For the past 17 years, we have been privileged to support The Kendeda Fund and have watched with awe and wonder as they tackled the most challenging issues of our time – from climate change and land conservation, to girls’ rights and gun violence, to the creation of a more racially just and equitable economy for all. At the end of 2023, The Kendeda Fund will wrap up three decades and more than one billion dollars in grantmaking—leaving a path for those to follow.
In this special edition of our Foundation Friday series, we’re going back to where it all started—with curiosity and discomfort—and we’ll uncover the efficient spend-out process and the choice to sunset that was baked into the model from the beginning. Join us as we journey through the remarkable history of The Kendeda Fund and the lessons learned with Executive Director Dena Kimball and Fund Advisor David Brotherton. We hope this interview helps inform and inspire your philanthropic journey.
Can you share the Kendeda Fund’s story?
From 1993 through 2023, the Kendeda Fund supported the dignity of individuals and the sustainability of communities through investments in transformative leaders and ideas. The journey began with Diana Blank’s curiosity, discomfort and sense of urgency. Her curiosity arose from the joy and wonder she found in the natural world, leading to her mantra, “I wonder what this will be like?” Her discomfort centered around her own unexpected wealth and privilege. And her sense of urgency led her to think big, defy philanthropic conventions and trust deeply in others.
How should the foundation be remembered?
The Kendeda Fund will be remembered for what we accomplished and how we worked. We will have created new pathways to solve seemingly intractable problems, supported transformative leaders and worked in ways that simultaneously enhanced people and planet. We’ll have done so with grace, curiosity, creativity, caring, and passion. We’ll have inspired others in the issues we tackled and how we tackled them. This has been our North Star for the last several years.
What was your most inspiring or favorite team memory?
Every holiday season towards the end of the year, Diana would give all of the team members a chance to make a grant to any organization(s) that were meaningful to them—and they didn’t have to be in alignment with our core programs. It was often a $10,000 grant per person, per year. Every year, we would then spend our last call sharing who we gave grants to and why. They were so personal and such a beautiful way to share. Those grants were the source of deep joy for everybody—in particular for Diana. It’s emblematic of the fact that her approach to giving was so pure that a $10,000 gift carried as much weight in her heart and in our collective value set as a one-million-dollar grant. It also became a way for us to know each other’s personal or community-centered interests in a way that we might not have been able to in the normal course of our work.
What was the pivotal moment when you decided to sunset?
From the beginning, Diana knew she didn’t want to create a foundation that was traditional and would live in perpetuity. She came into her wealth unexpectedly. She was raised and born in a very modest, working-class family and grew up in Brooklyn, NY—never expecting to have any wealth of consequence. When she did, and when she recognized that her children were going to be fine without her passing on money to them in any consequential way, it was an easy path for her to pursue. It was about 10 years ago when we formalized the path to getting to that finish line, so there was 20 years or so of giving where she and her wealth advisor knew the plan.
About a decade ago, we made it explicit, and a couple of years after that, we brought in consulting support. One of those advisors, Anita Nager, had led the spend-down plan of the Beldon Fund and one of the first things she said to us was, “You’ve got to pick a date. You can’t be vague about this. You need to establish a specific point in time, at which point, the work will stop.” When we did that, we chose a date that was several years into the future: December 31st, 2023. And as we got closer to that date, a whole lot of momentum took over. Many plans were put into place, including how we were going to engage with our grantees and make sure they had full visibility, as well as working with organizations to make sure they were as fiscally sound as possible.
Can you share a little about your program to help grantee partners?
We created a program to help almost 40 grantee partners establish operating reserves or basically “rainy-day” funds, so that they had greater fiscal solvency and confidence after we had sunset. In many cases, we started becoming advocates for those partners with other funders. Knowing that our dollars were going to go away, we wanted to make sure we could use the bully pulpit of being a funder to help show and highlight the great work that all these partners were doing with other funders.
What do you wish you would have known when you started down this path of sunsetting? Is there anything you would have changed along the way?
What I wish I would have known was, because I would have found it reassuring, is understanding how joyful the whole experience has been. It really hasn’t felt like a slow, sad death for any of us. Certainly, not for Diana…and I don’t think for our team, or even for our grantees. If I had fully known this would feel as positive as it has felt, that would have been a nice comfort.
I also think investing in our partners’ operating reserves alongside of them is one of the best things we’ve done. The operating reserves program was part of the last few years of our work to respond to COVID, but also because we’re not going to be around for future economic, environmental or other political, social shocks. I wish we had done it earlier. I wish we had done it 20 years ago and repeatedly, so we could be around to see how these latest set of investments, which is just shy of $8 million dollars and 40 organizations, played out. It’s probably one of the most impactful things we’ve done.
With all that you’ve learned, what is one piece of advice you’d give to yourself if you could go back?
We paid attention to who we were while we operated and we sought to end along the same vein and make choices that were consistent with that. Several years ago, we did a grantee survey, and they said, “If you were a little more public, a little less anonymous, that would help bolster us by virtue of that.” So, we’ve tried to end in that same vein. It’s the kind of trust-based grantmaking that we’ve done and the very deep relationship that we’ve had with grantees.
We really partnered with them to design each individual organization’s spend-out and what it meant for them in particular. It didn’t mean the same thing for everybody. It didn’t mean everybody got diminishing grants over the last three years or that everybody got a big grant at the end. Those were very uniquely and specifically designed. So, I would say this idea of being consistent with your values, approach, orientation and what made your grantmaking work throughout a spend-out has been really important to us.
How was the process of working with Foundation Source?
The Kendeda Fund benefited from a network of support organizations who efficiently and effectively deepened our internal capacity, including Foundation Source. Our annual operating costs are low (2-4%), as a percentage of total grantmaking. We contracted out all back office and grants administration functions to Foundation Source. It was a really productive partnership for our unique organizational needs, size and structure.
Dena, is there any other piece of advice you’d like to share with philanthropists and foundations?
Something my mom has always been able to do is see herself and her work as part of a process. As people often stay, it’s standing on the shoulders of the activists, funders, groups, and social movements that came before. And there will be others who come after you that will continue to advance the work in ways that are meaningful, relevant and powerful. That humility was very much baked into Kendeda by my mom’s values or just that lack of seeing that Kendeda is the center of the universe. I do think it’s important to take the role really seriously…to do your very best work that you can with good resources that you have and knowing that you are part of a much broader set of dynamics, forces, partners, and communities. That also makes the end easier. It is our goal for people who visit our website and resources to find lessons learned and pieces to borrow from that they can then use and interpret in their own ways.
We would like to thank Dena and David for sharing their insights. From all of us at Foundation Source to the entire team at The Kendeda Fund, congratulations…and thank you for making an impact.
“It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.”
—Pirkei Avot (2:21)
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