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The Fierce Urgency of Now

Update from the Compton Foundation

December 11, 2019

“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.… Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘too late.’” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We live in an era in which the rule of law, human rights, the integrity of global institutions, and the ecosystems on which we all depend are under relentless assault. Like many leaders of progressive organizations, the Board of the Compton Foundation has engaged in discussion and debate to determine how best to respond in this moment. After a lengthy and robust process, the Board has decided to invest significantly in a positive vision for the future now, rather than keeping our assets in perpetuity. So, after seventy-five years, the Compton Foundation is spending down its remaining assets and will close its doors within seven years.

This decision also comes in response to new and increasingly important voices challenging the assumption that philanthropy is necessarily a positive force for social change. Even the most progressive foundations reinforce inequities, however unconsciously. As Board and staff reckoned with these tensions, we came to believe that to control and grow assets in perpetuity is inconsistent with our core values of equity, democracy, and justice.

So, what comes next?

We know that supporting transformative leaders and courageous storytellers remains timely and is effective. Because we have learned that deep movement building and culture change take time, two-thirds of our portfolio will be unrestricted multi-year grants to key partners who understand how peace and security, climate change, reproductive justice, and democracy are interconnected and who communicate compelling visions of a peaceful, sustainable, and just future. We will continue to invest in the visionary artists and organizers who are working to change our culture and our laws, and who bring people together in a time of division. We continue to be committed to trust-based grantmaking and are deepening in our commitment to centering gender and racial justice across all of our work.

We are also making some changes as the Foundation enters this next phase. We are simplifying our proposal and reporting processes significantly in order to streamline work for our grantee partners, and we are ending support for some grantees in order to make fewer, larger, multi-year grants to others. We are also keeping a portion of our grants budget open for rapid-response projects within our core areas, to allow for timely interventions or support convening across issue areas. We will work with our grant partners to identify these opportunities. Our intention during the transition and the entire spend-out period is to prioritize communication and transparency with all partners so they can plan ahead with certainty and maximize their impact.

We remain committed to using all of our assets to accelerate change. To that end, we will continue to work with our investment team at Sonen Capital to ensure that our remaining assets are invested to continue to generate as much impact as possible. We will analyze our entire portfolio through a gender and racial justice lens and will conduct an annual review of the impact of our investments on communities, climate, and corporate governance.

In 1946, after losing their youngest son in World War II, Dorothy and Randolph Compton established the Compton Foundation for the purpose of ending war. We are inspired by the Compton family for turning personal tragedy into something that has engendered hope and opportunity for others over many decades. The Board of the Foundation is to be commended for their thoughtful and critical reflections on how the world has changed in the past seventy-five years and how philanthropy must change with it.

And philanthropy must change. We believe that our practices—giving unrestricted multi-year grants, simplifying grant processes, moving to 100% mission-aligned investing, and even spending out our financial assets—should be common practice at foundations dedicated to justice and democracy. To that end, throughout the Foundation’s remaining lifespan, we will share what we are learning and advocate for these practices within the philanthropic sector.

Spending out the Foundation is not a decision we take lightly. We do not yet know how this critical moment for the world will play out, but mindful of the Reverend Dr. King, we know that now is the time to fully invest in our vision of a peaceful, just, and thriving world.

Vanessa Compton Davenport, Board President

Ellen Friedman, Executive Director

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