More foundations than ever before are facing the exciting prospect of significantly ramping up and increasing charitable giving and other activities.
Whether resulting from the receipt of an estate, sale of a company, or simply a decision to contribute more resources and/or spend assets more aggressively, foundations that ramp up are undergoing a shift in scale that often requires major changes in infrastructure, staffing, governance, grantmaking, and use of expert resources.
The groundwork for an effective plan
Even if the timing is uncertain, many foundation boards know whether there is likely to be a growth in corpus at some point, and generally how big that growth will be. Foundations that take the time to plan ahead of a ramp up can clarify vision, explore donor intent, develop a team of advisors and board members, experiment with new approaches, and more.
- Start with strategy. It is important to begin at the strategic level with a thoughtful look at the foundation’s vision for change—its mission, goals, donor legacy, and broad strategies. Experienced foundation professionals advise foundations to focus first on the more important strategic issues. Once those are clarified, tactical decisions like staffing, grant cycles, and office space can flow from them.
- Understand donor legacy goals. Understanding and documenting donor legacy can dramatically reduce confusion and guide many key decisions. New times often call for new strategies, and you will need to choose how to honor the donor’s legacy appropriately and, if necessary, develop a strategy to alter or phase out some of the prior grantmaking relationships responsibly.
- Talk to peers. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Talk to staff and board members of other foundations that have been through a ramp up, and learn from their experience. Exponent Philanthropy can connect you to peers.
- Engage stakeholders. Be inclusive during the planning process. Stakeholders can include not only founders, board, and staff, but also grantees, other funders, and community leaders. Especially if the ramp up is high profile, anticipation will be high as well. It will be important to communicate openly and transparently. This may be an opportunity to go on a listening tour to better understand community or issue area needs. Some foundations establish stakeholder advisory groups to help them listen, learn, and engage.
- Build a team. You are likely to need a team that includes those who can advise on philanthropic strategy, as well as governance, organizational/family systems, tax and legal matters, financial planning, investments, and operations. Find out about your current advisors’ experience navigating transitions like these and working with foundations at larger scale.
- Test, learn, and evolve. Even with careful planning, events associated with a ramp up can be uncertain (particularly if they involve a transfer of assets from an estate), and you may find that you must act without complete understanding, or before you have been able to adjust your systems. Carefully monitor how such actions go, and then modify the systems and processes based on what you learn.
- Document your plan. Document the various components of a plan as it unfolds. An ever-evolving plan provides an opportunity for feedback and improvement as well as documentation of institutional knowledge.
Without taking the time to plan, a foundation may find itself scrambling and forced to improvise or settle on avoidable, suboptimal solutions. Ramping up is an amazing opportunity for a foundation to increase its effectiveness, so the value of taking a thoughtful approach to the transition cannot be understated.
Chief Program Officer Hanh Le leads our Programs and Services Team in guiding, connecting, championing, and elevating philanthropy with few or no staff. She has directed training, grant, and technical assistance programs for KaBOOM!, Community Technology Centers’ Network, and Peace Corps.