Meeting Your Family Where it is: An Approach to Philanthropy to Bring (and Keep) Families Together

April 2, 2013

When new philanthropists think about starting a new foundation, oftentimes two images come to mind.  First, there is the idealized version of what a family foundation might look like:

In a beautiful room decorated with (flattering) portraits of the donor, family members of all ages come together to make meaningful gifts that align with a strategy that every board member embraces wholeheartedly.  Family members listen intently to each other’s views, validate each other’s opinions, and learn together.  Family members murmur “yes,” and “good point” to each other.  Parents are proud of children.  Children are in awe of parents.  And everyone leaves the meeting feeling warm and content, knowing that they are doing exactly what the founder of the foundation intended and thankful that the wise matriarch or patriarch created the foundation to keep the family together.

Or, the donor worries about the other extreme.  In this scenario, family members who didn’t get along around a dinner table certainly don’t get along around the foundation table, where money is involved, social issues are introduced, and individuals are asked to speak their truths and values. Each family has his or her own pet organization, and if a grant is denied by one family member, revenge is a near certainty.

Now, we know that in actuality, most families are somewhere in between these two extremes. So, is there a third way to set up the foundation, knowing that family members will have their own passions and interests and areas where they want to make a difference?  Is it 100% necessary to have every family member have the same passions for the same issues?

I would argue no.

If the goal of the foundation is to create a family legacy, make a difference in the world, and possibly create a reason for the family to come together, one way to achieve all these goals is to give each family member responsibility for a separate, but related, program area.  Each family member would then be responsible for going deep into an issue, teaching other family members about how the foundation can make a difference, and recommending the best grantees working in the field.

But of course, you might be thinking “doesn’t this dilute the focus and impact of our giving?”  And the answer is yes and no.  Yes, if the foundation trustees have decided that they want to move the dial on one very specific issue, this approach will not work.  But many foundations have a mandate that is more general in nature, and which can be approached by several different approaches, which are often interrelated.

So, for example, if your foundation is interested in improving the health of Angelenos, what is the harm in having one family member focus on housing as a health issue, and one looking at violence as a public health issue, and one looking at the environment?  And if the family approaches their meetings with curiosity and a generosity of spirit, the meetings can be opportunities not just to learn, but to better understand the passions that drive each family member.

And if these board meetings result in thoughtful, high-impact giving, and if they act to bring together the family and continue the tradition of giving to the next generation, then any reduction in philanthropic focus is a small price to pay.


Mitchell Singer is a Senior Philanthropic Advisor at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Please click here to download the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors Philanthropy Roadmap publication: Talking to Your Family About Philanthropy.

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