Spending Up Now, Not Later

The Quixote Foundation gave away its entire endowment.

June Wilson will never forget her job interview for director of operations at the foundation, where she is now executive director. It was December 2007, and toward the end of the interview process, the board said—by the way—you have to know that our last grant will go out in 2016 and the foundation will wrap up in 2017.

That might have deterred most people, but not Wilson. “I thought, ‘Wow! What a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to craft an exit and see what can happen over time,’” she says.

“Spending up focuses on the idea of fulfillment. It’s not about a sunset or diminishment mentality.”

It’s not about ‘spending down’ for Quixote Foundation. They call it ‘spending up,’ because they are putting the money to work in a way that ignites their mission to support free people in fair societies on a healthy planet.

“Spending up focuses on the idea of fulfillment. It’s not about a sunset or diminishment mentality,” says Wilson. “We know we can have a greater impact by using all our money for catalytic change now instead of doling out modest grants indefinitely.”

In 2010, the foundation announced the news to grantees, and asked them what they needed. According to Wilson, “We told them we would have the next six years to be with them, and asked: How can we best use our time together so you can achieve your greatest vision?”

Their responses were all over the map, and that led the foundation to customize its funding approach and schedule for each. “Some grantees asked us to frontload grants; others asked to spread the funds out evenly over the six remaining years,” says Wilson.

“It has been important for us to not be stuck in any one structure; to be open and flexible and nimble, letting the opportunity and strategy and grantees define the approach,” she says. “It would have been so easy to say ‘This is how we’ll do it until the end.’ That’s not what we’ve done. We’ve allowed ourselves to be fluid.”

The process of spending up at times involved hard decisions. For example, when the foundation first started funding media reform, it gave directly to organizations. At the same time, the foundation participated in incubating a collaborative fund focused on media policy and the digital age. “As Media Democracy Fund began to evolve, we realized we could have more impact growing this pooled fund in a way we couldn’t achieve going organization-by-organization as a small funder. We had to shift away from funding grantees directly so we could focus on the larger media policy reform picture.”

The foundation also has been able to make change by the simple act of bringing people together.

“We’ve convened our grantees across issue areas, trying to break the silos between media, reproductive rights, elections, and more,” says Wilson. “These are people who wouldn’t necessarily have ever met, and now we see them exchanging ideas, learning from one another’s expertise, and applying it to their own focus areas.”

“It has been important for us to be open and flexible and nimble, letting the opportunity and strategy and grantees define the approach.”

Having a set timeline has certainly set a fire under the Quixote Foundation.

“Spending up is giving us excitement and energy as we approach the end. Our legacy isn’t about us as a foundation. It will live on throughout grantees and the work they do,” says Wilson. “It’s a new kind of perpetuity—a different way of thinking about perpetuity, and we hope what we leave ahead will be greater than anything we could possibly leave behind.”

“Our focus is and always has been on what will happen beyond this time period where we all got to be together and make something happen.”