I recently passed all the assets of the Oregon portion of our family foundation to two community organizations, freeing myself from my job of philanthropist. For over two decades, philanthropy had been my deeply satisfying work ... but then it became time for me to move on. I now have every confidence these organizations will use “our” money as well or even better than I have done. Especially for other givers who wonder how to retire thoughtfully from philanthropy, I’m sharing my story.
The journey began back in 1986, when my mother passed on to me her share of trusteeship in the family foundation my grandfather started. By then it had been split into three funding parts so that my mother and her two siblings would keep the peace in the family by giving according to their own separate interests.
On behalf of my mother, I became the unpaid part-time director for the foundation in Oregon where she and my siblings worked together on the grantmaking. I took it seriously: went to courses, attended conferences, and went on site visits to get to know our grantees and applicants. For years, we gave about $100,000 a year (our share of 5% of assets), but after my grandfather’s wife died the assets grew and we slowly increased our giving to $440,000 per year. (We sustained that level of giving even after the market began to slip several years ago.) Our focus was clear: supporting advocacy and community-based organizing in Oregon that served disempowered groups (e.g. immigrants, low-income workers, people of color) who were struggling to have their voices heard.
For a long time I loved the work. Then about five years ago, I began to feel stale. I knew the time was coming for others to step up to the plate and take on the work... but who?
First, we explored whether the fourth generation might take it on. We took them on site visits to see the projects, but we could tell none of the young people were taken with the work, and they wouldn’t necessarily want to fund the same types of groups to which we were committed. None of them were personally involved with nonprofits, nor giving their own money. Why then give them a foundation?
So I investigated other options, and hit upon dividing the assets between two local institutions I greatly respected: the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation (MRG), an Oregon-based social justice community foundation that was already funding many of our grantees, and the Western States Center, a strong training organization that worked to support the same community. In 2004 I warned my cousins that within four years we planned to disburse our portion of the foundation’s assets to these two groups. They basically gulped and agreed.
The best part was telling the news to both organizations. It was huge for MRG, nearly doubling their assets. (This is true for MRG but WSC pays out their money, so it isn’t quite the same.) The director of Western States Center was speechless at first but I knew from experience they would use the money well. Both had several years to plan how to best make use of the money, and in 2008 and 2009 they each received roughly three million dollars. The increased assets have not only let McKenzie River Gathering Foundation expand their grant-making, but develop new initiatives.
There’s only a small thing I wish I had done differently. At age 66, I’m sorry I didn’t pay myself at all as the foundation director. Had I done so even $1,000 a quarter, I could now be receiving Medicare. I don’t need it financially, but I am sorry that after the work I did willingly I don’t have the monetary/social recognition most that my peers do.
I have no regrets about passing on the assets. All that giving was rewarding in itself for many years, but once I realized our grantees deserved someone with a fresh eye, I was clear that it was time to move on. Now I am free to travel and do other things, knowing my former responsibilities are in good hands.