Shaping a Foundation’s Future While Honoring Its Past - Exponent Philanthropy
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Shaping a Foundation’s Future While Honoring Its Past

We’ve had the great pleasure of serving as the grantmaking and foundation management partner for Kathleen deLaski and the deLaski Family Foundation for the past three years. The foundation brought us on to help it adapt its mission, vision, and goals in a way that makes the most of the current board’s knowledge, networks, and expertise, and allows it to respond to current challenges—all while remaining true to the foundation’s and family’s legacy.

Kathleen deLaski’s parents, Donald and Nancy, formalized their giving in 1999. The foundation grew and eventually supported three main areas: arts and history, health and well-being, and education, mostly in the DC metro area. In 2005, Kathleen and one brother joined the board, and, shortly before Don died in 2012, Kathleen became president of the foundation. She and her two brothers were faced with a challenge that many family foundations face: How do they set a course for the future while honoring the past?

The first thing we did was to look across the foundation’s grant portfolio and ask what the giving strategy has been.

Whereas Don had never expressed an interest in articulating a formal strategy, Kathleen and her brothers recognized a common approach: all the foundation’s giving was relationship-based and rooted in mutual trust. Don had invested in the leaders rather than simply the organizations themselves. And, as his children only learned after they took on the foundation, to these leaders, Don’s mentoring and business advice was just as important as the grants he made.

“A relationship-based strategy can be really effective, but it’s more of an art than a science,” says Kathleen. “The concern I have is that, if every donor employs it, it can start to look like the for-profit start-up world, with lots of small ideas being incubated in silos and the expectation that 80 or 90 percent will fail. That’s not such a good model for philanthropy. So we refined the strategy to concentrate new grantmaking on supporting social visionaries in areas where we have expertise.”

For Kathleen, that meant education, where she could use her knowledge of K-12 and higher education’s successes, failures, and opportunities for reform to target social visionaries who are poised to have maximum impact. And, in some cases, she could be instrumental in bringing other funders to the table to push the sector into new areas of importance, such as to the early movement to reinvent models for higher education.

The board then looked to see where the foundation fit in the landscape of the issue areas it supports and what resources it had to offer that others might not.

“Our grants may be smaller than those of national foundations, but we direct them to what we might call the early-adopter end of the market, where philanthropy should be, but has yet to play a significant role.”

To do this within its available resources, the foundation needed to wind down some of its “legacy” grants in arts and health. Tapering off some these grants was challenging as the board wanted to remain true to the past and respect the relationships it had already built. From the beginning of this process, the foundation was honest with the grantee partners about its planning and tried to support them to diversify and expand their fundraising to replace its grants.

“We’ve employed a few tactics for doing this including making matching grants to create urgency and opportunity for other funders,” says Kathleen. “We’ve met with other potential funders on behalf of organizations. We’ve established three-year, phase-down grants for some grantees. In a few instances we’ve stopped giving programmatic grants but have continued to give general operating grants. We have yet to get this formula exactly right, particularly since a grant becomes institutional when we scale back the personal relationship.”

As the deLaski family looks to shape the future of its foundation, Kathleen has taken away some important lessons for successful grantmaking that she hopes are useful to her peers:

  1. Know or figure out your unique value proposition in the ecosystem of philanthropy based on your size, agility with respect to your board, and your own expertise. Develop a strategy that builds upon all the assets you bring to the table and that creates an impact narrative that feels like a reasonable return on investment (even if it’s not easy to quantify).
  2. Don’t be a lone actor. It’s worth exploring how you can partner with others to reach your goals and to accelerate your learning curve—particularly when tackling large and complicated issues.
  3. When you do choose to support an organization, wherever possible make your grant unrestricted and long-term. It will mean a lot to your grantees and underscore the trust you have in each other. And because change in many sectors often takes time and patience, doing so will also deepen your impact as a funder.
  4. Focus on the fun stuff by outsourcing foundation management. Kathleen chose to partner with Arabella because she wanted to focus on the work that means the most to her, and avoid the complications and potential liabilities that can come with hiring full-time staff.

As Kathleen and the deLaski Family Foundation look to the future, it is using its past work and legacy as a springboard for continued, lasting, meaningful impact. Their story is one that can benefit and inspire many philanthropists. I know it continues to inspire us.

Based in San Francisco, Managing Director Stephanie Fuerstner Gillis leads Arabella’s Philanthropy Management line of business, supporting family and individual donors. She has been working with philanthropy clients for over 15 years and has an extensive background in grantmaking, program strategy and design, and evaluation, as well as substantive expertise in youth development, education, arts education, organizational capacity building, family foundations, and philanthropy, among other areas.

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