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A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Life Foundations

Publication date: 
Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The limited life approach in philanthropy has received increased attention in recent years. But across foundations, perpetuity is often still seen to be the default, and there is considerable uncertainty about the practice of spending down.

That’s why the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) decided to interview leaders of 11 limited life foundations to learn more about their decision to spend down and the ways in which they grapple with several important issues along their journey to pursuing their goals in a finite period of time.

The result of these interviews is a new report released by CEP, titled A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Life Foundations. The research illustrates the ways in which limited life foundations approach spending down in nine key areas: why spend down, investing, staffing, grantmaking and strategy, what they owe to their grantees, collaborations, communications, evaluation, and archiving knowledge.


Most leaders of limited life foundations choose to spend down because of the belief that it will lead to greater impact. And though these foundations’ leaders wrestle with a similar set of issues in their work, there is no one way to spend down — we saw great diversity in the decisions leaders of limited life foundations make about how to address these issues.

Download the report to dive into the breadth of approaches our interviews revealed. Hopefully, this research will be helpful to foundations that are spending down — and those that are considering spending down — as they consider their own planning and strategies.

Accompanying the report is a companion publication of case studies taking a deeper look at the stories of three of the foundations featured in the report: the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Lenfest Foundation, and the Brainerd Foundation.

The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation provided funding for this research.

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