Ramping up—or significantly increasing charitable giving or activities—can be an empowering transition point in your philanthropy. It can also leave you bewildered by the complexities that come with your new normal.
What does it mean to ramp up in response to an influx of assets—perhaps the most common reason funders increase their charitable giving and/or activities? Here’s how one family foundation is managing this transition.
When Texas oil giant George Mitchell died in July 2013 at age 94, he left behind a thriving family of 10 children, 23 grandchildren, and 5 great-grandchildren. A lifelong environmentalist, Mitchell signed the Giving Pledge committing the majority of his wealth to charity. Upon his death, he bequeathed an estimated $750 million to the family foundation he and his wife (who died in 2009) established in 1978—The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.
The foundation, which to date has been operating with $115 million in assets and a small staff of three, is now charged with ramping up its operations to prepare for this influx of assets—expected in full by 2018.
Planning Ahead for Change
Luckily for the Mitchell Foundation, planning ahead was one of the family’s many attributes. In 2004, the board president (a family member) gathered the Mitchells’ children and grandchildren for a strategic planning process.
This was granddaughter Katherine Lorenz’s first introduction to the foundation. Until then, she says, the foundation was really “my grandparents’ deal—not really something I was aware of. At that meeting, we were invited to take part in the conversation and participate in a more structured way. It was that moment that it became more of a family foundation.”
Inspired by giving and having started her career in philanthropy, Lorenz soon became the foundation’s president. “My grandfather and I had many conversations in the years before he passed away,” Lorenz says. She often recorded conversations with him with her flip camera, and between those and earlier audio tapes, the foundation now has 20-plus years of recordings to go back to.
Learning Together as a Board
Her grandfather made it clear to Lorenz he wanted the foundation to stay focused on science and sustainability. Yet not everyone in the family shared his passions or knowledge about these areas. To remedy this, the foundation created group learning experiences they called learning journeys.
As part of the learning journeys, the foundation hires experts to talk about the issues, and where the needs and opportunities are. Sometimes the learning journeys last a couple of hours, and, other times, they last for a few days.
Learning journeys aren’t limited to funding areas. The foundation plans to hold a journey on the how of philanthropy—looking at how they can leverage the best tools in philanthropy for impact. Another idea: a finance learning journey.
“This kind of group learning raises the bar for us,” says Lorenz, who recommends learning journeys for any funder. “It’s an important piece of our philanthropy, and one of the most gratifying experiences we’ve had as a family.”
One of the big changes Lorenz foresees is a different staff structure. “Our plan is, once we scale up, to no longer have family staff,” she says. That means she will willingly put herself out of a job.
Another change will be how the board structures committees. “We’ve been putting new processes in place over the past few years, including forming new committees and holding quarterly committee meetings,” she says. More structure has made for better communication among board members.
“We also want a clear decision-making structure in place so that everyone feels their voice is heard,” she says. “A challenge [in ramping up] is that everyone on the board has their own vision of where we’re going, and what we’re going to be. We don’t all necessarily share the same vision. It’s not right or wrong; it’s just different.”
Tips for the Transition
To manage an influx of assets, or any driver that leads to ramping up your giving and/or your activities, here are your colleagues’ tips.
- Start planning now. It’s easier to plan ahead than to react in the midst of an imminent or overwhelming change.
- Ask questions early and often. Multiple conversations over time can guide board members in understanding their values and those of the founders, which can be key to steadying the ship during any transition.
- Revisit your mission and goals. Many funders use a ramp-up to examine what’s working well (and what’s not), and if and how the mission is still relevant to community needs.
- Make big changes slowly. Although you may be excited about the possibilities that await, you don’t need to revise your mission or giving guidelines overnight. It helps to get your infrastructure in place before making more significant changes.
- Recognize that ramping up may be more complex than it appears. It can bring about a new direction, a new style of leadership, new people, new culture, and new expectations. Look to other funders for models, and consider hiring consultants and/or issue experts to support you through the process.
Elaine Gast Fawcett helps foundations tell their story, educate their stakeholders, and move their mission forward. For 12 years, she has worked nationally to strengthen the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors as a communications and grantmaking consultant. She blogs at PhilanthropyWriting.com, and you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @4WindsWriting.