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Family Philanthropy — Some Lessons Learned through Observation


16Nov 2008

Over the past several weeks I have been involved with a number of families, helping them with their philanthropic giving process.  What has been interesting is the fact that almost all of the families are at some different stage in their developmental stage of philanthropy.  Some are really just beginning, others have been “doing” philanthropy for a while but are at a new life stage in their families and having to reshape their giving process, and some are not only experienced but are providing leadership to other families and foundations.

Let me share some lessons I am gleaning from my facilitator role.

“Successful” philanthropy reflects the true, authentic character of the family.  There is a lot of discusssion within the marketplace about what “successful” philanthropy is, but from an observer’s position, it seems successful philanthropy entails actively engaged family members who enjoy the process of giving along with positively impacting people’s lives as a result of the money given — both pieces seem to be necessary.  Given this description, I see “successful philanthropy” take on many shapes and forms.  No one approach or format yields these results for families.  Rather, if a family is laissez faire and goes through life more experientially (versus planned out), their philanthropy and generosity works well in this form.  But for families who are more goal-driven, structured and need to help “move things along”, a laissez faire approach to their philanthropy would drive them mad and not be fulfilling.

Ongoing, regular two-way communication is key.  Regardless of the level of development of the family’s philanthropic process, whether it is just a couple sitting down to talk together informally; parents sharing about their giving with their adult children; or a group of adult siblings with their spouses having a formal Board meeting — if there isn’t ongoing regular communication, problems erupt.  Misunderstanding, hurt feelings and mistrust can grow over a few thousand dollars to be given or over hundreds of thousands of dollars — the amount of money is not critical.   The challenge is — regular communication takes effort and time, and a commitment to overcome the obstacles of life (busyness, interruptions, illness, unexpected demands from other commitments). Families that can meet the challenge win — the process of giving together stays healthy.

There needs to be a healthy acceptance of different levels of interest, passion, and involvement across generations.  I am asked to speak on or address (to families) the topic “How to Engage the Next Generations in Philanthropy” fairly frequently.  And the pattern which I am seeing that is yielding the most positive results is this:  a) there is a generation of the family which is interested, passionate, and involved in giving;  b) there is a desire within this generation to pass on their passion to other family members;  c) however, they understand that there are seasons of life and interest in philanthropy needs to be grown and developed over time;  d) the involved generation attempts to model and share about their giving at a level which matches the level of interest by the next generation;  and e) the involved generation continues to be involved and excited about what they are doing philanthropically regardless of the response of the next generation (that is, they don’t get discouraged, start to manipulate or place “guilt trips” on the next generation).

These are just some initial observations from recent interactions.  Being forthright, working with families and their philanthropic plans is once of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of my work right now.

Have a great week!

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