Spend-Out in Sight: What’s the Story?

April 23, 2019 //

In 2012 The Whitman Institute made the decision to spend out our endowment over 10 years.  At the time, 2022 was a distant point on the horizon; now, not so much.  What felt theoretical is becoming more real with each passing month and we are feeling more strongly the hint of urgency that comes with a sunset date.

I’ve noted before how I think the assumption of perpetuity is one every foundation should periodically examine.  I believe the norm in the sector should be a defined lifespan for foundations, especially given the times we’re in.  But just stating that position is hardly going to sway anyone, especially family trustees who might have understandable attachments to the foundation in terms of identity and purpose.  My hunch, though, is that philanthropy writ large would benefit from more personal storytelling.

As I reflect on our personal story, what is looming large is the simple reality that our grantmaking will end – and with it, our grantee partnerships. Some of those interpersonal relationships will continue, of course, but the context will be different.  So, I’m sitting with how emotion-laden this ending will be for many of us, and how much uncertainty exists within the certainty of our ending.

For reasons I’m not sure I can articulate, I feel it’s important to share my uncertainty.  On the one hand, our public discourse acknowledges the complex, swiftly changing world we live in, but on the other it doesn’t allow for much public expression of uncertainty as we navigate that complexity.  We reward certainty—which is understandable—but we might actually benefit from more public expressions of “I don’t know.”

I guess what I’m trying to get at is the value of vulnerability.  And endings can feel vulnerable.  Certainly, I’m beginning to feel that in the context of our sunset and I think it is important for us to be transparent about that.  We don’t have it all figured out. Part of this process over the next three years is going to be learning as we go: programmatically and operationally; relationally and emotionally.

Not too long ago, I heard indirectly that a past grantee was still unclear why we had ended their funding, while sustaining support for other multiyear grantees. I imagine they are not the only ones over the years who have wondered “why them and not me?”, despite our best efforts to communicate our plans leading up to spending out.

So, I’ve been thinking about the gap that can occur between what we think we are communicating and what others actually hear.  Clearly, a key part of “ending well” is to be more transparent about our decision-making process and the reasoning behind it.

In the spirit of transparency, I must admit I have far more questions than insights to offer about our process at this time. In addition to a limited life, we have limited bandwidth, so the questions around how much time and effort we put into telling our story are very real:

  • How much of our story should we tell as we exit the stage? What will be useful to other funders and nonprofit leaders?
  • How can we best focus our time and efforts to support and prepare our grantee partners for our end date, while also advancing our goals to advocate for more Trust-Based Philanthropy?
  • Partnering in a spirit of service has been a touchstone of our work, so how do we best embody that up until we close the door? How much will storytelling, in whatever forms, be a part of that? Both with our grantee partners and our colleagues and allies who are also organizing and advocating for Trust-Based Philanthropy?

These questions are ones we are constantly assessing here at The Whitman Institute, and certainly more questions will arise. With the spend out in sight, we will strive to be transparent about the questions and process. The learning continues – as I imagine will be the case for The Whitman Institute until we turn out the lights.

Sunset photo by Angelo Pantazis on Unsplash.


  1. JILL F BLAIR on April 26, 2019 at 4:32 pm

    Thank you John for starting this conversation right here and right now. I think what’s true about all endings of good and valued relationships is that we never really want to say goodbye. Endings happen. For different reasons. I’m not sure it’s always our failure to communicate. I think sometimes it’s simply our resistance to believe in endings; that they can/will/must happen. So part of the ‘story’ may be that we abandon our resistance to endings. In that spirit, trust-based philanthropy has legs now so perhaps the stories TWI might share as it begins its closing act are stories that feature emergent champions of trust-based philanthropy; the stage belongs to that next generation of ‘actors.’ TWI emerged as a most important voice in this conversation. As you exit stage left, you can do so with an awful lot of pride…THANK YOU.

  2. Bonnie Koenig on May 7, 2019 at 1:46 pm

    John – As I was reading your blog post I was also thinking about this graph which I recently saw shared again I think (in part due to the work of groups like the Whitman Institute) we are all getting better about transparency and sharing the highs and also the lows of relationships. Thanks for continuing to share as much of your work, questions and vulnerabilities as you are able. We all will be the better for it!