By Carrie Avery, The Durfee Foundation
Foundation surveys often ask if the foundation is operating with a limited life span, or in perpetuity. The choice is typically presented as a binary one: Did you set a time limit, or are you going to be around for eternity? There is a third choice, however, if perpetuity is not mandated in the foundation’s charter.
At its biannual board retreat, trustees of the Durfee Foundation ask the perpetuity question in a different way. Do we commit to operating in perpetuity for the next five years? That is, for the next five years do we believe that our mission and purpose are best served by not setting a deadline for the foundation’s existence? If we answer yes, then we commit to maintaining assets, investments, and operations as though we are operating in perpetuity. We know that we will revisit this question in two years.
One of our independent (non-family) trustees came up with the “perpetuity for the next five years” framework at a retreat several years ago when the board was flummoxed by the notion of committing to operate forever. We knew that we didn’t want to set a deadline to sunset the foundation at the moment, but were we ready to say that we wanted it to go on until the end of time? Who knows what the future might hold? The five-year horizon allows us to make a meaningful decision about the foreseeable future without getting bogged down in speculation about what might happen in the distant future.