Sunset Time: What Happens When a 30-Year-Old Corporate Foundation Shuts Its Doors?

When a long-standing grantmaker sunsets, what happens to its signature programs? Can a final round of grants sustain them by transferring the work elsewhere? The Hitachi Foundation, closing up shop by the end of the year, hopes so. Following a three-year planning process around the shut-down, it’s going out with a bang: $11 million grants to three separate organizations. The beneficiaries will continue parts of Hitachi’s work, and take on members of the foundation’s staff to lead the programs.

It's always interesting to watch when foundations pull the plug on years or decades of grantmaking. The grandest example of this lately, of course, is Atlantic Philanthropies, and we've closely followed an endgame that's involved a series of big "culminating grants" as the funder tosses large chunks of money overboard in a push to meet its 2016 deadline for ceasing new grantmaking. We've also kept an eye on other foundations that are planning to sunset, like the S.D. Bechtel Foundation, which aims to wrap up its funding by 2020. 

But it's not often that corporate foundations close up shop. So what does that look like? 

Founded in 1985, the Hitachi Foundation is the American charitable arm of Hitachi Ltd., a Japanese conglomerate with a hand in diverse industrial and digital fields. From the start, the foundation’s work revolved around employment: finding ways for Hitachi to act as a good “corporate citizen” in the United States, extending economic help to the underserved.

Backed by its parent company, the foundation has disbursed over $53 million in grants and awards. History buffs should note that the foundation’s founding chairman was Elliot Richardson, the U.S. Attorney General who resigned in defiance of President Nixon during Watergate.

But 2016 marks the end of the road for the foundation, as Hitachi Ltd. realigns its corporate social responsibility programs into a more region-specific mold. As it closes down, the foundation’s leaders asked a question that feels very American this year: “how do we make work work for the many people who feel stuck and left behind?”

The Hitachi Foundation’s recent work has revolved around three big programs, which it dubs Good Companies @ Work, Entrepreneurship @ Work, and the Hitachi Community Action Partnership. For this sunsetting grantmaker, good things also come in threes: Its final grants award $4 million to the Aspen Institute, $4 million to the MIT Sloan School of Management, and $3 million to Investors’ Circle.

From the looks of it, these last gifts aren’t a spur-of-the-moment thing. Under the leadership of its president, Barbara Dyer, the foundation plans to transfer its signature programs to new homes. The grant to MIT’s Sloan School supports the Institute for Work and Employment Research. Foundation President Barbara Dyer is a senior lecturer at Sloan, and she will assume leadership of the new program at MIT.

Carrying on Good Companies @ Work, the gift to the Aspen Institute will find a “Good Companies, Good Jobs Initiative” through the think tank’s Economic Opportunities Program. The initiative will produce resources and tools to support companies with high employee retention, good salaries, and advancement opportunities for workers making under $40,000 a year. Mark Popovich, VP of Good Companies @ Work, will transfer to Aspen to direct the initiative.

The final grant to Investors’ Circle carries on the foundation’s Entrepreneurship @ Work program, supporting impact investing and helping entrepreneurs develop strong human capital (read: employment) strategies. Renata Hron Gomez, the foundation’s current VP of Entrepreneurship @ Work will also get a role at Investors’ Circle. See a pattern yet?

With such a thorough plan in place to transfer personnel as well as programs, the Hitachi Foundation will outlive its own shutdown, in a sense. The same can be said for Atlantic Philanthropies, by the way, which has lately funded several big initiatives that will extend its work, and brand, for many years to come.