A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Time-Limited Philanthropy: Embracing Mortality Can Drive Urgency and Excellence

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

In Give Smart, Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman wrote that private foundation excellence is self-imposed. “Of all the characteristics that distinguish philanthropists, the single most consequential may be the fact that they are essentially accountable to no one but themselves,” they said.

Governments must win the favor of voters. Companies must earn customer loyalty. Foundations face no such external disciplinary forces.

For foundations to be excellent, the people within them need to feel an inner drive to continuously reach for the highest heights, and often. Yet, the perpetuity of most private foundations stands in opposition to this mindset.

What drives people?

The private foundation where I work recently interviewed candidates for an open position on our staff. I participated in the process and found them to be intelligent, experienced and capable. They had careers that spanned serious assignments and challenging experiences. They understood how their work contributed to their own sense of identity.

I was struck by how each of the candidates referenced a moment in their careers when they felt compelled to do something different. One, as an example, said he felt pulled to do something new after an extended period of stability.

The motivation to pivot and try something more rewarding seemed rooted in their understanding of the finite nature of their careers and lives. This drive to change came from their needing to have an impact at a time when they could still affect the world in important ways.

For those of us who are blessed to work in private foundations, we have heard this many times over. When others learn what we do, the immediate reaction is: How lucky you are! How fulfilling that must be!

Of course, they are right. I could be hit by a Chicago city bus tomorrow, and while that would be horrible for my loved ones, I would die knowing that I’ve learned how to make the world a better place, and done so.

I learned through fits and starts, stumbles and errors, mistakes and fumbles. But my main motivation came from an inner obligation to excel, as per Tierney and Fleishman, as well as knowing that my time to do so is limited.

Embracing time-limited philanthropy

Accepting mortality is central to our excellence in philanthropy, but foundation perpetuity still reigns supreme.

A 2020 report by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors found that while the number of time limited foundations is trending upwards, perpetuity remains the dominant foundation model, comprising about 70% of foundations.

Of the organizations that adopted a time limited approach, 79% said they met their stated mission more effectively as a result, and 57% said they worked with greater urgency because of their strategic time horizon.

A commitment to perpetuity, whether by default or intention, lessens the acute understanding that time is limited.

Perhaps mortality imbues those who work at private foundations with some sense that it won’t last forever. And if foundations genuinely faced the unavoidable reality of their own demise, I suspect they’d be more likely to make the most of every day.


Clark McCain is senior program officer at The Coleman Foundation, Inc., a private, independent grantmaker in Chicago, IL. The opinions expressed here are his and not the views of The Coleman Foundation.

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