A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

How Planning to Close My Foundation’s Doors Was the Right Business Model: Part 3

In the first and second blog in this 3-part series, Fran Sykes reflected on how her board’s decision to sunset spurred the foundation to stretch and expand its vision, and try to establish a legacy in its limited time. The second blog ended with these questions: What lessons have we learned? What can we pass on to other foundations or donors who want to close their doors feeling satisfied that they made the impact or influence they sought?

Sunsetting to make an impact is not for those who are faint of heart. I had attended conference sessions, read information, participated in workgroups, and learned a great deal—but I was still unprepared for the intellectual discipline, creative flexibility, and hard decisions required to make the impact that our trustees and I wished to make.

Pascale Sykes Foundation wanted to make a systemic change so that the Whole Family Approach, focused on working low-income families, was accepted as part of our American culture and our social services delivery system.

Adapt and Evolve, but Hold True to Your Goals

Along the way, we used a series of tactics, making several changes in the way the foundation works to achieve success. We delineated specific markers or characteristics of the Whole Family Approach. Our outreach targeted specific audiences. We added grantee meetings to educate grantees, solicit feedback, and encourage grantees to share their experiences. We continually evaluated our communication progress and modified plans. We hired more contractors to implement the additions to the plans.

I, personally, learned a great deal. These are a sampling:

  • Never miss an opportunity to learn more about sunsetting.
  • If you think something is not quite right, it probably is not quite right.
  • Don’t assume experts are doing what you contracted them to do.
  • If results aren’t happening, make changes until they do.
  • Surround yourself with people who don’t tell you what is wrong but tell you how to make it better.
  • Understand that each employee or collaboration has strengths and challenges, and don’t expect more than they can deliver. Orientation and training for staff and consultants are just as important as orientation and training for grantees.
  • Big picture is achieved only through well-defined details. If you have a wonderful idea but don’t have the details, that’s ok. Keep researching and listening until methods and details emerge.
  • Making a difference is hard work. Advancing complex, longer-term solutions frequently requires trial and error, and perfectionists and planners like me may find the constant questioning, improvisation, re-working, and re-adjusting uncomfortable and frustrating. But remember: You are an entrepreneurial pioneer, breaking new ground, nurturing new mindsets, and changing the status quo.

Is making a marked difference worth all the hassle? Yes. It benefits not only those served and the greater community today, but also future generations. The yet unknown future benefits will create a lasting legacy.

If your foundation is considering spending out to make a difference, go for it. It can be a roller coaster ride, both fun and scary. But it’s well worth it.

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