When Policy-Oriented Foundations Sunset
This paper reports on the extent of time limitation, or “sunsetting,” by philanthropic foundations that support public-policy research. Specifically, it examines 64 U.S. foundations that have a record for funding research aimed at influencing public policy, focusing on the period 2000–2015. Based on their mission statements, 28 of these foundations have a right-leaning cast, and 24 are left-leaning. Of the foundations that have announced a decision to sunset during this period and/or began to spend down their assets, seven were identifiably left-leaning and eight were right-leaning.
While these numbers are nearly identical, sunsetting left-leaning public-policy foundations have larger assets ($1.94 billion on average) than right-leaning public-policy foundations ($238 million on average). Moreover, left-leaning policy foundations overall have far greater assets ($38.38 billion) than right-leaning policy foundations ($7.41 billion).
But right-leaning foundations that have decided to sunset are spending down (moving toward closing) at a more rapid pace than their left-leaning counterparts. In effect, the right-leaning foundations that have chosen to sunset have made, in effect, several strategic leaps of faith. By accelerating spending, they can be said to have pursued, in sports-page terminology, a “win now” strategy, in which resources were marshaled in the hopes of near-term results. It is beyond the scope of this paper to assess whether this is a successful strategy. But it is worthwhile to add that, by accelerating spending, they can be said to have assumed that successor philanthropists with shared values will emerge, or that the need for such philanthropy will be overtaken by events.
Howard Husock is the Vice President of Research and Publications at the Manhattan Institute. From 1987 through 2006, he was director of case studies in public policy and management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.