With support from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, NCFP spent months planning an April retreat in New York for foundations that are planning to spend down or considering the option. A pandemic intervened, so last week, we held the gathering online. It’s not an ideal way to meet new friends and share candid conversation, admittedly, but it worked surprisingly well. And it seemed to spark enough interest and desire for more conversation so that, when life returns to normal, many participants will want to try again—this time in three dimensions.

One theme that struck me throughout the conversation was how thoroughly a defined time limit changes almost every aspect of a foundation’s life, from vision to program strategy to financial and personnel management to communication. While a perpetual institution has the luxury to say, “Here are some things we’re interested in and want to pursue,” a time-limited foundation must (if it’s going to be frank and effective) say, “Here are the things we intend to get done by Date X.” It must tell its grantees, its funding partners, its employees and Board, and virtually everyone with a stake in the issues it has adopted: This is what we will do, year by year, till the end. The deadline raises the stakes and focuses the mind.

But in this recent gathering, the prospect of coasting along, business-as-usual, in the face of a deadline was nowhere in sight. The whole discussion reflected a sense of urgency, a need for clarity and planning, and an obligation to be accountable for both time and resources, in ways that are starkly different from the contours of a perpetual operation.

Read the full article about time-limited philanthropy by Tony Proscio at the National Center for Family Philanthropy.