Moving toward spend out: Making the most of our final three years

With the arrival of the new year, we wanted to provide our grantees, peers and partners with an update on the status of The Kendeda Fund’s plan to spend out our remaining assets by the end of 2023.

I’m writing this post in an effort to explain how planning for our spend out has been helpful in sharpening our focus heading into our last three years of operation, to share some of what we are learning on this unique journey, and to offer few insights about Kendeda’s evolving role in the fields of philanthropy and social change.

We’ve created a new page on our website where we explain in more detail the hows and whys of our decision to wind down our work. We will endeavor to update this page throughout our final years, sharing information and progress that our partners need to know. And we are, of course, available to answer any specific questions you may have for us.

There is no perfect script or playbook for winding down a family foundation after a quarter century. We are feeling our way through the process, and stepping carefully as we go. Some of our colleagues and partners have wondered why we are expending effort to explain our spend out process. The fact of the matter is we are doing it for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, we value transparency, and we believe our grantees and other partners deserve at least that. The second reason is that we have come to realize just how easy it would be – for ourselves and others – to deny the inevitable, and pretend that our exit is not fast-approaching. But doing that would be unfair – not only to grantees and our fellow funders, but also to ourselves. Put another way, our own need to be methodical and disciplined about the spend out requires us to communicate early and often.

While the information on our spend out page provides details about the mechanics of Kendeda’s departure, it doesn’t really speak to what we are learning about spending out along the way. So, allow me to offer a few thoughts on that front.

The decision to spend out has required us to make some subtle but important shifts in how we work. Grantees who have been with us for years (and there are many!) know from experience that the Kendeda Fund historically has been more intuitive and relational than structured and formal. We’ve focused more on leadership development, narrative arcs of social change and field building, for instance, than on measurement and metrics.

Since committing to a 2023 departure, however, we have recognized the need to be more intentional, strategic, and structured about certain parts of our work. That is why we’ve been ramping down the number of new investments we make. It’s why we are spending so much time enlisting new funders to the fields and issues we care most about. And it’s why we’ve prioritized investments in the long-term health and stability of our anchor grantees.

The spend out has also required our team to have hard conversations about topics we’ve never before considered. How do we exit gracefully from the fields we support without causing disruption? What can we realistically achieve within each of our grant portfolios by the time we depart? What are our obligations to the communities of practice we’ve supported or, in some cases, helped create? And how do we ultimately want Kendeda’s work to be remembered?

We have learned a good bit already pondering these questions as a group. There will no doubt be more insights in the years ahead. But here are a few notable takeaways that stand out so far:

  • Articulating an overarching legacy statement for the Fund and concrete “2023 vision statements” for each of our portfolios has sharpened our strategy and focused our grantmaking considerably.
  • Planning for a spend out has inspired us to stretch beyond our comfort zone where communications are concerned. Where we once saw visibility and outspokenness as signs of institutional hubris, we’ve come to recognize that our institutional voice, when applied clearly and selectively, can be a resonant, inspirational lever for change.
  • The financial forecasting that a spend out demands has allowed – and in some cases required – us to invest in new streams of work. We’ve been proud to help advance democratic employee ownership; expand the fight for immigrant rights; support truth, justice and healing for the ongoing trauma created by the US Indian Boarding School policy; and elevate the vital work of those advancing meaningful criminal justice reform across the Deep South and beyond.
  • We recognize that long-term stability is vital for many of the cornerstone organizations Kendeda supports. That is why we are working to help dozens of our grantee partners establish and build operating reserves, ensuring they will have the organizational resilience to weather unexpected and inevitable challenges after we’re gone.
  • And finally, we have made operational choices proportionate to our ambitions and limited institutional lifespan. From the outset, our founder, Diana Blank, never sought to build a large institution that would last in perpetuity. She knew we would be a limited life foundation, which is why Kendeda has a relatively small number of staff members and a handful of trusted consultants. We entered this work with a value on building out only what operational capacity we felt was truly needed, and that’s how we intend to go out.

The Kendeda Fund now has less than three years – just over 1000 days – of work remaining. I fear that time will go by in a flash.

Our team members are thinking hard and working harder to make our final days and dollars really count, even as they ponder their own next professional steps. But when our final grants are complete and our team members embark on their next journeys, I hope the Kendeda Fund will be remembered not only for what we accomplished but for 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 the dignity of individuals and the sustainability of the communities we served.