More Than Money
Issue #16

Family Foundations

Table of Contents


I have always adored the process of thoughtful grantmaking: how it brings me rare and encouraging news about people doing impressive work, and propels me to think critically about how change happens. Years ago, to learn more about grantmaking I set up a small family foundation with $300,000 and invited my wife and two trusted friends to join the board. The four of us defined funding areas, and took risks to support start-up organizations with innovative ideas.

Some of these groups flourished and some failed. As a board, we became increasingly impressed by how much work is required to do thoughtful funding. Engrossed in other commitments, none of us had the energy to do site visits and follow-up evaluations, and we felt uncomfortable continuing to give grants without them. After six fruitful but humbling grantmaking cycles, we decided unanimously to give the remaining assets to a nonprofit organization and put the fund to rest.

This brief taste of grantmaking left me curious about the giving of other families. Families have many ways to model, teach, and influence each other's financial generosity. Some never mention their giving, considering it either tactless or uninteresting as a topic of discussion. For others, a longstanding tradition of philanthropy forms the core of family identity. In some families, people simply discuss their independent giving choices as a way to learn about each others' interests and concerns; other families sit down together at holiday times, with children young or grown, and do charitable giving together.

Whatever form they use, families who give together encounter challenges: of unity and divisiveness, of power and belonging, of honoring the elders while making way for the next generations. This issue of More than Money highlights these issues by exploring the complex territory of family foundations. While the term "family foundation" commonly refers to a type of private foundation or a charitable trust (each defined by tax laws) the term itself has no set legal definition. Here, we use the term family foundation broadly, to mean any formal, ongoing structure for family giving. We hope the stories in this issue will inspire all our readers--those who are part of family foundations and those who are not--to think about their family's giving, and to help it become more intentional, strategic and fulfilling for all involved.

In the past fifteen years, the number of private foundations in the U.S. has doubled to over 40,000, with three-quarters of these estimated to be family foundations. Cynics sometimes call family foundations "sugar-coated tax shelters," and are quick to point out that more families are ushered into philanthropy by tax savings rather than by love of humanity. But sometimes, even in those instances, family foundations metamorphose over time into something wondrous: a compelling reason to bring far-flung family members together; a medium in which the family can create and express a commitment to service, generosity, or justice; and a context in which family members get to meet extraordinarily talented people from various fields, and develop partnerships which leave a caring and lasting legacy for the common good.

--Christopher Mogil, for the editors

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