Winding Down and Sharing Out: An Open Road to Spend Down

It was spring 2010. After a grueling recruitment process, I received an offer to take up the role of Director General of the MAVA Foundation, my dream job. What an opportunity to be able to make a difference on issues I care deeply about! What scope for achieving conservation impact! What a privilege to be able to work with a great team and board! I couldn’t believe my luck.

Though I pretty much accepted the offer on the spot, there was a snag. MAVA’s founder, Luc Hoffmann, sat me down and wanted to be sure I realized that the foundation would continue only until 2022. Would I still be interested in the job given this limitation? My instinct, of course, was to laugh – 2022 seemed a lifetime away – of course I would take the job anyway. Who wouldn’t?Winding road with labels 'start' and 'finish'

After almost 8 years with the foundation, 2022 no longer seems so far away. In fact, it seems to be getting rapidly closer. Although this end date was always out there – planned from the start by Luc, and though it was no secret – we didn’t really communicate proactively about it. The few times I mentioned our eventual end to partners, the reaction was often one of disbelief.

A couple of years ago, after confirming the original intention to sunset, the MAVA board was keen to have us start planning and communicating more explicitly about the future of MAVA. Today, though we are still occasionally met with disbelief, by and large the message is received and understood. Our aim is to plan our transition so that we can exit as elegantly as possible, with partners fully informed and prepared for our departure.

One of the first questions people ask is why we are closing. The answer is both complex and simple: our founder planned it that way. When MAVA was founded by Luc, his intention was to create a vehicle through which to manage his philanthropic interests. He was a passionate conservationist and passed on this enthusiasm to other members of his family, many of whom have been involved in MAVA’s governance. However, he recognized that a family foundation should be powered by the passion of family members, and not simply be there to carry on the tradition of the founder.

There are many different methods of handling the transition to subsequent generations in a family foundation. The choice, in this case, is for various family members to be able to explore their own deep and varied interests, that may go beyond the realm of conservation to include other passions such as literature and art. The sunsetting of MAVA re-centers the family’s philanthropy on the many other Hoffmann family foundations that exist. Some of the family interests may be an extension of Luc’s interest, but some will most certainly be different, and a different structure gives more space for each member to pursue their passions.  MAVA’s legal structure – which we were unable to change – does not allow for this broadening of scope.

So, our focus has shifted to securing the heritage of the foundation’s work over the past 25 years, achieving key conservation successes by 2022, and ensuring a lasting legacy through a strong and active conservation community.

Another key element in determining that MAVA would sunset is how MAVA itself is funded. Unlike many foundations that are capitalized and survive off the earnings from an endowment, MAVA’s funding comes from a beneficial interest in several shares of Roche stock, owned by Luc and now by his children. This means that when dividends are declared, the income is transferred directly to MAVA. This arrangement was put in place – you guessed it – until 2022, after which MAVA will no longer have an income. This makes the sunset process easier than having to manage down an endowment and is in line with the early planning by our visionary founder. It provides the perfect moment to rethink the family’s philanthropic interests.

MAVA has supported many partners over the years and has played a role in many significant conservation achievements. There is a lot to be proud of. Our intention in the remaining years is on ensuring that the important work we have supported over the years carries on beyond 2022. Part of our plan is to chronicle the steps we take through blog posts so that our partners and other funders may learn from our process. In the meantime, we are working with dedication and care to ensure the continued success of our partners and to exit in grace and celebration!

About the author(s)

Director General
MAVA Foundation