From an office high above the Rosslyn Metro station, Miles J. Gibbons Jr. struggles mightily to keep up with his job of giving away money.
Gibbons, who reports to the board of the Whitaker Foundation, was instructed seven years ago to spend all the foundation's assets by 2006. But the instructions came just as the stock market boom took off.
As a result, Gibbons hasn't been able to meet what he calls his "double charge": to give away money well, and fast.
In 1992, the first year after being told to spend down assets of the foundation dedicated to biomedical engineering, Gibbons spent $19 million. Even so, total assets jumped 23 percent to about $228 million.
The next year, Gibbons increased giving by nearly 50 percent. But assets jumped an additional 42 percent. Every year since then, Gibbons has increased giving, funding nearly all research proposals determined to have merit by a peer review committee. Even so, at last accounting, the foundation still had $436.4 million.
"It is," Gibbons said, "what we call our splendid dilemma."
The Whitaker Foundation is one of a few major philanthropic foundations that have decided over the last decade to spend themselves out of existence. But doing it at a time when the stock market was booming has proved difficult.
"It sounds so weird," said Dorothy S. Ridings, president of the Council on Foundations. "But it proves that while spending money is easy, spending money wisely is hard. It's especially hard to follow through with a spend-down strategy when the stock market is putting pressure on you."
To get on top of the cash, the Whitaker Foundation has increased research grants and started new programs. The foundation supports promising young researchers and currently is supporting more than 400 faculty research projects.
Its new Leadership Awards program, which helps universities build infrastructure, promises to help move the foundation toward the goal of having a big impact, then disappearing.
Johns Hopkins University and the University of California at San Diego received the initial Leadership Awards, for $17 million and $18 million respectively. The grant will allow Johns Hopkins to establish the Institute of Biomedical Engineering and will partially underwrite a new 42,500-square-foot facility for biomedical engineering.
A variety of other grants have been awarded for infrastructure, including $7.5 million to help the University of Virginia erect a biomedical engineering and medical sciences building.
Gibbons said he, his staff and investment managers have put together annual financial plans for every year from now to 2006. It's a tricky business.
"We do different scenarios for each year that include projections on earnings in terms of dividends in the equity portfolio, the interest on fixed income, then project our spending, and change those variables as needed," Gibbons said.
For example, if values appreciate at 8 percent, then Gibbons will be in good shape if he spends $75.6 million this year, $70.5 million in 2000 and so on until January 2006. Under this scenario, there will be only $37 million left. It will get spent before the year is out.
"Typically, a foundation or family decides to spend down because they want to make a big impact on one particular area," Ridings said.
Some donors want their money spent quickly, so it isn't used to build a bureaucracy. Others want to guarantee that friends and family--rather than strangers yet to be born--are choosing the projects being funded.
Among other things, foundations tend to get more liberal as time passes. Many conservative business tycoons have left their money to foundations that, a generation or two later, were propounding liberal causes.
John Olin, an inventor and industrialist, was aware of that trend and instructed that his money should be spent soon after his death, which came in 1982. He indicated, in effect, that he didn't want later generations giving to causes that would make him turn over in his grave.
Olin knew about the experience of Henry Ford II, who left the board of the Ford Foundation because it wasn't funding projects that appealed to him particularly.
Before his death in 1995, U.A. Whitaker indicated he did not want his foundation to live on forever. An engineer who once described himself as a "right-wing, ultra-conservative Republican," Whitaker formed the foundation without restricting it to any specific program areas.
But during his life, Whitaker had supported biomedical research projects that encouraged the interaction of engineers, physicians and a variety of scientists. So the foundation focused on that interest, becoming one of the largest foundations in the United States and, by far, the largest in its field.
Biomedical engineering projects have resulted in, among other things, artificial heart valves, hip joint replacements, the heart-lung machine and kidney dialysis. Its latest innovations include "tissue engineering," which ultimately aims to prod the body into growing its own replacement parts. Already, researchers have discovered how to grow skin cells for burn victims.
Two aging members of Whitaker's family are on the board that decided the foundation should dissolve itself by 2006. Among other things, Gibbons said, the board felt it could have "maximum impact by putting all the money upfront, instead of dribbling it out over the years." But then, it found itself swamped with available cash.
Foundation spokesman Frank Blanchard is confident the foundation will leave a lasting legacy. He's also confident it will go broke on time.
"We got a slow start," he said, "but things are looking pretty good in terms of meeting the deadline for spending the money."