In 1957, my father, Stephen D. Bechtel, Jr., used a gift of $26,000 to begin what was assumed to be a perpetual philanthropy. Now, at the end of 2020, we are closing shop following a 12-year spend down that involved well over a billion dollars in grantmaking.
The 2009 decision to invest all assets and pursue lasting solutions to California’s critical challenges “sooner rather than later” was a defining moment for the Foundation. It enabled much bigger thinking while simultaneously calling for sharper focus. Our dedicated, talented board and staff team moved an organization with a range of funding interests into two priority areas: education and environment. We shifted from making many modest-sized grants to embrace a small number of multimillion-dollar, multi-year initiatives. We broadened a decades-long emphasis on the Bay Area to adopt a geographic scale that spanned and, in some cases, went beyond California. We raised our sights from supporting discrete projects to championing systems change.
This transformation was as exciting as it was demanding. Spending down is a dynamic, at times dizzying, process. The Foundation kept balanced by anchoring its actions in four core values: integrity, excellence, optimism, and respect. These traits were infused into the organization from day one by my father and mother, Elizabeth (Betty); both served on the Board of Directors across the Foundation’s lifecycle. My parents’ humility and their belief in others shaped the fundamental nature of this philanthropy. The Foundation stood behind grantees who had knowledge and networks that far exceeded our own. We made steadfast commitments to passionate leaders and high-potential organizations that were willing to reshape stubborn systems. Our comfort with addressing seemingly intractable issues carried over from a multi-generation family business that tackles some of the world’s great engineering and construction challenges. We accepted risk as necessary to our aims, and at times entered spaces where other grantmakers had not yet tread.
STEM education, youth character development, and water and land stewardship are large, gnarly arenas, with tremendous implications for the future of California and the nation. Our approach recognized this complexity. We set aside the instinct to name definitive objectives supported by linear theories of change. Instead, we aimed for expansive goals based on making positive, durable gains in the fields and systems where we focused. We then supported and collaborated with grantees, funder networks, and other partners that were positioned to drive progress, including seizing moments of opportunity.
We endured disappointments, always seeking to learn and find better ways. We also witnessed unexpected accomplishments. For example, we could not have hoped that California, the last western state to enact groundwater management legislation, would adopt anything but modest regulation in the Foundation’s spend-down years. A confluence of circumstances – heightened public will following a severe drought, innovative government leaders, effective water managers, keen research institutions, and ready advocates – contributed to sweeping reform via the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
The Instructional Leadership Corps also surpassed its early ambitions, offering an example from our education work. What began as a modest project with a small cadre of master teachers has grown to benefit more than 120,000 classroom leaders across California. Through educator-led professional development, these teachers are strengthening their instructional skills and learning to advance the state’s new, higher standards in math, science, and English language arts.
When the Foundation’s spend down began, we searched for a blueprint and found little in the way of example and published practice. Happily, this situation is changing. We applaud the efforts of The Atlantic Philanthropies and other limited-life foundations, as well as philanthropy research and support organizations, that have provided signposts for this fast-growing field. Their willingness to share has encouraged our own communications and desire to offer something worthwhile for consideration by others. This includes joining with Candid to house more than 200 resources developed by the Foundation and its partners via a Legacy Collection.
When asked what it takes to spend down well, I offer this advice: 1) Commit to making a difference and being clear about goals. Spending down multiplies the resources available; it also accentuates any internal confusion or misalignment regarding priorities. 2) Put funds to work to build strong organizations and fields. You can be guided by founder interests while also listening and responding to what grantee leaders say they need to succeed. 3) Demonstrate courage and tenacity. Spending down is a joyous but difficult process. 4) Realize that your foundation’s work is not done at sunset. In fact, you may not ever precisely know how your story ends; this is why it is so critical to invest in the capacity of others.
Winding up in a time of tumult
The year 2020 turns out to be far from an ideal juncture to conclude grantmaking. The education and environment fields are facing once-unimaginable difficulty. The relevance and resilience of U.S. institutions of democracy are being sorely tested by political, health, social justice, climate, and economic crises. While the future is always uncertain, the stakes ahead seem particularly high. Even so, this is the Foundation’s time to exit – and to trust that the people, entities, and collaborations we have so deeply cared about will adapt and make a difference in a changing world.
Nearly three decades ago, I joined a Foundation staff that consisted of one full-time and one half-time employee. My professional life is intertwined with the evolution of this philanthropy – its years of steady growth followed by steep expansion in the spend-down years and now the bittersweet time of closing. It has been a thrilling ride. Through it all, the Foundation board and staff have stayed true to serving the interests of our founder through a grantee-centric philosophy, a bold, future-focused outlook, and a high standard of professionalism. We finish operations hoping that our story and strategies will have value beyond our end date – and knowing that our grantees, peer funders, and staff alumni will continue to discover new possibilities, improve practices, and grow impact.
On behalf of the Bechtel family, and my wonderful board and staff colleagues across so many years at this Foundation, farewell.
Lauren B. Dachs