We must all think about sunsetting, not just foundations

[Image description: A magnificent sunset. Or sunrise. Over a lake. With a wooden path leading out into the water. A boat floats serenely in the distance. Image by Pok_Rie on Pixabay]

Hi everyone. A couple of things before we start. If you can spare it, here are some places to donate to help people in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana who are severely affected by winter storms. Colleagues in these states, I’m thinking of you.

If you are free this Wednesday, February 24th, from 10am to 11am PT, attend this important conversation on the California Black Freedom Fund, a $100M, 5-year initiative “to ensure that Black power-building and movement-based organizations have the sustained investments and resources they need to eradicate systemic and institutional racism.” I’m glad to see this, and I hope this sparks other funders to invest significantly in Black organizing and power-building.


A concept in philanthropy that I find interesting is “sunsetting,” when a foundation expends its endowment at a rate that will eventually deplete its funds, leading to the foundation closing down. I always appreciate when funders have the courage to do this. So many societal problems could be resolved more effectively if more foundations would spend more now to solve these problems instead of hoarding resources, which allows entrenched issues to persist.

A year ago, during the Before Times, I met with a program officer of an environment-focused foundation that decided to move from perpetuity to sunsetting. “Well, I like having a job,” said my colleague, “and I’m not sure what I’m going to do in five years when the foundation closes. But I understand why this is needed.” Yeah, we have about 10 years until climate change is irreversible. If environmental funders do not immediately expend every penny they have to save the planet before it’s too late, then what is the point of their existence?

But the concept of sunsetting can’t just be reserved for foundations. Nonprofits must also consider it, and so must all of us as individuals. A common refrain in our sector is “let’s work ourselves out of a job.” We love saying it, and I think many of us actually do believe this. But over time, it’s become things that we say without putting much intention into it, like “How are you doing?” or “Let’s get lunch and catch up” or “Sure, I’ll Venmo you the $80 I owe you, Dad.”

It’s time for all of us to fully acknowledge that our livelihoods depend on the existence of inequity. Our ability to feed our families, pay the mortgage, etc., relies on the continuation of awful things. This means all of us are personally conflicted. While we say things like we want equity and justice and a better world, achieving all of that would mean we jeopardize our well-being in the short-run. Our unconscious rails against it, and it affects everything we do.

But that’s what we signed up for. And if we’re going to “work ourselves out of a job,” then let’s be intentional. Here are a few things we can do:

Nonprofits, examine whether you have a “shadow mission”: Some nonprofits have reached a point where their survival and dominance have overtaken their expressed mission. I call this their Shadow Mission, and it is no good, very bad, leading to terrible things like steamrollering over other orgs, especially grassroots, BIPOC-led orgs, in terms of grants and attention. Sometimes, orgs may not even know that they have a Shadow Mission. Have a conversation with your board and staff, and be honest with yourselves. Are you running over other orgs in your quest to survive or grow? Are you taking it as a given that your organization will be around forever?

Think of your vision, and what it takes to achieve it: Nonprofits and foundations all have vision statements, but we often ignore them as wishy-washy rainbows-and-unicorns idealism. Our sector’s collective loss of imagination has been a huge drain on our effectiveness. Reexamine and recommit to your vision statement. If you were given 10 or 20 years to accomplish your vision and have your organization go out in a blaze of glory, what would you do differently now? Would you engage in advocacy more? Would you spend more? Double your team? Would you close certain programs that aren’t really working?

Senior leaders, create a timeline for retiring or moving on: There is a lot of frustration in our sector among mid-career professionals who are blocked from advancing in leadership because people at the top are taking their sweet time retiring or moving on. Are you one of these senior leaders? Do you need to think about sunsetting your role at your organization to give others the opportunity to lead? Even if you’re new to your role, consider how long you plan to stay. Have a timeline about when you might exit. Think about succession strategies, potential changes in leadership structures, and be on the lookout for brilliant leaders who might take the mantle as you sunset.

Reflect on your privilege and how you can sunset your power: I’ve been encouraged that over the past few years, more and more leaders who are white, or male, or white males, etc., have been intentional about sunsetting their power and role with equity in mind. For example, a white ED planning to step down, working with the board to not only hire a Black, Indigenous, Latinx, POC ED, but ensuring the organization is ready to support this leader. All of us, but especially white colleagues and male colleagues, think about your privileges, consider your community and what it needs, reflect on what you are willing to give up, and create a plan.

Foundations, have term limits for program officers: This warrants a longer post and discussion, but we need to talk about the fact that many program officers stick around for way too long. It’s nice to have continuity, but complacency and protectionistic tendencies often develop. This is not good in any organization, but it’s especially significant when we consider how much power funders wield in the sector. A solution is for all program officers to have a term limits, maybe five or seven years, after which they should return to nonprofits before going back to foundations again. Think about it.

Consultants, be thoughtful in your work and what gigs you take on: Consultants (and I speak now as one) often prolong organizations’ existence by helping them survive within current systems of inequity, instead of helping them to change these systems and close up shop. We have every financial incentive to maintain the status quo and the consulting industrial complex. That’s why it’s vital for us to be aware of what projects we take on, encourage clients to think about the roles in the larger picture including sunsetting as appropriate, decline projects when that’s best for the community, and constantly examine how we may be helping or harming the work in the long run and whether we may also need to sunset.

There are other things we can all do. What’s important is for us to acknowledge as individuals and as a sector that we are complicit in perpetuating the injustice we vow to fight. We may not even realize we’re doing it. But we cannot do our work effectively if we do not take time to untangle how we are each personally conflicted. Let’s not just say that we will work ourselves out of a job, but actually act on that premise.

Sign the charitystimulus.org petition to get Congress to enact legislation requiring foundations to double their annual payout rate.

Write an anonymous public review of a foundation on grantadvisor.org.