“If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.” So runs a quote from the twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that features prominently on the homepage of the Seattle-based Quixote Foundation. Immediately after dropping that sage little nugget, the Quixote Foundation then volunteers a response: “We can do that!”
By positioning themselves as a silly but intelligent alternative to the typically staid pathologies of institutional philanthropy, the Quixote Foundation suggests just one of the exciting new models for forward-looking change-makers. The lean family foundation, which has operated efficiently for more than a decade, recently announced its plans to spend everything by the end of this year. This is no half measure; the Quixote Foundation isn’t simply increasing its giving rate or expanding its programming or introducing new metrics for gauging “impact”—by January 2018 the organization’s $15 million endowment will be gone and the existing staff will move on to other ventures.
This model, mentioned by a couple of authors in a Nation symposium on philanthropy from July, poses a truly radical threat to the self-perpetuating orthodoxy of Big Philanthropy. But it also makes perfect sense: If philanthropies exist to move the needle on the issues they care about, surely splashy, ambitious spending like this is one way to both raise awareness and deepen investment.
The causes supported by the Quixote Foundation are at the forefront of the progressive political discourse: strengthening voter rights; protecting and expanding reproductive health care; defending the environment; challenging a “culture of white supremacy”; and guaranteeing internet access and independent media. A quick look through the group’s list of grants from 2005-2014 reveals prominent left-wing organizations like Mother Jones, Planned Parenthood, and Media Matters. But the particular political inclinations of a given foundation are not really at issue here. What’s interesting and noteworthy is that up until the announcement to exhaust the endowment, Quixote operated rather conventionally, giving loyally to a number of grantees (the National Wildlife Federation, the Media Democracy Fund, and the Election Verification Network all received significant grants repeatedly over multiple years, for instance).
Then around 2008, just as the financial crisis hit and many foundations thought it strategic to “spend down”, Quixote saw an opportunity to fill a vacuum and leave an imprint on their corner of the nonprofit landscape for years to come. So they “spent up” instead and doubled down on the causes they had supported up ’til then. Through a special $50,000 grant to the Media Consortium, for instance, Quixote ultimately expanded the reporting on and reach of the BlackLivesMatter movement in a year in which that group played a prominent role in a national election.
So “spending up” is good for impact, focuses the mission, and inspires creative destruction in the nonprofit sector. Whether or not they share the particular political viewpoints of Quixote, other foundations could learn a lot from the example of this spunky little outfit.