When Does a Time-Limited Grantmaking Strategy Make Sense?

Grantmakers rarely fund the same activity in perpetuity. We like to find opportunities to serve as a catalyst, or provide seed money, or test a new idea and then see the program, organization, or movement that we’ve funded take root and continue to grow with other, more durable sources of support. Experienced grantmakers recognize that effective investments typically must be more than a year or two to support lasting change, especially in a nascent field. At the same time, they also know funding can’t continue for years on end without a destination in mind.

The question is: how do you time your departure? Do you take a wait-and-see approach as you wade into a new cause, or do you enter a multi-year strategy with a hard end date from the outset? We shared and enhanced our own exploration of these questions at the recent GEO Learning Conference breakfast discussion on “Working with Time-bound Strategies.”

Both approaches, wait-and-see and setting a hard stop, have merits and  appropriate uses. If grantmakers are responding to an immediate need (such as a natural disaster or an epidemic) or are entering a new field for the first time, a wait-and-see approach or an open-ended “invest-as-you-go” strategy may make sense. Think of this as moving a football down a field of undetermined length. You know the direction you should move, but don’t really know how far away the goalposts are or how long it might take to get there.

In other cases, the position of the goalposts is clearer. You know how far the ball needs to move, and have a good idea of how long it will take to move it. That’s when a time-limited strategy can be effective. For the Packard Foundation’s recent investment in summer learning in California, the goalpost was an increased awareness of and support for summer learning opportunities for California’s children. As we took stock of our current environment and assets, we determined that it made sense to invest in moving that ball forward for seven years.  Three years would not have been long enough to see changes in program quality and even five years would have been too short to set the conditions for a durable, strong, state-wide system for expanded learning that embraced quality measures. And yet 10 years might have been too long and could have delayed the sense of urgency that was needed on the issue. In true Goldilocks fashion, seven years felt “just right” for the catalytic change we hoped to see.

When we started our investment in 2009, we understood the concept of seeing the goalposts. But over the next seven years, we also learned about four other conditions that might suggest the use of a time-limited investment could be a good approach.

Conditions may be ripe for a time-limited investment when:

(1) There is an existing platform from which to build your work. In our case, the existing platform came from our previous work supporting the expansion of after-school programs in California. The state’s investment in expanded learning had laid a groundwork and set up a system for after-school programs run in collaboration with school districts. The Packard Foundation supplemented the state’s investment with one of our own, building a network of technical assistance providers to help plan for and strengthen after-school programs. From there, it was a logical next step to reach into summer learning programs that could utilize the same platform for growth and related funding streams.

(2) There are partners who are willing to try something new with you. Because of our after-school work, we had developed a number of strong partnerships with organizations that were ready and willing to join us on an expedition into re-imagining the summer landscape. These organizations had the flexibility to pivot and build off their existing expertise. Knowing that we would leave the work after seven years was challenging for our partners, so we developed a system of capacity building that was tailored to their needs and targeted toward easing their transitions once our investment concluded.

(3) You want to create urgency and momentum. Being clear about your intent to invest and your intent to depart helps overcome inertia that may weigh down organizations or an entire field. Knowing that there is much to be accomplished before funding runs out can be a significant motivator. It also pulls all players in a strategy together on the same team, sharing a focus on creating and sustaining the work to not only reach the goalpost, but to move well beyond it.

(4) You are willing to embrace risk when the clock starts ticking. Time-bound strategies have a make-or-break aspect to them; you either cross the goal line or you don’t. That’s one type of risk. Another comes in terms of sustainability. You don’t want your work to achieve its goal only to unravel and fade into obscurity afterwards. Even if you know that some of your good work may erode, you can play a role in continuing to shine light on what was accomplished, the benefits it created, what remains to be achieved, and the need for ongoing investment from public or private sources.

These are four conditions that became obvious to our staff as we reflected on our summer learning work. But of course, there are bound to be others. We’re thankful to GEO for helping extend this conversation beyond our breakfast discussion, and look forward to learning more from and with our peers.