Compass sitting on top of road map showing highway junction

Our Spend-out: What’s Changed, What’s Next

June 22, 2020 // and

When we last wrote a reflection on TWI’s spend out, we lifted up our uncertainty and vulnerability as we looked to 2022 as well as our commitment to being transparent about the journey ahead. Here we are, over a year later, and uncertainty and vulnerability remain constant companions – as they are for just about everyone these days.

The times we are in demand we look at our maps for the future and ask ourselves: Do our assumptions and plans still hold?

The pandemic, followed by the death of George Floyd and resulting actions demanding an end to anti-Black racism, have exposed just how many of our interconnected systems aren’t working – philanthropy being one of them.

We believe one critical step in transforming philanthropy is for foundations to significantly increase their annual payouts going forward, whether they set a defined lifespan or not.

In contrast with past economic crises, it is encouraging to see more foundations either holding steady in terms of their grantmaking or increasing their payout. We’ll be writing about this in the coming months, particularly lifting up examples of how we expand our imagination for what’s possible when we liberate our endowments. What is philanthropy prepared to not only give, but also give up, to help movements fully meet this moment?

While COVID-19 has elevated the need to rethink the assumption of perpetuity, the argument for spending out was always clear. That’s why we put ourselves on a path to spending out back in 2008 and formally declared that intention in 2011. Doing so expanded our sense of how TWI could be of service. Regarding that thorny question of impact — in all humility as a foundation with a relatively small endowment and a lean staff — we are proud of what we have been able to contribute since then, both in the level of support we’ve provided to our grantee partners and our advocacy for trust-based philanthropy. For us, spending out enabled us to be more responsive, more strategic, and more impactful.

As with spending out, the case for trust-based philanthropy was always strong, but the need for these practices has only been heightened by recent events. Again, the amount of interest from funders, including the 750+ signers of this pledge led by The Council on Foundations, in trust-based philanthropy practices (whether they use that frame or not) is encouraging. The challenge ahead is to help those foundations experimenting with new practices to see them not as “one-off” disaster responses but rather as new norms. And that’s a challenge we are eager to embrace.

What’s Next

The plan we mapped out for TWI nearly a decade ago is nearing completion and our spending is largely committed. This year, along with other foundations, we made a substantial funding commitment that enabled the pubic launch of Trust-Based Philanthropy Project as a five-year initiative, while also making targeted grants to help community-based organizations in their crisis responses.

We also maintained our multi-year pledges towards efforts to protect human rights, increase civic engagement towards deep democracy, and bolster independent journalism. In these surreal times where reason, science, public infrastructure, and facts are themselves perceived as political weaponry, these continue to hold true as pillars for our grantmaking and scaffolds for the world we hope to emerge.

While it’s hard working with an ever-shrinking endowment and the funding constraints it brings, we recognize that tension comes with the territory, as do a range of emotions that come with ending TWI. One of the pillars of trust-based philanthropy is providing support beyond the check, and that is a pillar we look forward to upholding for our current and former grantee partners throughout our final two years.

We did recently change one plan in light of this moment. We have decided not to hold our planned final TWI retreat in fall 2021. Our retreats have become signature events for us over time, truly special gatherings to build and strengthen relationships and cross-fertilize ideas and stories. Yet, in light of where we are right now, it made more sense to cancel that plan and redirect those resources to our grantmaking to help meet the moment. That’s what we’ve done, along with committing to look at other creative ways to celebrate the TWI community before we close our doors.

Until then we will be looking for opportunities for dialogue and critical thinking about the topics we’ve touched on here and hope you’ll join us in the conversations ahead.