Set a new table, create a “safe zone” for effective family philanthropy

Philanthropic strategists often work closely with families to help them establish, refine or refocus mutigenerational family foundations and donor-advised funds. Some of these families enjoy long histories of open communication across the generations – about money, values and charity. Many others, however, find these topics extremely difficult to broach.

Multigenerational family philanthropy creates a unique opportunity for every family to set a new table so that all adult and young adult family members are invited to sit, share, develop and act upon common values and goals around money and philanthropy.

Most philanthropic capital is no longer owned by the family. Instead, it has been irrevocably donated to a family foundation or donor-advised fund and no longer appears on the family’s balance sheet. Alternatively, this capital has been earmarked for charity and will soon be donated. Either way, philanthropically committed capital usually sits apart from the rest of a family’s assets.

This separate “pot” of money typically represents a relatively small percentage of a family’s overall wealth – money that can be deployed strategically to create opportunities for healing, growth and empowerment.

Start with good ground rules

The first step to setting a new family table and creating a “safe zone” is to jointly establish new ground rules. Ask each other, “How would you like all family members to show up at the new philanthropy table?” This is often the hardest step for members of the wealth-creating generation, who are accustomed to ruling the roost.

But let us be clear. Rising-generation members will actively participate in a mutigenerational family endeavor like philanthropy only if they have meaningful, equivalent seats at the table.

Good ground rules emanate naturally from family members. They are not imposed by elders or outside facilitators.

Here are some examples of ground rules established by families with whom we’ve worked:

  • All family members have an equal voice; all are encouraged to actively participate.
  • Decisions won’t be made unilaterally; collective decision-making is the objective.
  • No “eye rolls” or “sighs” permitted; rather, show respect for all points of view.
  • No interrupting.
  • Accept conflict and its resolution as a necessary catalyst for learning and change.
  • Take risks, be “raggedy;” it is OK to make mistakes, learn and “fail forward.”
  • Meetings will start and end as scheduled; come prepared.
  • Cell phones are not allowed (except for emergencies).
  • Express appreciation for people’s efforts.
  • Hold ourselves and other participants accountable to these ground rules.
  • Have fun!

Establish a common purpose

The next step is to determine a common purpose for the family‘s philanthropic endeavor. Ask each other, “What do you want to get out of this experience?” Each family member may answer this question differently. Some answers we’ve seen are to:

  • Learn more about effective, strategic philanthropy;
  • Learn more about each other, especially across the rising generations of geographically dispersed siblings and cousins, as well as their spouses;
  • Establish new ways of communicating and supporting each other in the family;
  • Help the family continue to thrive across the generations;
  • “Pay it forward” out of gratitude for the family’s good fortune; and
  • Make an impact in their communities, country or world.

Create a focused mission statement

Creation of a good mission statement is the next step in setting up a “safe zone” for family philanthropy. For more information on this topic, see my April 9 column, “Focused mission statements help donors decide where to direct their money.” Ask each other these questions:

  • What is our focus?
  • What do we want to preserve or change — specifically?
  • Do we want to focus on a geographic area?
  • Over what period of time will we give?
  • Do we want to collaborate with other funders – or go it alone?
  • How will we measure success?

Following these three steps to creating a “safe zone” makes it much more likely that the family’s philanthropic efforts will succeed. In addition, it makes it more probable that the family itself will thrive — by learning to better communicate, work together and support each other across generations, distances and time.