Assessing Impact While Spending Out: Six Lessons

In 2013, the Kendeda Fund initiated a focused 10-year spend out strategy across all of our core programs, with the goal of dispersing all remaining assets and wrapping up our grantmaking by the end of 2023. While our grantees and partners are aware of this plan, we are only now starting to share the news and our approach to spending out more broadly.

It has been more than 25 years since our donor, Diana Blank, made her first grant. And while the choice to conclude her philanthropy rather than continue operating in perpetuity was an intuition she held for many years, the decision on when to formally sunset the Fund required careful contemplation and soul searching.

Much could be written about our decision to wind down, but in the plainest of terms it comes down to this: Our founder believes it critical to accomplish as much as possible during her lifetime.

We’ve drawn inspiration from the experiences of recent spend out foundations including The Beldon Fund, The Atlantic Philanthropies, and The Quixote Foundation. There are also many operational variables to consider once a decision to wind down has been made. The Center for Effective Philanthropy explored the issue in depth in a 2017 report entitled A Date Certain: Lessons Learned from Limited Life Foundations.

Much could be written about Kendeda’s decision to sunset, but in the plainest of terms it comes down to this: Our founder believes it critical to accomplish as much as possible during her lifetime. So, with the wheels of the Fund’s spend out plan now fully in motion, we have begun to get our affairs in order before we take our leave. This includes some deep reflection on the nature of Kendeda’s philanthropic impact and the changes our investments have – and in some cases have not – helped effect.

The Kendeda Fund hopes to be remembered not only for what we accomplished but how we worked to effect change in the world; for having created new pathways to address seemingly intractable problems; and for supporting transformative leaders and ideas in ways that enhance people and planet. Despite the occasional misstep (and there have been a few), we hope that our donor and our staff will be known for having completed our work with grace, curiosity, creativity, caring, and passion.

Compared to many of our philanthropic peers, Kendeda has not historically placed a great deal of significance on measurement and evaluation in a traditional sense. Instead, we’ve devised clear strategies for what we hope to accomplish. We’ve worked hard to choose good partners, and we’ve invested in them with confidence and optimism.

This is not to say results don’t matter to Kendeda. Improving lives and effecting progress are why we do the work. For more than a quarter century, we have been intentional about deemphasizing short-term, top-down measures of “success,” favoring instead approaches that are rooted in learning and empowerment.

We know that the complex, systemic challenges we have chosen to confront—from child marriage to educational equity, gun violence to climate change, land conservation to democratizing capitalism—are far bigger than Kendeda alone will ever solve.

We seek to understand the relative value of our grantees’ individual and collective contributions in advancing a body of work, strengthening a movement, or growing a community of practice. That’s why we ask ourselves “Are we moving the needle in the right direction?” far more often than we seek to know “How many acres were saved?” or “How many tons of CO2 were removed?”

As we enter our final four years of operation, we thought it might be useful to share how we think about impact, and what that looks like from our unique (and undeniably privileged) perch as a grantmaker.

While this is by no means a comprehensive list, here are six lessons we’ve learned so far:

Every Organization Has A Role to Play

When it comes to supporting movements on the scale required to drive lasting social change, no single organization ever stands alone. Success demands partnership, collaboration and a willingness to pursue multiple strategies. Take Kendeda’s work on community wealth building, for example. We recognize that no one group or approach can carry the day when it comes to creating space for worker-owned businesses to thrive and succeed. Creating the kind of alternative economic models necessary to democratize capitalism requires a lot of pieces to be in place: coordinated marketing to hundreds of thousands of business owners, the right kind of economic incentives and financing mechanisms to successfully convert those businesses, the education of workers around a new vision for self-determination, and so much more. While Kendeda is investing significantly in our final years to help these conditions to take root, we – and our grantees – are just a few of the players in a very large socio-economic transformation, and our definition of “impact” is calibrated accordingly.

What “Counts” As Impact Depends On Your Perspective

What “counts” as valued data depends on your perspective. For certain audiences, metrics matter most and quantitative data is the best way to drive change. In other situations, perceptual or attitudinal shifts may be the better goal. The Kendeda Fund’s $30M grant to construct a first-of-its-kind living building on the campus of Georgia Tech was made not with an expectation that a specific number of additional living buildings will follow in Georgia, but instead to open minds on the growing threats of climate change, to shift the conversation about regenerative design in the Southeast, and to push the design-construction industry to think more expansively about its responsibilities to future generations.  While the pursuit of Living Building Certification will obligate Georgia Tech to meet a rigorous set of performance metrics, the long term pay-off for the building may ultimately be determined by far “softer” measures – namely its power for demonstrating what’s possible in a climate zone and a culture where many thought this couldn’t be done.

Let Partners Decide What Matters Most

Kendeda trusts our grantees to explore, drive and decide how to measure their impact. We recognize that the front-line groups we fund know far better than we who needs to be included, how to define success, what can best be measured, and what types of support are most helpful in reaching a given goal. Our local work in Atlanta and Montana, for instance, is deeply centered on helping marginalized communities build greater equity and power. As such, we have an obligation to trust those communities and let their vision (not ours) guide the work, define the outcomes, and track progress towards them.  Similarly, when our partners at American Jewish World Service decided to frame their child marriage work in terms of moving “from age to agency,” they signaled to us, and countless others in the field, that success should be defined not solely by counting the age of girls as they marry, but also by how much control and self-determination girls’ have over all aspects of their lives.

There Is Impact in Field Building

Sometimes impact is best measured by capacity to impact a field or body of work, rather than on specific outcomes of an individual grantee. The Center for American Progress (CAP), a key partner in Kendeda’s gun violence prevention (GVP) strategy, plays a valued role as a field-builder and convener of the GVP community. With our support, CAP hosts an annual meeting of advocates working on everything from community violence to suicide prevention to state and federal policy reform. And in each of the past several years, the makeup and attendance of that annual meeting has expanded – opening shared space for planning, learning, alliance building and more. With a big tent growing bigger by the year, CAP’s coordination is powering the GVP movement for even greater success. The US Climate Action Network offers another example. They recognized that a critical measure of success in their work was not simply the advancement of policy agendas, but the degree to which they could build trust among their diverse membership despite organizational differences and competing policy priorities.

There Are Many North Stars

There is value in many types of goals and there are many ways to measure them. For Kendeda, it is rare that a strategy or program has a single “North Star.” In our Atlanta Equity portfolio, for example, some grantees have communications goals (the Center for Civic Innovation and redefinED atlanta) while others are laser focused on policy or advocacy change (Transformation Alliance, Atlanta Land Trust, Partnership for Southern Equity).  Our recent commitment to help build an American Indian Hall at Montana State University also bears this out. The new academic and student center will not only help reduce the disproportionately high drop-out rate among MSU’s existing American Indian community, which includes students from all twelve of Montana’s tribes and forty-one tribal nations from fifteen states. It is also expected to inspire an overall increase in the Native American student enrollment at MSU, yielding a generation of new college-educated Native American leaders in Montana and beyond.

The Ripple Effect is Real

More often than not, when we focus intently on one anticipated outcome or impact, we find many others emanating from it. This ripple effect is a powerful reminder that we cannot predict where the work will lead. We may start the journey with a result in mind, only to discover different outcomes along the way.  The Grants to Green program Kendeda helped establish in Atlanta a decade ago has enabled almost 200 community nonprofits to make energy and water upgrades, producing approximately $10 million in combined utilities savings. But the ripples we couldn’t have predicted are numerous: like the way other Atlanta nonprofits that own buildings would shift their thinking around the value of energy efficiency and embedding sustainability in their operations; or how the array of success stories from Atlanta would expand the thinking of nonprofits from Florida to Iowa to Maine; or how the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, inspired by Grants to Green, would undertake an ambitious campus-based energy efficiency strategy in dozens of its facilities around the nation.

Ultimately, every grant maker needs to decide what to measure and how to measure it. Each foundation needs to set its own standards for assessing impact. Kendeda’s beliefs clearly state that “we have opinions about what it takes to be effective, but we don’t pretend to have all the answers.” Therefore “we trust (our grantee partners) to do their best work, and we provide support to ensure success.”

Over the last 25 we have invested more than $700 million creating new pathways to solve seemingly intractable problems, supporting transformative leaders, and working in creative ways to benefit people and planet. By the time we’re done, that number will be closer to $1 billion. We have been proud to play a role in confronting some of the biggest challenges of our time, but we also know that Kendeda’s work will conclude long before most of them are solved.

With 2023 drawing near, we have accepted that our version of impact assessment is just that…ours. We have no illusions that it is airtight or perfect. We make no pretense that it is right for every organization. But maybe, in some small way, it can serve as a useful platform upon which others can build.