Ramping Up

Ramping up—or significantly increasing charitable giving or activities—can be an empowering transition point in your philanthropy, opening possibilities for extending your reach, funding more deeply or in new areas, and having more impact. It can also leave you bewildered by the administrative, financial, and other complexities that come with your new normal.

What does it mean to ramp up in response to an influx of assets—perhaps the most common reason funders increase their charitable giving and/ or activities? Other drivers include the desire to give now, achieve more impact, or respond to changing social or environmental contexts.

For some funders in this situation, ramping up might involve small changes—the hiring of a new staff member, or adding a committee, for example. For others, it might call for creating a whole new enterprise—more grants, more staff, more structure, a new office, and possibly a whole new mission and grantmaking guidelines.

Whether you plan to make big changes or small, one thing is certain: With more money comes greater responsibility, and, at some point, operating lean may no longer be an option.

Here’s how one family foundation is managing this transition.

Case Study: The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation

When Texas oil giant George Mitchell died in July 2013 at age 94, he left behind a thriving family of 10 children, 23 grandchildren, and 5 greatgrandchildren.

A legendary engineer, real estate developer, and called by some the “father of fracking,” Mitchell pioneered the technology of hydraulic fracturing and natural gas shale drilling. The process launched a revolution in U.S. energy and prompted significant environmental debate.

A lifelong environmentalist, Mitchell signed the Giving Pledge committing the majority of his wealth to charity. Upon his death, he bequeathed an estimated $750 million to the family foundation he and his wife (who died in 2009) established in 1978—The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.

The foundation, which to date has been operating with $115 million in assets and a small staff of three, is now charged with ramping up its operations to prepare for this influx of assets—expected in full by 2018.

Planning Ahead for Change

Luckily for the Mitchell Foundation, planning ahead was one of the family’s many attributes. In 2004, the board president (a family member) gathered the Mitchells’ children and grandchildren for a strategic planning process.

This was granddaughter Katherine Lorenz’s first introduction to the foundation.

Until then, she says, the foundation was really “my grandparents’ deal—not really something I was aware of. At that meeting, we were invited to take part in the conversation and participate in a more structured way. It was that moment that it became more of a family foundation.”

Inspired by giving and having started her career in philanthropy, Lorenz soon became the foundation’s president. Serving in this role gave her an opportunity to spend time with her grandfather in the last few years of his life, and learn from him firsthand the legacy he wanted to leave.

“My grandfather and I had many conversations in the years before he passed away,” Lorenz says. She often recorded conversations with him with her flip camera, and between those and earlier audio tapes, the foundation now has 20-plus years of recordings to go back to.

“Having multiple conversations over many years is more helpful than one conversation in one moment,” she says. “People’s motivations can change, and it allowed me to notice trends through the years.”

Learning Together as a Board

Her grandfather made it clear to Lorenz he wanted the foundation to stay focused on science and sustainability. Yet not everyone in the family shared his passions or knowledge about these areas. To remedy this, the foundation created group learning experiences they called learning journeys.

As part of the learning journeys, the foundation hires experts to talk about the issues, and where the needs and opportunities are. Sometimes the learning journeys last a couple of hours, and, other times, they last for a few days—a mini-conference format for board members.

“It brings the family together to learn and talk about shared values. We often look backward and forward—for example, what my grandfather meant by sustainability and how that is relevant today,” she says.

Learning journeys aren’t limited to funding areas. The foundation plans to hold a journey on the how of philanthropy—looking at how they can leverage the best tools in philanthropy for impact. Another idea: a finance learning journey, where they gain a better understanding about how to manage the complexity that comes with significantly greater assets.

“This kind of group learning raises the bar for us,” says Lorenz, who recommends learning journeys for any funder. “It’s an important piece of our philanthropy, and one of the most gratifying experiences we’ve had as a family.”

Changing Structures

One of the big changes Lorenz foresees is a different staff structure. “Our plan is, once we scale up, to no longer have family staff,” she says.

That means she will willingly put herself out of a job.

“It’s a little harder to have excellence and quality—to demand the same things from a family member as a nonfamily member. Some families do quite well with it, and, for others, the dynamics can be difficult,” she says.

Another change will be how the board structures committees.

“We’ve been putting new processes in place over the past few years, including forming new committees (program, executive, finance) and holding quarterly committee meetings,” she says. More structure has made for better communication among board members.

“We also want a clear decision-making structure in place so that everyone feels their voice is heard,” she says. “A challenge [in ramping up] is that everyone on the board has their own vision of where we’re going, and what we’re going to be. We don’t all necessarily share the same vision. It’s not right or wrong; it’s just different. It’s important to get people aligned enough to feel they are part of the process.”

Tips for the Transition

To manage an influx of assets, or any driver that leads to ramping up your giving and/or your activities, here are your colleagues’ tips.

  • Start planning now. It’s easier to plan ahead than to react in the midst of an imminent or overwhelming change.
  • Ask questions early and often. Multiple conversations over time can guide board members in understanding their values and those of the founders, which can be key to steadying the ship during any transition.
  • Revisit your mission and goals. Many funders use a ramp-up to examine what’s working well (and what’s not), and if and how the mission is still relevant to community needs.
  • Make big changes slowly. Although you may be excited about the possibilities that await, you don’t need to revise your mission or giving guidelines overnight. It helps to get your infrastructure in place before making more significant changes.
  • Recognize that ramping up may be more complex than it appears. It can bring about a new direction, a new style of leadership, new people, new culture, and new expectations. Look to other funders for models, and consider hiring consultants and/or issue experts to support you through the process.

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© 2012-2017 Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation.