Archive for February, 2014

Discount Double Check

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

One of the central issues in philanthropy is time horizons. Do you exist in perpetuity? Are you spending down within the donor’s lifetime? Are you looking to bring the next generation into governance? When can you expect to see impact?

Private funders have a tremendous luxury in the ability to set their own time horizons. If they want to exist in perpertuity, the law allows them to pay out 5% of assets per year, and with sound investment policy, they can keep ahead of inflation for a long, long time, and not have to touch the principal. If they want to spend down within the founding donor’s lifetime, as Chuck Feeney of the Atlantic Philanthropies has elected to do, or within fifty years of the death of the last founding trustee, as the Gates Foundation will do, there’s nothing stopping them.

Compare their reality to that of other endeavors:

  • Publicly traded companies: Quarterly earnings reports drive the stock prize and the value of compensation. Analysts will punish you for failing to make predictions. (Almost makes you not want to publish your theory of change if you’re a foundation – why be seen as making a prediction?)
  • Elected officials: Members of the House of Representatives are elected for two-year terms. As soon as they’re elected, they have to start campaigning again. Maybe this was designed to keep you accountable to the people, but nowadays, it means you’re accountable to donors and fundraising events.
  • Pop stars: One album doesn’t sell – hmm, have they lost it? Two albums don’t sell – bye-bye record deal, enjoy the nostalgia circuit.
  • Sports coaches: The Monday after the final regular-season NFL game, the coaching carousel begins to turn. The Cleveland Browns have had three head coaches in three seasons.

It’s really only tenured college professors who have at all comparable time horizons to private funders.

So how should private funders handle this power?

There are worse places to start than gauging δ.

What’s that, you say?

I said, δ.

Is that a backwards six?

No, it’s a lowercase delta, the Greek character. You may recognize its upper-case sibling, Δ, the symbol for change.

Lower-case delta, δ, is the symbol for the discount rate, your personal algorithm or set of assumptions for how you value future payoffs relative to present ones. “This ice cream tastes good. If I have another few spoonfuls, I’ll enjoy them, but man, my stomach will hurt in 20 minutes. So I can have yummy ice cream now, or sleep better later.” If I have a low discount rate, the value of future payoffs goes up, and I get a good night’s sleep. If I have a high discount rate…well, at least I can blog at 1:15 in the morning.

So, low δ = high patience.

High δ = politicians, public-company CEOs, sports coaches, pop stars: give me success now, whatever the cost.

Now, what happens when you have high δ people running a low δ institution? This is one of the problems with governance in philanthropy. We look to experts who thrive in high δ environments and ask them to downshift to a low δ mindset, without necessarily the tools for making that shift and checking their own instincts.

The good news is that in economics at least, δ boils down to preferences. And preferences can change. The art of governance in philanthropy may be tapping into the power of low δ thinking. I’m curious how much being a family board affects this. The presence of children is a classic way to lower δ – “think of what they’ll inherit.”

How do you see δ play out in the foundations with which you work? How do they value future payoffs relative to present results, particularly with regard to funding decisions?

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