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Don’t Cry for Quixote — Be Happy Instead


Every time I hear about another foundation making plans to spend down its endowment, my first thought is something along the lines of “Gee, I wonder why they’re throwing in the towel?”

That was not anything close to the reaction I had after hearing from the Quixote Foundation about its plans to go out of business by 2017.

For one thing, the Seattle-based foundation didn’t miss a beat getting the word out about its plans and the reasons it was taking such a bold step.  In addition to sending announcement materials directly to everyone it wanted to reach, it had lots of useful information on its website and Facebook page. And to cover all bases, it Tweeted about its announcement to let people know what was afoot.

What was particularly striking, though, beyond how much an effort the foundation made to be sure word spread far and wide, was the nature of the message itself and the surprisingly upbeat tone.  When you read the foundation’s materials or talk to Quixote officials — you don’t hear the least bit of a mournful note attached to their plans to cease operations before the end of the decade.

Instead, everything the foundation is saying comes as close as possible to being celebratory.  Even the foundation’s announcement brochure looks more like a birth announcement or a party invitation (a copy of which you can see online) printed in bright yellow and orange and sporting a very fancy design.  And speaking of celebrations, how many foundations do you know that are planning to shutter their operations also hold parties to, well, celebrate their plans — like Quixote is doing the end of May?

But then again, we’re talking about the Quixote Foundation, named for a literary hero who made his reputation tilting at windmills.  And like the foundation’s namesake, it doesn’t mind tilting at a few windmills as its implement plans to give all its money away in coming years.

For example, to separate itself somewhat from foundations that already have or are in the process of winding down, including some that inspired and informed its plans, Quixote says it’s “spending up,” not down. This distinction is more than mere semantics.  As Quixote says on its website:

This decision [to spend up] has roots in our founder’s belief that a donor’s role is secondary to what people and organizations do on the ground. The point is to become the most effective change agent we can be, even if that means not being a
foundation anymore in the institutional sense. That’s one reason we bother calling our choice “spending up” instead of spending out or down. We believe who we are as a foundation will be fulfilled—not diminished—by putting more money into action, spending it up into progressive work.

As noted, the foundation is making a considerable effort to make as many people as possible aware of its plans. Yet, officials maintain their goal isn’t just to get notice that’s it’s “spending up,” but also to get people to start talking and asking questions about why some foundations choose to stay in business forever, why some choose to spend up (or down), and what should be the proper ways to use money to support social change. The foundation’s areas of focus are U.S. media reform, election integrity, reproductive rights and environmental equity.

“We think what we’re doing provides a chance to put some questions out there about what the role is of a donor today, as well as what’s the most strategic way to use money,” says Lenore Hanisch, Quixote’s co-executive director. “Right now we feel like runners in a marathon, and we’re asking ourselves what might happen if we leaned into the wind a little more?  In other words, how much more of a difference can our money have if we spend all of it now instead of being in business in perpetuity?”  Hanisch also says that — in keeping with the emphasis on a sudden a burst of energy (maybe even some strenuous windmill tilting) — it chose to describe its work as spending up purposefully.  “We think spending up means fulfilling something now…putting everything you have into your work and making it work.”

Quixote’s other co-director, June Wilson, who shares the foundation’s enthusiasm for its spend up plans, is also hopeful that as more and more people hear about what’s afoot at Quixote they’ll join in a conversation that asks questions and that gets people thinking differently about how philanthropy is practiced and how grantmakers can be more effective change agents.  “Clearly what we’re doing isn’t something we expect every foundation to do. What we hope instead, is that as people hear about our plans they’ll engage with us in a dialogue. We want them to chime in with comments and questions about what they think.”

There’s a lot to applaud about what Quixote is doing, starting with the very open, transparent and anything but shy way it’s launched its plans. Secondly, the foundation is quite sincere about getting a conversation going and encouraging people with all points of view to weigh in on what Quixote has in mind. The foundation truly wants to know if people agree or disagree, and what, if anything, it leads them to conclude about how to be more effective givers.  And finally, any time any foundation creates an opportunity for a positive and thoughtful conversation about philanthropy, it’s a win-win for everyone.

One thing, though, Quixote officials cannot promise that some windmills won’t be harmed before their plans are fully implemented.

–Bruce Trachtenberg

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