Few of us would dream of living a life disconnected from the Internet. But many live emotionally isolated from their heritage, their community, even their close relatives.
Some people look to philanthropy to provide the glue for a dysfunctional family. But without effort by family members, even the most carefully laid out giving program can run into problems. In some cases, family giving can become a place for airing old resentments, and a project designed to bring the family together can do just the opposite.
Here is a cautionary true story.
One family launched into their joint philanthropic experience with gusto, describing their initial experience as “wonderful.” Parents and children hoped to create a “common interest” for the family and a shared legacy for future generations. The foundation had no formal leadership, no guidelines or advisors, and a family-only board.
This lack of structure ultimately led to bickering, as the siblings began to fight over which issues and organizations to support. Old hurts re-emerged in fights over what were, in reality, differences that could have been reconciled. After months of fighting over the philanthropy, the daughter announced that the family office would be split. She said her two brothers had stopped speaking with her and her father.
The end of communication sealed the fate of more than the joint philanthropy. Without the means to discuss grievances and differences in opinion, the two family factions never got the chance to get past the misunderstanding.
From that point on, the philanthropy reflected the family’s rupture instead of their shared experience and history.
Communication is of critical importance when it comes to managing family philanthropy. But many people who include themselves in the next generation take a passive role and wait for the older generations to reach out and set up opportunities to talk.
Our challenge to you: Get proactive when it comes to forging a connection to generations that have come before.
You may see your parents or grandparents as staid, as unwilling to move out of their circles of comfort. You may come from a family with five or more generations of giving tradition. You may be the youngest in your family.
Nothing is an excuse for inaction.
Here’s why: When you respectfully communicate that you want to be connected regardless of the outcome of philanthropic or wealth decisions, you honor the human connection. Once the human connection is sustained, it can be nurtured. You can say clearly–and respectfully–what you want from the relationship and ask what they want. You can seek mutual understanding as a first step.
Author and Harvard philanthropic expert Charles Collier put it this way:
You may even want to take the lead in this area, initiating a discussion (diplomatically, of course) about how individual differences can be recognized and family connection still maintained.
Success in family philanthropy is not measured only by compliance with the law or a mission statement, or even good impact metrics, writes Kelin Gersick in Generations of Giving. Success “must also be measured by the family members’ commitment to the foundation’s work, the satisfaction they take in doing that work together, and the foundation’s ability to evolve and remain vital from one generation to the next. In this sense, a foundation’s success will be measured in the eye of every family member.”
Your parents and grandparents may seek to involve you in the family’s philanthropy. They may offer you a role in deciding which grants the family foundation should give. They may earmark charitable funds for you to grant solely according to your own priorities. Though such offers often come with expectations, they are also an opportunity to connect and exchange ideas.
Is this area filled with fear and loathing for some next generation givers? Definitely. Do mixed families pose special challenges sometimes? Sure. Can it be annoying for one sibling to have to deal with another who controls the family philanthropy? Of course.
Should you give up in light of these challenges? We don’t think so.
Imagine yourself in your mother’s shoes, or your granddad’s, or your stepbrother’s. How do they see the family? What are their values, their fears, their insecurities? What do they see as their role? What legacy are they trying to build?
Everyone is worthy of compassion. And compassion can be contagious when openly espoused. Understanding, connection and communication can follow – all of which keep open the potential for change. Relationships depend on compassion. And family philanthropy is all about relationships.
Note: Though I placed this piece in the Post-50 section, you will have noticed I have addressed the next generation throughout. The reason is simple: I thought it could be used to inspire discussion and understanding through one generation sharing with the others.
FOR MORE: Next Gen Philanthropy (Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors)
Cross-posted on Thinking Philanthropy