Assn. of Small Foundations Becomes Exponent Philanthropy

March 27, 2014       Mark Hrywna      

If someone had a lot if money 30 years ago and wanted to do something philanthropic, they’d start a foundation. “That’s no longer true today,” said Henry Berman, CEO of the Association of Small Foundations (ASF).

Recognizing the shifting sands of how people give, the Association of Small Foundations (ASF) today officially rebranded itself, changing its name to Exponent Philanthropy and more actively welcoming memberships to giving circles, Donor-Advised Funds (DAF) holders, and giving circles.

“After a two-year strategic planning initiative, including focus groups, stakeholder interviews and an in-depth member survey, it has become clear that our vibrant organization has an opportunity to evolve and support all philanthropists who choose to give with few or not staff – not just those using a foundation as their primary giving vehicle,” Berman said. The new name embodies both definitions of exponent: in mathematics, an exponent multiplies the value of a number, and can also be a proponent of something.

“Today, we sit at the center of this powerful and unique community that prioritizes staying lean, being agile and being responsive to their communities and issues most important to them. The manner in which our members practice giving is a big deal that makes a big impact,” he said.

Berman described it as a two-part process, with an in-depth strategic planning process, followed by an in-depth look at ASF’s brand and brand positioning. What they found was that members “unite less around the fact that they use foundations as a giving vehicle and more about the unique style of the brand and of giving,” he said, more about the qualitative aspects and not quantitative of staff or foundations.

The types of words often used by members included “agile,” “responsive,” “close to the ground” in their communities, whether geographic or programmatic. “Many are already using a variety of giving vehicles, not just foundations,” Berman said.

The name Association of Small Foundations sets an expectation, Berman said, as some may think they’re not a foundation and move on while other foundations may have more than “a few or no staff.”

Berman doesn’t know if membership will increase as a result of the rebrand but he said that wasn’t the primary purpose; it was more about recognizing the changing philanthropic landscape and embracing what members are doing. “We may be engaging with people in these new audiences in different ways,” he said. “No doubt it will create new programs; whether that comes up as new foundations or new members, time will tell.”

Founded in 1995, the Washington, D.C.-based organization has always been open to entities with few or no staff but wasn’t “overtly welcoming” to other entities, like giving services of DAF holders. “We didn’t go out and seek them,” Berman said. ASF reported total revenue of $3.5 million last year, including $1.6 million in membership fees, and less than $3 million in net assets, according to its Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Form 990 for the Fiscal Year Ending 2012, the most recent available. ASF reported $4.8 million in revenue in 2009, including $1.3 million in membership fees.

There are approximately 2,400 foundation members, with total assets estimated at more than $71 billion, ranging from those with less than $1 million to more than $50 million. Members award more than 200,000 grants annually, worth an estimated $4 billion, with top funding in areas of education, human services, health, arts and culture, and the environment.

The rebranding and strategic planning cost about $200,000, which was spread over four fiscal years, with an estimated $175,000 raised from members – beyond regular grants they would give – for the effort. Berman emphasized that what came out of the strategic planning process was a strategic framework, not a plan. “We got a compass heading us in a direction but not a GPS that’s getting us ready to turn,” he said. “We know where we’re headed in the foreseeable future, continuing to crate programs around the craft of philanthropy and realize all the different tools they have as philanthropists.”