How Planning to Close My Foundation’s Doors Was the Right Business Model: Part 2 - Exponent Philanthropy
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How Planning to Close My Foundation’s Doors Was the Right Business Model: Part 2

In the first 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. In this blog, Fran describes their plans and assumptions, and how their path took them into new territory.    

After Pascale Sykes Foundation changed its bylaws to sunset in 2022, what happened?

At the time, in 1996, Pascale Sykes staff consisted of me and occasional part-time temps. I attended meetings and read about various foundations that had closed their doors. In 2012, foundation trustees, none of whom were family members, began to pressure me to fully fund the foundation and to establish a spend-out plan. So I did. And that was the beginning of the spend-down journey.

Our Spend-Down Journey

The first step in the journey, after funding the foundation, was to establish an ad hoc workgroup of representatives from New Jersey nonprofits and faith-based organizations, and researchers and government officials. We had a definite goal: To establish a 10-year spend-down plan in line with our mission to promote the integrity, independence, and well-being of working low-income intergenerational families.

The workgroup recognized that to promote systemic change, we needed to catalyze and nurture a change in mindset. We believe the social services system, focused currently on individuals’ specific problems, would be more effective if focused on families and caregivers. Since financial security, housing security, healthy relations, physical well-being, and other factors are interrelated, both children and adults would more likely prosper if all were addressed in line with their family’s priorities.

Accordingly, our goal became to make the Whole Family Approach, focused on working low-income families, accepted as part of our American culture and social service delivery system. We decided to begin the work in rural southern New Jersey.

I quickly realized that I could not handle this effectively alone, so the foundation began to contract with individuals and companies. We were forced to grow to meet the ad hoc workgroup’s goals.

In addition to developing an infrastructure, we gradually refined the Whole Family Approach as we learned what worked best and what agencies needed to practice it. We gave annual grants renewable for seven years to collaborations that addressed local issues and were willing to commit to adopting the Whole Family Approach, and embrace its principles:

  • Focus on working low income families;
  • See families as formative entities;
  • View individuals holistically and also as part of their entire family, and expect all family members to work together to accomplish their goals;
  • Begin to establish social capital by considering only families with at least two dependable consistent adults responsibly contributing to family and child well-being;
  • Engage life coaches to guide families so they can navigate the systems within and outside the welfare system to achieve their goals; and
  • Establish benchmarks for behavior changes and use indicators to measure the family’s progress on its path toward achieving its long-term goals.

By using this approach, we believe we address the root causes of working families’ challenges.

Our foundation expected all collaborating agencies to use a common database to enter information, and meet regularly to discuss families, share resources, and analyze data. Together we would evaluate and adjust activities along the way, as appropriate.

From New Jersey to National Success

During the first few years, we met resistance. Both agencies and funders thought we were misguided. We did not focus on crisis but on preventing crises and moving ahead. We focused on family as the most important element in all areas, whereas others believed education, health, financial security, and other needs could be addressed in isolation, without dealing with their interconnectedness or with families.

Two years ago, I received a shock. National foundations and state agencies were encouraging a milder form of the Whole Family Approach, the 2 Gen Approach. We had catalyzed a grassroots effort; now other larger and more powerful funders were also adopting it. The mindset and approach we championed are catching on. Our plan for leveraging our foundation’s spend-down to achieve systemic change is succeeding.

What lessons have we learned? What can we pass on to other foundations or individual donors who want to close their doors feeling satisfied that they met their mission, made the impact or influence they sought, or established the kind of legacy they envisioned?

Stay tuned for the third and final blog in the series.

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