A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Life Foundations

Back in 2010, co-founder Ed Whitfield and I were acutely aware of the intertwining economic, social, and ecological crises unfolding around us. It struck us that if we wanted to help ensure the survival of humans and other beings on the planet, we might want to dive in wholeheartedly with all the resources of the Fund for Democratic Communities, rather than dribbling a few dollars here and there over an extended period of time. We weren’t even sure how extended a period of time humans really had to sort this stuff out. We decided to spend out all our resources over the next ten years by putting our ideas and money to work in the Southern communities in which they were most needed, at the rate that the communities could productively absorb them.

We’ve found that taking this limited life approach has sharpened our wits, hastened our willingness to understand and confront problems, and moved us to more quickly locate and develop strong relationships with great partners who will outlast us. We were helped in our thinking about sun-setting by the example of the Beldon Fund, a foundation that closed its doors in 2009, and went to the trouble of documenting why and how they did that. I hope this report, by our friends at the Center for Effective Philanthropy, further advances the field, and encourages more foundations to ask themselves whether sun-setting will help them achieve their goals more quickly and powerfully.

A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Life Foundations

A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Life Foundations
The limited life approach in philanthropy has received increased attention in recent years. But across foundations, perpetuity is often still seen to be the default, and there is considerable uncertainty about the practice of spending down.


To learn more about limited life foundations’ decisions to spend down — and the ways in which they grapple with several important issues along their journey to pursuing their goals in a finite period of time — CEP conducted in-depth interviews with leaders of 11 limited life foundations.


Resulting from these interviews, this report illustrates the ways in which limited life foundations approach spending down in nine key areas, including investing, grantmaking and strategy, and communications. The research shows that most leaders of limited life foundations choose to spend down because of the belief that it will lead to greater impact. And though these foundations’ leaders wrestle with a similar set of issues in their work, our interviews revealed that there is no one way to spend down.


Accompanying the report is a companion publication of case studies of three of the foundations featured in the report: the Lenfest Foundation, the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, and Brainerd Foundation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *