Table of Contents
“Dynamic Tensions in Family Foundations”
In family foundations,
people often have to live with what we term "dynamic tensions"
which tug the organizations strongly in different directions.
Here are three of the most common tensions, with a few
suggestions for resolving them drawn from our interviews
and consulting experience. Although we frame these issues
in terms of family foundations, we notice the same themes
in families who give together without any formal structure.
Unity vs. Difference:
Many families create foundations
for the express hope of building closeness and connection
among family members. Not only does family unity feel
good, but some common purpose among members is essential
for focused and effective grantmaking. At the same time,
a healthy family foundation must not squelch the inevitable
differences in values, politics, and interests among family
members, but instead acknowledge and learn from them.
Suggestions for navigating
this dynamic tension:
Reflect on your family's style.
As a group, do you
tend to smooth over differences or go for the jugular?
Has your own role been more the "peacemaker" or the
"gadfly?" Seek balance: practice taking on the less-habitual
Speak your truths
passionately, even if you think family members will
disagree with you. But don't expect to change minds
in one discussion. The people we interviewed who initiated
changes in their family foundations succeeded by being
patient and persistent, winning support over many years.
Seek common ground.
We know one foundation,
for example, where members who were on opposite sides
of the abortion issue were able to agree on a restricted
grant to Planned Parenthood--for education work to prevent
unwanted pregnancies. Be creative and you may find an
Ask yourself honestly:
do you want to learn how to make decisions together
as a family, even if it isn't easy? If not, perhaps
it would be better to give autonomously. Even in families
that prefer to do most grantmaking together, pressures
ease when some money is set aside for individuals to
Inclusion vs. High Standards:
Family foundations are created for more than the business
of giving. They are usually intended as a way to engage,
develop, and inspire members of the family--who often
have their own busy careers, children to raise, and full
lives. How can a family foundation maintain high standards
of grantmaking while relying on family members, many of
whom are (wholly or in part) volunteers?
Define good grantmaking.
Put aside, for a
moment, considerations of how much energy the family
members can actually give to the foundation. Discuss
together what is required for responsible and satisfying
grantmaking. Then think creatively about how to fulfill
those expectations--by a mix-and-match of family energy
plus outside help if needed.
You can design a
variety of roles for family members, adapted to their
different skills, available time, and interest. For
instance, some could do site visits, study proposals,
or provide summary reports to others. Some could be
advisors or apprentices rather than voting members.
Similarly, there are innumerable ways to use others'
expertise: sharing staff with another foundation, contracting
with a philanthropic advisor for specific work (i.e.
gathering proposals or facilitating a meeting), or simply
asking the opinions of other funders and leaders in
your field of interest.
Families have a way
of getting isolated and acting within the bubble of
their own norms. Step beyond your preconceptions by
finding out how other families make grants. We know
members of six family foundations who met at a conference
and, to their mutual benefit, have been meeting monthly
now for over four years. Philanthropy doesn't need to
Stability vs. Change:
Family foundations don't
spring from the air; they are founded by individuals who
have enough interest and drive to set something new in
motion. Many founders hope that their vision for the foundation
will be sustained into the future, and succeeding generations
often feel a responsibility to sustain this vision, even
if not legally bound. Yet times change. What is innovative
one decade is often dated in the next. In order to be
more than a rubber stamp, each new generation needs to
feel its leadership is truly welcomed.
Plan for change.
If you are starting
a new foundation, create a guiding mission broad enough
to adapt to the changing times--or design the foundation
to pay out in your lifetime. Make explicit your openness
to the next generation's views, for instance, by creating
a training program to bring on new trustees, or by designing
structured opportunities for younger family members
to take the lead.
Respect the past, present, and future.
you're part of an established foundation, learn what
you can about the founder's life and what shaped the
mandates for the foundation. When proposing changes,
whether large or small, you'll probably get more receptivity
from other trustees if you genuinely acknowledge the
value of what has come before you. But don't underestimate
the value of your own perspectives, either: you may
find more openness to them than you expect. As you grow
into leadership, think about the needs of family members
younger than you.
If any of these issues
are a source of tension in your foundation, we hope you
will contact some of the groups listed on our Resources
Page. Take heart! You are not alone. Many peers and professionals
have navigated the waters before you, and have experience
and advice to offer.
--Anne Slepian and Christopher
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