In November 2023, Levitt Foundation Board President Liz Levitt Hirsch and Chief Executive Officer Sharon Yazowski sat down to chat about the Foundation’s 20-year spend down—what inspired the decision to sunset, how spending down aligns with Levitt’s mission and core values, and what this means for Levitt partners and grantees.

For those who might not know, can you offer some background on the Levitt Foundation’s work? 

Liz: Absolutely! Our Foundation sits at the intersection of music, public space, and community building. Over the past two decades we’ve helped over 60 local nonprofits bring thousands of free outdoor concerts to millions of people living in towns and cities across the country through our grantmaking. Our vision is an America filled with equitable, healthy, and thriving communities, and Levitt’s approach to free concerts in underused outdoor spaces is an effective model to create social and economic impact.

Whether in a rural town or big city neighborhood, Levitt lawns are places where everyone is welcome. Our nonprofit partners across the country show what’s possible when people of all ages and backgrounds come together through the power of free, live music. Music truly is a universal language; it is one of the most compelling ways for us to connect with one another and celebrate our shared humanity.

Sharon: Echoing Liz, Levitt exists to strengthen the social fabric of communities through free, live music. Over these past two decades we’ve seen how centering arts investments in public spaces builds social capital and economic vitality in communities. We’ve also seen how Levitt programs are a form of civic engagement and community development, sparking cross-sector collaborations and creating pride of place. Add in the immense joy Levitt programs bring to communities—all this has inspired our commitment to accelerate our grantmaking in the coming years.

Looking back, was there a moment you recall first thinking about becoming a spend down?

Liz: With the passing of my mother in 2019, the Foundation was set to come into significant funds, more than quadrupling the size of the Foundation’s assets. As we prepared for this new chapter, we also began a phase of reflection and questioning. Truth be told, many private foundations are vehicles to keep families together through generations. But the Levitt Foundation is different in this sense. Our mission of building community through music is our top priority. We’re first and foremost a mission-driven organization and found ourselves facing constraints within the traditional philanthropic model.

Sharon: Like many funders, we were careful to protect our principal, keeping with the philanthropic tradition of limiting our annual giving—in our case gifting approximately 6 to 8 percent of our total assets annually—in order to preserve and grow our endowment. Over the years, as the dynamic impact of the Levitt model in communities inspired increased interest across the country, towns and cities of all sizes were reaching out to the Foundation, and yet we found ourselves saying no to communities requesting funds far more than we were saying yes—even when we knew our funding and partnership could make a lasting, significant impact in those places. We also, at times, found ourselves turning down our existing grantee partners when they asked for additional support. We felt constrained from making additional grants, even small grants.

I specifically recall the 2019 Levitt AMP grant review process, which happened just months before the pandemic hit. We received a record number of proposals that made the case for how a Levitt AMP grant would positively effect change in their communities, though, in line with our giving standards at the time, we limited the number of grants awarded to 15 total. There were two compelling proposals in particular that we turned down, and those communities remained top of mind afterwards. We held back on two $25,000 grants, a total of $50,000, a relatively small amount for our overall endowment, though it could have been a changemaking investment for each of those communities. The reality of that decision stung and really lingered.

In the months that followed, we found ourselves asking, What kind of funder do we want to be?

Liz: We began having discussions exploring the possibility of spending down. With each conversation, it became increasingly clear that this was how the Levitt Foundation would have the most impact. Recognizing this, we wanted to free up resources to fund more communities that were a clear match for Levitt grants.

What’s your response to concerns that if the Foundation spends its endowment now, there won’t be funds to address future problems?

Sharon: We believe future problems are caused by inadequately addressed current problems, many of which are exacerbated because we do not put enough resources into them now. Positive interventions made today can have greater, longer lasting value, than if delayed to when these problems are compounded. Here’s an example: Imagine a vacant park that’s become a magnet for crime. Until an investment is made, that park remains unsafe for youth, families, and seniors, while the negative activity exponentially perpetuates an unhealthy environment. Once an investment is made, that same space then contributes to creating an equitable, healthy, thriving neighborhood.

Liz: And here’s a notable fact: Over half of the communities we’ve funded that are no longer receiving Levitt grants have continued their free concert series, valuing the ongoing social and economic impact realized by activating a public space with free, live music. Were it not for catalytic funding, those public spaces would have likely continued to remain underused and challenged for who knows how long—the potential to nurture community life would have been dormant.

How did the pivotal year of 2020 impact the Foundation’s decision to spend down?

Sharon: While we began considering spending down in late 2019, the circumstances of 2020 certainly made these conversations more critical. For perspective, despite the tribulations presented by the onset of Covid, the responses of our grantee partners to unprecedented times really affirmed our belief in the importance of our mission to strengthen the social fabric of our country. Throughout the pandemic, Levitt venues and AMP grantees pivoted in meaningful and responsive ways to their communities while navigating the unknown, continuing to build community through music. Whether that was with virtual programming and neighborhood pop-up concerts or special projects with new partners responding to need gaps, they got creative and continued to bring joy to people during incredibly scary, isolating, and dark times.

Liz: We were in awe of how our partners and grantees were so steadfast in their efforts to show the power of music to connect us and provide hope. Likewise, the importance of public spaces came into renewed focus, reminding people how public spaces play a key role in a community’s overall well-being.

Sharon: And with the racial reckoning following the murders of George Floyd and other Black Americans and the resurgence of dialogue surrounding racial justice, Levitt—along with many other organizations both within and beyond the philanthropic sector—acknowledged that there was immense work to be done to combat social injustice, structural racism, and oppression. We had a series of discussions within the Foundation, specifically asking ourselves: How can we further integrate practices, processes, and frameworks to support equity, justice, and anti-racism within our work and organization?

Through our grantmaking, we had seen the dynamic impact of free Levitt concerts in towns and cities of all sizes. Our research also informed how this work can play a key role in creating equitable, healthy, and thriving communities, advancing ecosystem-level progress and contributing to a positive chain of change. So, we again asked ourselves what kind of funder do we want to be: One holding back, waiting to effect much-needed change? Or do we begin making significant investments in communities today, to address societal problems of inequity and systemic issues, now?

How does the spend down complement the Foundation’s approach to equity, diversity, and inclusion? 

Liz: Our decision to spend down has been wholly informed by our commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Driving our work is a belief that the arts—especially free, live music in welcoming public spaces—help bridge divides and inspire hope and healing amongst people of all races, ethnicities, ages, genders, cultures, and beyond.

Sharon: Exactly. At Levitt, we believe in equity, diversity, and inclusion onstage, behind the scenes, and on the lawn. We have already broadened our support of organizations working in and representing communities that have been historically marginalized and under-resourced, and we will continue to expand this funding.

Liz: Spending down greatly bolsters our ability to support and partner with groups and organizations led by and working with BIPOC, disability, and LGBTQI+ communities. Our free outdoor concert programs are also reflective of our EDI commitments. Take, for instance, Levitt venues, which each present vibrant cultural programming reflective of their community. Our approach to equity and inclusion also guides our support of events, festivals and partnerships beyond free Levitt concerts—we work with organizations that amplify the diverse voices of artists, cultural bearers, placemakers, industry professionals and community groups.  Recently, it was a joy to support Juneteenth UNITYFEST in Brooklyn, Kansas City’s Celebrate AMERI’KANA, which celebrates Black and Brown contributions to American music, and Pennsylvania’s Inclusion Festival, an accessibility-focused festival for folks of all abilities!

How does Levitt’s equity, diversity, and inclusion strategy interplay with the Foundation’s values as a whole?

Liz: Great question! The five core values that guide our grantmaking are joy, catalytic, connectedness, inclusivity, and dynamic. We’ve already touched on the inclusive nature of our programs, and how our catalytic funding aims to support changemakers within communities to transform public spaces into thriving destinations that ignite positive change. Connectedness is another important value—the Levitt model connects people to one another, to their community and to the place they live. This means people feel both a sense of belonging and community attachment through the process of bringing Levitt programs to life.

Sharon: Our core value of joy is central to all aspects of our work, as we believe joy is an essential, universal human right, and free live music has the power to create both individual and collective joy for people from all walks of life. And also, we are a dynamic funder, with grantmaking that is nimble and responsive to our grantees and their communities’ needs.

Liz: Indeed, our approach to this work ultimately creates a dynamic ripple effect in communities, boosting social and economic impact, all through the power of music! And the impact of Levitt programs will grow more dynamic as we increase our giving.

Liz, if your parents were still with us today, what do you think they would say about your decision to sunset the Foundation?

Liz: When my father handed me the reins of the Foundation, we knew free concerts made a difference in communities. Here we are two decades later in dozens of communities, and we have seen the incredible impact of this work. When it came to supporting arts, culture, and education, both of my parents were impact-driven—and it is impact that has inspired us to spend down today. So I have no doubt my mother and father would support this decision wholeheartedly. One of the joys of being a spend down foundation is being able to realize this impact in our lifetime. I get to see the intentions of my family being carried out, and the joy and positive change being created by expanding our grantmaking.

How did you determine the Foundation’s spend down timeline?

Sharon: We decided to spend down over two decades—this was informed by our existing funding commitments and to provide ample time for our current grantees to prepare for sustainability beyond our sunset, while also providing the Foundation time to expand our funding opportunities and build new relationships with a range of changemakers, nonprofits and communities. We’ve mapped out the arc of our giving—when it will accelerate and expand, when it will plateau, and when we will begin to phase out grants and make departing gifts.

Liz: We are now in the second year of our spend down, and during the next 18 years, we plan to dedicate more than $150 million towards realizing the Levitt mission of building community through music.

What are some new programs or projects set to launch made possible by the spend down?

Liz: We’ve definitely entered an exciting new chapter!

Sharon: This shift is enabling the Foundation to increase the number of communities receiving grants for free concerts in public spaces, including the launch of a pilot program that will bring free concerts to three cities new to the Levitt network: Chicago, Indianapolis, and Oakland. We’re also able to deepen our support of field-building initiatives, events, and festivals to increase access and nurture equitable music ecosystems. Plus, the Foundation is continuing our investment in research that demonstrates the impact of music on community development and place attachment, including how free outdoor concert programs build social capital in communities, elevate levels of trust and resiliency, and contribute to economic vitality. For example, we are supporting the participation of three Levitt AMP communities—Gallup, New Mexico; St. Johnsbury, Vermont; and Whitesburg, Kentucky—in a global research project conducted by the Center for Music Ecosystems that explores how music can make rural and geographically isolated communities more resilient.

How will the Foundation’s spend down affect the communities it currently supports?

Sharon: The Foundation will continue supporting our current grantee partners—i.e., the Levitt network—with funding, while also providing additional capacity building and robust resources informed by their needs to ensure the sustainability of their free concert series beyond the Foundation’s sunset. We will also continue to support the efforts of our Friends of Levitt nonprofit partners as they work collaboratively with local funders and partners on long-term organizational sustainability within their communities.

What do you envision happening after the Foundation sunsets?

Liz: This is now a frequent question. We want to emphasize that even after the Foundation’s sunset, free Levitt concerts will continue—accelerating a movement that already spans 45 towns and cities across the country, with more than 650 free Levitt concerts in 2024, and one that will grow significantly in the coming years. Levitt venues and concert sites are integral parts of community life, locally realized by dedicated individuals and organizations who are committed to keeping their series flourishing. Even decades from now, free concerts will continue to have dynamic impact in communities of all sizes across our country.

Is there anything else either of you would like to share?

Sharon: Simply put: A seed that is not planted cannot grow, so the Levitt Foundation is multiplying our resources as a catalytic funder. We’re excited to partner with changemakers, organizations, and communities across the country over the next two decades, accelerating the movement for free music in public spaces for enduring social impact.

Liz: With great fortune comes great responsibility. My hope is that beyond the Foundation’s sunset, the Levitt model is embraced for years to come as a proven way to bring people together, create possibility and strengthen the social fabric of communities. Part of our legacy will be in the shared learnings we make available to all…a step-by-step guide for doing this work that will be used by local governments, nonprofits, chamber of commerce, educational institutions, etc.—those who want to elevate the overall well-being of their community.

Learn more about the Levitt Foundation’s spend down here