for some sort of closure, not just for board and staff, but for all our grantees as well. So while we had had this idea in the back of our minds during the spend-out process, when we realized that our closing was imminent, the desire to hold some final event for the community suddenly became vitally important to us as a way to deal with the harsh realities of closing. 

When the board and staff of the Paul Rapoport Foundation decided to spend out in five years, we focused on conveying our decision to our grantees with total transparency.

We chose to hold a farewell event to which all of our grantees over the past 27 years would be invited and we specifically reached out not only to current grantee staff, but to those former grantee staff members who had worked so closely with us to develop successful grant proposals in the early years of the LGTB community’s growth. We also invited fellow grantmakers from private and public funding sources, who had traveled with the Foundation on its journey from the early days when we were one of very few foundations funding AIDS programs in New York, to our final years of making grants specifically to organizations serving LGTB communities of color. And, of course, we invited our former board members who had worked so thoughtfully and so hard to create the Foundation and its funding strategies over the years.

We also realized that the history of the Foundation’s funding tracked the development of the LGTB community in New York, and thus we decided to create an illustrated timeline highlighting the important developments of our community over the past three decades. This allowed us to show how closely the Foundation had monitored these community developments and had adjusted our grantmaking strategies to support the community’s changing needs. This publication, which included dozens of grantee photographs, showcased the vast majority of our grantees and served as our souvenir program for the event.

468461763The event we decided upon was a “cocktail party” held in an inviting rooftop garden setting that allowed folks to sit and reconnect with colleagues they may not have seen in decades while also saying “good-bye” to the Foundation; throughout the entire evening the same refrains were repeated over and over: “Oh my goodness, I haven’t seen you since….” “I can’t believe it…is that…?”

The evening clearly underscored the important role our grantee organizations had in the development of the LGTB communities in New York and allowed the Foundation to thank its grantees, as well as our terrific board members, past and present, for the wonderful work they had done for so many years. We also announced the Foundation’s “legacy grant”—to Equal Justice Works—during our formal program that evening and invited one of the first recipients of this Paul Rapoport Fellowship, a young LGTB lawyer of color, to describe the work he would be doing over the next two years in public interest law. This ongoing fellowship will continue to keep Paul Rapoport’s name alive in the LGTB community for several more decades, while also providing much-needed legal advocacy to highly underserved communities of color.

Looking back I would say that the outpouring of good wishes on all sides that night made the otherwise painful Foundation closure into a proud and happy occasion, and allowed us to close our doors on an ebullient note.

--Jane D. Schwartz 

Read All About It: “Foundation Plans to Stay In Business Forever!”
April 30, 2014

(Bruce Trachtenberg was executive director of the Communications Network  from 2006-2013. He currently serves as an advisor to the Network. This post originally appeared on the Communications Network blog.)

6a00e54efc2f808833014e8887ecc4970d-800wiI recently sat in on a Philanthropy New York panel discussion that asked a very simple question, “Why do foundations choose to go on forever?”

That question, which was prompted by attention being paid to the recent uptick in the number of foundations that intend to spend themselves out of business, got me thinking.

When a foundation makes the decision to close down, that’s considered news. But what about foundations that plan to keep going forever, don’t they have some obligation to publicly explain why?

Again, take the case of foundations spending down, and the considerable effort expended to make sure others know the thinking behind the decision.

When a foundation makes the decision to close down, that’s considered news. But what about foundations that plan to keep going forever, don’t they have some obligation to publicly explain why?

For example, the Atlantic Philanthropies, a “limited life foundation” planning to distribute its entire endowment and close its doors by 2020, states on its website:

In keeping with the founder’s Giving While Living philosophy, we believe in making large investments to capitalise on significant opportunities to solve urgent problems now, so they are less likely to become larger, more entrenched and more expensive challenges later.

Another example is the Quixote Foundation, which also plans to go out of business in the next few years, by “spending up”–an event which, they also describe as something to celebrate:

Current events point to a landmark chance to make the most of our assets, and we can’t wait. Between now and 2017, Quixote Foundation will spend all of its money into progressive work, using the entire endowment.

But what about foundations that plan to keep going and going and going? How much time or attention, if any, do they devote to publicly discussing their reasons for doing so?

In the Philanthropy New York session, the rationale panelists gave for their foundations choosing perpetuity over limited life seemed to rest on a belief that they can do more good over the long haul than in the immediate. Or as Jane O’Connell, president,Altman Foundation, said, “Spending down provides quick fix, but we’ve decided to stay at the table for hopefully the next 100 years.”

Regardless of the reason foundations opt for perpetuity, by sharing their reasons publicly they can also further understanding of the role of philanthropy in society and the good it aims to do, whether now or later.

Also, if staying in business forever is a question that gets revisited every so often–one expert suggests it’s a conversation trustees have at least once a decade–again, the fact the conversation took place seems like something to disclose.

What do you think? Do foundations need to explain why they plan to be around forever?

-- Bruce Trachtenberg

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