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What If? Perspectives on Asset Optimization

What if we could untether our strategic planning processes from typical constraints? What if we looked at building on...

What if we could untether our strategic planning processes from typical constraints? What if we looked at building on our strengths and capitalizing on our opportunities rather than fixing our weaknesses and responding to threats? What if we unlocked our potential to grow, thrive, and evolve? What if rather than sustainability and stability we focused on transformative possibility?

Members of Solomon Schechter School of Queens’ professional development team and Board of Trustees spent a day and a half with Charles Cohen and Ray Levi of PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) in imaginative exploration of the possible. Piloting a generative, creative planning process known as “asset optimization”, we began with a few “rules”:

    No silos allowed – multiple voices identify disparate assets, including human assets, to unleash new potential.
    Thinking must be interactive.
    Change and success must find common ground. We must not view change as an end unto itself, but rather as a vehicle for achieving success. Similarly, we must challenge the potential constraints of success, which can lead us to being stuck in what has worked even though our world is rapidly changing around us.
    The power of imagination must be embraced.
    In order to “connect the dots” in new, innovative ways we must identify dots we might not have even realized existed.
    The Head of School must accept not being the expert.
    The Board must support innovative thinking.

From there, we played. Using a model created by Shattuck-ST. Mary’s School’s President Nick Stoneman as a means of sharing the creative process that transformed his school over the span of a decade of innovation, we first engaged in two rounds of asset optimization using assets from schools other than our own. We worked with a very specific asset in each of six areas: Physical Plant, Faculty and Staff, Brand Recognition, External Relationships, Geography and Region, and Program Offered. Our task was to optimize potential by intertwining assets in these six disparate areas, finding opportunity previously unrecognized by connecting and combining asset categories in new and innovative ways in order to improve in seven specific areas: Faculty Engagement, Student Retention, Increased Enrollment, Facility Expansion, Endowment Growth, Additional Programs, and Alternative Revenue.

Charles Cohen and Ray Levi functioned as our coaches, activating our learning by observing, asking reflective questions to stretch our thinking, and offering feedback on what we might consider. They challenged us to be more specific and less “neat,” freeing us to resist the impulse to tie loose ends together quickly and instead to consider as many possibilities for building on strengths as we could. Working in two separate groups, we strove to optimize assets for two fictional schools, each with seemingly unconnected assets. Through the brainstorming, we crafted narratives of meaning, building on strengths to create schools that are world class – one emphasizing community and character; the other science and social policy. Inspiring us to live with the inherent messiness of creativity, at least for awhile, our facilitators sent us off on round two with two new schools and two new sets of assets to consider. To the delight of our facilitators, we emerged with “messier” packages of potential, and multiple potential directions for the schools presented to us – one a girls’ school emphasizing the arts and expanding into wellness programming and therapeutic arts for students and the broader community, and the other a struggling school in need of substantial intervention with a plethora of possibilities for improvement based on strengths, some of them initially hidden.

With the experience of imagining the possible in connection to fictional schools, with fictional assets, we were ready to identify real assets in our own school; dots we might not have yet even recognized in order to then connect those dots in new, innovative ways. Feedback from our coaches Charles Cohen and Ray Levi on our identification of our own assets was consistent with the feedback they offered in relation to our efforts at optimizing assets in the fictional schools which which we had practiced: be more specific. And so, we went back to work – identifying with much greater specificity faculty members, alumni, programs, and opportunities made possible by our physical plant. Those assets became the raw material with which we returned the next day to engage in multiple rounds of the asset optimization exercise using real assets of our own school.

Prompted by our coaches to think more expansively, more ambitiously, more creatively, more flexibly, and more specifically, we imagined a world class school. We envisioned signature programs and strategic partnerships enabling us to be ever more relevant to our students, preparing them in concrete, innovative ways for the rapidly changing world of work with emphasis in technology, science, and entrepreneurial ventures; infused with commitment to being socially responsible; deeply grounded in the enduring values and texts of our Jewish religious tradition. We described potential ways to build upon global connections stemming from our own multi-national, multi-lingual student and family population. Considering museums, universities, libraries, businesses, organizations, and individuals with whom to develop strategic partnerships, we recognized ways of cultivating connections to benefit our students. We imagined expansive potential for recruitment and facility expansion based on a virtuous cycle of optimizing assets.

Beyond the imaginative ideas, we experienced important shifting of mindset. Possibilities requiring effort, risk, and courage were shared aloud as possible, leading not to a sense of anxiety or outright dismissal, but instead to openness to further exploration. “The toothpaste is out of the tube,” one participant playfully remarked, in reference to our rapidly changing world as well as the possibilities we together imagined.

Ready to leave the limitless world of potential and possibility and return to the more mundane day to day world of the operational and the tactical, we considered next steps that would enable us to build on positive momentum generated. Members of the professional leadership team considered concrete actions we could take to actualize some of the more manageable suggestions offered as well as to lay the groundwork for more ambitious innovation. Most significantly, we considered ways of bringing others who had not participated in the training into the process, primarily our Trustees and our faculty. Recognizing that at this time two days of learning combining theory and imaginative play with a purpose would not yet be achievable or even advisable for our very busy Trustees, or our very busy faculty members, we considered specific ways to infuse the language and thinking behind asset optimization into our work as we seek to shift our school’s mind set to a focus on identifying, cultivating, celebrating, and building on strength and opportunity. While much remains to be done, the conversation and learning has already had a potent impact. The toothpaste is out of the tube!

What If? Perspectives on Asset Optimization, September 1, 2014, eJP, by Shira Leibowitz

Resolution Against Anti-Semitism

AJFCA is supporting H. Res. 707, a resolution that condemns all forms of anti-Semitism and rejects attempts to justif...

AJFCA is supporting H. Res. 707, a resolution that condemns all forms of anti-Semitism and rejects attempts to justify anti-Jewish hatred or violent attacks as an expression of disapproval over political events. The resolution condemns the comparison of Israel to Nazis and supports Holocaust education at home and abroad. During recent meetings between the Special Envoy for U.S. Holocaust Survivor Services and Holocaust Survivors, the Survivors expressed increased anxiety stemming from attacks against Jews in Israel and in Europe. This resolution currently has 99 cosponsors and we hope to raise that number past 100 this week! We are hopeful the House can vote on this in the next week. Please thank the cosponsors and urge your Representative to cosponsor. To see a list of cosponsors, click here

Steps to a Successful Spend Down: Strategic Priorities

At the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP), we have continuously researched spend down organizations ...

At the Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (ACBP), we have continuously researched spend down organizations since the decision was made to sunset ACBP by 2016.

We have been surprised by the limited content available on the process of how foundations spend down, rather than the more broadly discussed topic of why foundations spend down. (We’re glad to see this starting to change, with resources like Duke University’s online spend down research library).

We therefore went on a mission to consolidate both the process-related experiences of ACBP and other organizations’ research papers and articles relating to spending down. This is the first of two blogs this month that highlights the steps involved and items for consideration that we have organized from our research. This post will highlight strategic priorities, while the next will focus on operational components. We hope these two checklists will help other organizations as they grapple with similar spend down questions.

Let us be very clear from the outset – the spend down process is not a perfect science, nor is there a handbook that can mold a perfect strategy. As GrantCraft often shares, and as is a relevant reminder here, philanthropy and its strategies are not a one size fits all. However, we are of the opinion that by asking the right questions, foundations can make sound judgments about their spend down to make it more meaningful, strategic, and able to achieve goals – rather than being deterred by unneeded challenges. Here’s our guide to asking the right questions:

1. Evaluate overarching programmatic priorities.

    What is the legacy objective, if any? Is it the name of the foundation, the programmatic impact, or both?
    Who will make the legacy decision? The founder(s)? His/her children? Trustees? Staff members? Some combination?
    Will future generations continue the foundation’s legacy or impact objectives through other means?
    If there is a living donor, how will s/he engage philanthropically after the spend down takes place (if at all)?
    How might the foundation need to adjust its current programming to meet the legacy objective?
    Will there be an endowment at the close of the foundation? If so, to whom will it be distributed?

2. Determine when to spend down and how to communicate it.

    Should the date drive the program goals or the program goals drive the date?
    Is the foundation’s lifespan long enough to make appropriate program planning adjustments?
    Who needs to learn about the foundation’s decision to spend down?
    How and when will the spend down be communicated to partners and grantees?

3. Carry out assessment of current programs.

    What types of qualitative and quantitative criteria should be used in the assessment?
    How do those criteria align with the foundation’s present and legacy objectives?
    How might the assessment handle comparisons among grantees and within various funding portfolios?
    Should outside consultants or an evaluation firm conduct the assessment?
    Who should be involved in the assessment? Founders? Trustees? Staff? Grantees?
    Should the assessment be carried out anonymously or publicly?

4. Wind down funding of non-essential grantees.

    Has it been clearly communicated to the grantee that funding will soon stop?
    Is a transparent timeline in place for reduction of funding?
    Has the timeline been communicated with adequate lead time to each grantee? If not, can the foundation consider readjusting the schedule?
    How might the foundation assist with transitional support or attract replacement support from other funders?

5. Enhance capacity and funding for core grantees.

    What steps must be taken to ensure core grantees have the financial and operational expertise to continue after the spend down?
    Will the foundation provide capacity building – monetary or in-kind – to enable grantee sustainability in the areas of:
    Fundraising and donor relations management?
        Financial and organizational management?
        Governance and board management?
        Strategic planning?
        Leadership development and staffing?
    Have actionable fundraising plans been created by grantees with reserves in place in case financial goals are not reached?
    How will the foundation and grantees balance responsibilities to search for new partners?
    If the foundation has incubated grantees, how can the grantee mitigate the “branding” effect that often ensues and onboard new partners?
    Are there merger possibilities for incubated grantees in order to consolidate operational capacities?
    Should the foundation use a dashboard or other tool to track and analyze progress of grantee strength and sustainability throughout the spend down process?

6. Determine if new program initiatives will be considered.

    Will new initiatives invigorate the staff and potentially prevent loss of enthusiasm?
    Is it practical (or necessary) to reduce funding for other grantees to fund new initiatives?
    Can the foundation transition from a grantmaking organization to one that offers non-financial support to grantees through mentorship?

7. Determine closing and post-close strategies.

    How can the foundation spend its time meaningfully capturing lessons learned and networking grantees and funding partners to leverage its investments over the years?
    How should the foundation’s successes and impact be celebrated? If there is an event, who will be invited?
    How will the institutional knowledge created and accumulated throughout the foundation’s lifespan be preserved?
    Where will this knowledge (and documentation) be archived? By a partner or supporting membership organization?

We hope this list will illuminate important spend down considerations and will assist other organizations in thoughtfully examining their own priorities and processes.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, which will underscore operational practicalities to consider for sun setting organizations.

Steps to a Successful Spend Down: Strategic Priorities, August 31, 2014, eJP, by Mariah Schuknecht