Many of the nation’s biggest foundations are transforming their missions to focus on issues of inequality — but another big change in American society is also looming and requires a major philanthropic commitment: the growing size of America’s senior population, just as the ranks of millennials continue to swell.
So last year the Eisner Foundation, which I head, decided it was time to put all of our money into dealing with this changing demographic. Founded nearly 20 years ago by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner and his family, the foundation long focused on children’s charities, primarily in Los Angeles, and in more recent years invested in a few projects to aid elderly people in need.
Our mission today is focused on intergenerational projects that involve older people and kids. We award grants to preschools housed inside senior centers, mentoring programs of all kinds, charities that recruit older people to work with developmentally disabled babies, and organizations that provide resources to grandparents looking to adopt their grandchildren, among many other things.
While most foundations won’t be changing their missions, and subsequently their operations, as significantly as we did in the past year, what we learned along the way probably should have happened even if we hadn’t changed our mission. Here are some lessons we hope will be valuable to others.
It was time to say goodbye to old friends. When we changed our mission, many of our grantees at the time tried to persuade us that their programs were actually intergenerational in nature. And we really wanted to believe them. No one likes to tell people doing good work that you can’t give them more money. But in time, after scrutinizing not only their operations but our values, we realized that most weren’t a good fit anymore.
And this was a good thing. Like married couples, we had gotten a bit complacent, and so had many of our grantees. They weren’t working as hard for our support anymore, and we weren’t scrutinizing them like we did when we first met. Cutting them loose gave us the opportunity to look at all new grantees with the circumspection we should, and we hope it inspired, in a tough-love way, our old grantees to hit the gym and get back in shape.
It was an opportunity to meet new people. By changing our mission, we were forced to start over with a clean docket and get to know new nonprofits. As a result, we began to invest in groups toiling in our own backyards that we had never known about. Why had they never applied before? I’m not sure, but most foundations are, by nature, risk averse. No one wants to make a dumb grant. It’s the easiest way for a foundation executive to lose her job. That’s why most foundations, when they find an organization that does good work, stick with that group for a long time. But changing our focus, and our goals, made us meet new people. And many of them were amazing.
Fewer but bigger grants is the way to go. Having a blank docket of grantees freed us from historical precedent. We didn’t have to do anything just because that’s the way we’d always done it. For the past seven years, we’d made mostly general operating grants, most of them around $100,000 annually. That’s just who we were, and we were reluctant to turn people down once we were working with them unless they had a leadership change or an obvious decline in performance. But with our new freedom, we made a couple of seven-figure grants, and as a result of the new size of our grants, we became more involved with our grant recipients. After a year, this just seems like a smarter way to go. We have fewer grantees, but those that we have get our undivided attention and our full commitment.
We could be more entrepreneurial and less risk averse. Starting over with mostly new grantees allowed us the freedom to do what more foundations should do: take more risks in choosing our grantees. We funded advocacy for the first time. We invested in some research. We started a grants program for small nonprofits without the proven track records we usually seek in larger partners. We could be what we wanted to be. We could be what foundations should be.
We needed to hit the books. If you’re going to tell the world, as we did, that you’re "the only U.S. foundation investing exclusively in intergenerational programs," you’d better know what you’re talking about when it comes to intergenerational programs: What are the latest innovations? What does the research say? What are the demographic trends that buttress our e orts? Which programs work? Which ones don’t? Our program officers and I needed to read everything, talk to everyone, and attend every available information session — not only to make good grants but to be trusted. As a result, we became subject experts in a way we never could have been when we were a more generalist grant maker.
Getting our programs in line with our operations got our board better involved. The Eisner Foundation is an intergenerational family affair. Michael and Jane Eisner, their three sons, three daughters-in-law, and now nine young grandchildren are the backbone of our leadership team. By putting a focus on intergenerational issues, we were better able to engage our board and get them to become even larger contributors to our e orts. We are funding the experience we live, and I think that makes us a more sympathetic and in-touch grant maker.
We had to re-evaluate everything. Changing the mission, of course, dictated changes to our website, our social media, and our logo. But it also led to changes in our application materials, the boards I’m on, and even who we hired and for what position. Everything we do had to examined through a new lens. If we were going to be a new kind of foundation, we needed to act like one. This 360-degree review was overdue.
When we first proposed changing our mission 18 months ago, I had no idea what kind of other changes it would prompt or what kind of lessons we would learn. Had I known the effort it would require, I might never have gone through with it. But that’s exactly the point. Changing our mission caused us to become smarter and stronger, and I think in the end it will allow us to be a more informed and strategic grant maker. We owed it to nonprofits — and to society as a whole — to make the change.