It’s Hard to Say It
It’s Hard to Say It
Last week I was in Charleston, South Carolina, for the annual conference of The Philanthropy Roundtable. I was one of three speakers on a panel about “sunsetting,” the closing down of a private foundation. The audience was mostly family foundations working through whether or not to shutter their foundations and distribute the remaining assets after a period of time. Families choose to do this for any number of reasons but primarily out of concern that succeeding generations or future staff and trustees would not adhere to the founding donors’ intent. Of course, there are other considerations, but this is almost always what the discussion comes around to eventually.
However, one of the questions was especially interesting to me as it was not about donor intent. It was about donor identity: “Do you think grantees will stop calling on me and including me in their invitations? Do you think my relationship with them will change when I am no longer giving money?” My response was not altogether satisfying, but I think it was correct:
“Yes, they will stop calling on you and not because they don’t care for you, but the relationship has changed. Most relationships – like it or not – are based on mutual benefit, and we need to understand the pressure nonprofits are under to ‘feed the beast‘ of their operating budget. As much as they might like you as a person, there is no good reason for them to keep calling on you. They will be as civil as possible but the relationship is not what it was. If your self-worth and identity have been built on your ability to be a donor (with all the benefits that brings) then you need to spend some time thinking about the personal impact of closing your foundation in your lifetime. In fact, maybe part of your original ‘donor intent‘ was more than what causes you choose to support. It may have been what relationships you wanted (or needed) to maintain. Do you, in reality, need the platform of the foundation just as much as they want you to remain open?”
We all know it is not only funders who face this issue of their identity being wrapped up with what our position can do for people. I stumbled across this recently when I invited the head of a ministry to speak at The Gathering. He had been on the program years ago when his organization was just starting and its future was uncertain. While at his first conference with us, he met people who have remained donors and supporters, and today the organization is thriving – but his world has changed and he no longer needs The Gathering like he did years before. I realized he could raise more money with one presentation at other conferences far larger than ours – and with a much briefer time commitment. He can now accomplish far more financially for his ministry than more time spent at The Gathering.
It’s the same question for me and The Gathering, isn’t it? How much do I need to be needed? One of my favorite artists, Sting, put it this way:
“It’s hard to say it. I hate to say it, but it’s probably me.”
Peter Greer, president of HOPE International, wrote an insightful article after breaking his leg in a recent soccer game. The injury gave him no choice but to cancel his speaking engagements and turn them over to other staff. What did he discover?
“Healthy organizations refuse to become dependent on any one person. They build teams with multiple people who are each ready to step up at any moment.
My guess is that, due to a perilous cocktail of pride and lack of planning, few organizations are well-prepared for a leader’s transition.
Perhaps part of the reason that we don’t plan for what comes next is that we like to be needed. The idea that we are somehow indispensable to the mission feels good. Yet it is critical that we grapple with the fact that placing our egos over the mission inevitably sabotages long-term organizational impact.
If we deeply care about the mission of our organization, we will care deeply about what will happen when we’re suddenly out of the game. Perhaps one of the healthiest things we could do as leaders would be to shatter the illusion of our own importance.”
There are many consultants, books and courses on how to build an organization – whether it is a foundation or a ministry. There are a few resources for closing an organization. Perhaps we need help in preparing people not just for organizational “sunset” but for the perfectly normal transition of relationships and roles. Who am I without this foundation? Who am I without this ministry? It’s a good question for all of us to consider ahead of time and long before sunset.