More Than Money
Issue #16
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Family Foundations

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 role.
  • Take risks. 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 unexpected solution.
  • Allow autonomy. 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 allocate independently.

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.
  • Tailor roles. 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.
  • Get perspective. 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 be lonely.

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. If 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 Mogil, editors

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