Another Billionaire's Foundation Is Spending Down, With a Big Focus on the Environment

Remember the Beldon Fund? Until Atlantic Philanthropies came along, Beldon was the most famous example of a foundation putting itself out of business, and all its money went to environmental causes. 

Beldon came to mind as we dug recently into the sunset plans of the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. This California-centric funder is winding down at a steady clip, aiming to spend all assets by 2020 on its two programs for education and the environment. When the final tallies come in, this funder's spending on green groups will far outstrip Beldon's grand total in outlays, which was about $120 million. 

Here’s what we know about where the money is headed:

S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation (not to be confused with the corporate funder the Bechtel Group Foundation) is the philanthropy of the former Bechtel CEO by the same name, a billionaire and grandson of the company founder. In short, the third-generation head of the country’s largest engineering company started a foundation in the 1950s, and it’s closing up shop in 2020. 

Related - S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation: Grants for Conservation

One of its two giving priorities is the environment, specifically land and water management in California. The foundation recently reworked its giving priorities and website, fine tuning how the last six years of giving will play out and beginning to schedule final grants. The foundation has not made the list of grants in 2013 and 2014 public, but we do know a bit about the final years of green funding.

Parks, Parks, Parks. Land management is about half of the funder’s environment giving, and a big focus within that is strengthening parks, both state and national. One program the funder has been involved in recently is a multi-stakeholder review process to figure out how to fix California’s beleaguered state parks system. And don’t forget the $25 million grant in 2013 for San Francisco’s Presidio, via Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. 

Quenching California’s Thirst. California’s water system is another area of state infrastructure that is limping along these days, and the foundation is devoting funds to making it more resilient and sustainable. It recently gave $10 million to the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. It’s also closely involved with an outfit it co-founded with the Pisces Foundation California Water Foundation. 

Related: Meet the Gap Heir Who's Working for More Sustainable Water Systems

Getting Bigger, But They’ll Call You. Grantmaking has been steadily on the rise, from $97 million in 2012 to $129 million budgeted in 2014. And the individual grants are getting big. Bechtel has given some hefty gifts in the past, but there’s been a bundle of multi-million-dollar checks cut lately. And we don’t even know how much they have to give away, as Stephen Bechtel, Jr. is still transferring assets from his estate. 

Bechtel's net worth is currently estimated at $3.7 billion by Forbes, so we're talking about a very big pot of money here, although it's anyone's guess how much will end up in philanthropy. 

But before you get too excited, know that as staff start to schedule the remainder of grants, the foundation has closed its doors to uninvited inquiries from potential grantees. We remember a time when the funder welcomed new LOIs, but those days seem to have ended. Proposals are now strictly by invitation only, and staff discourage uninvited proposals or inquiries. 

And judging from a 2014 update from foundation President Lauren Dachs, it seems like there will be a focus on setting up current partners for the long-term future, and possibly funder collaboratives. 

That’s not to say there will definitely be no new funders; in fact, that seems unlikely, given the scale of assets to be spent down. But it does mean that, even as grantmaking is growing in these last years, they’re no longer answering the doorbell.