Six Simple Steps to a Successful, Stress-Free Family Meeting

Like so many other things preparation for a family meeting is vital to its success. With a little planning you can orchestrate and carry off a family meeting that accomplishes your philanthropic goals, strengthens your family’s commitment to effective governance of your giving vehicle, and is more enjoyable than you thought possible. By taking time to think through why, when, where, and how your family will conduct its discussions and decisions about your giving, you can identify and address potential areas of discord and conflict, and feel confident in your ability to address them.

This article looks at six simplethings you can do to make sure your next family meeting is a success:

  • establish a purpose
  • get everyone’s buy-in
  • think about logistics
  • set ground rules and expectations
  • consider the role of non-family board members
  • spend time not discussing business
1. Establish a Purpose

Although it may seem obvious, the first thing you and your family should consider when planning a family meeting is what you intend to accomplish by gathering. Are there particular issues regarding your family philanthropy that need to be discussed? Or is your meeting just a periodic check-in to keep everyone in the family abreast of developments in your philanthropy?

Make sure you and your family members discuss exactly what you hope to accomplish during the time that you spend together, and remember not to be too ambitious. Trying to tackle too many issues in a short period of time can leave everyone feeling harried, unheard, and unsatisfied with the experience. Make sure you leave enough time for everyone to be heard and for all valid points of discussion to be explored. You may never reach consensus, but at least everyone will feel as though they have had the opportunity to make themselves understood.

Ann Shulman, J.D., facilitator and mediator for Philanthropy Associates, recommends writing down your goals for the family meeting:

“Though it may seem formal, if you write your goals down–what you want to get done and why–and distribute them to the family members involved, you can begin your meeting with an agreement about something, and potentially spot areas of conflict ahead of time so there are no surprises.”

If you are having difficulty articulating your goals for the meeting, you may want to consider whether it is necessary or worthwhile to have one right now. The idea of encouraging participation by members of your family might be appealing; but if the reality is that the founding donor or donors are currently making the decisions, and that a family meeting to discuss those decisions would be pro-forma, other family members may wind up feeling like their time and effort have been wasted.

2. Get Everyone’s “Buy-In”

It’s also important, according to Shulman, that you get your family members invested in the idea of your meeting and its purpose: “If you don’t get everyone’s buy-in, then people may check out or feel resistant to the process from the start.” A good way to garner family support for a meeting is to involve people – both the old guard and the new – in the planning stages. “Divide up the labor of preparing for the meeting. Not everyone has to be, or should be, involved, but make sure that you have different voices and interests represented in the planning process.”

NCFP President Ginny Esposito agrees that the planning phase is a good place to start a practice of inclusiveness:

“If you give people a stake in the process, give them ownership and opportunities for leadership, they become more engaged. Often there is one dominant person in the family to whom the burden–or power, depending on who you ask–of planning and running the meeting falls. By involving multiple family members in the planning process and later the implementation, you avoid having any one person cast as the ‘hero’ or ‘villain.’”

3. Think About Logistics

When preparing for a family meeting, some may consider the logistics to be incidental and inconsequential. They might feel as though they have much “bigger fish to fry” in setting the agenda, cajoling busy or reluctant family members to participate, or preparing to referee heated debates between Cousin Paul and Uncle Albert over investment strategy. In reality though, how, when, and where you hold your family meeting can profoundly influence what takes place and how members of your family feel about the event as a whole. The location you choose for your meeting–whether it’s the boardroom of the family business office after-hours or a family vacation home–establishes a tone, and can influence how people will dress, speak, and interact with one another.

If you have a customary location for such meetings, but past gatherings have been met with little enthusiasm, consider a new venue this year. Sometimes the most obvious place is not the most convenient or the most conducive to free and open communication. Ginny Esposito recounts the story of a New York City-based family with whom she worked that increased and improved their foundation participation simply by changing the location of their board meetings:

“Both the founder of the family foundation and his grandson worked on Wall Street, and it became customary for family board meetings to be held at the end of the day in their Manhattan offices. The founder was disappointed by sparse attendance by other family members, despite their professed interest in participating in the family philanthropy. After some conversation, it became clear that 80% of his family members – many of whom had young families of their own – lived in the suburbs outside of New York City. This made it inconvenient, if not impossible for them to attend the family meetings on a regular basis, even if they sincerely wanted to do so. The result was frustration on both sides: on the part of the founder for the family’s perceived lack of interest, and on the part of the rest of the family for his perceived lack of consideration for the demands of their lives. It had never occurred to the donor that the location of the meetings was the largest impediment to achieving the full and enthusiastic participation he was hoping for.

The relatively simple solution was to hold their meetings at different family members’ homes on a rotating basis. They had a buffet dinner catered, to lessen the organizational burden of hosting the event, and even brought in baby-sitters to allow parents of young children to participate without distraction. Once the logistical hurdles were eliminated, the result was an immediate increase in family attendance and a renewed sense of excitement about the foundation’s work.

4. Set Ground-Rules and Expectations

Although your family may be fairly relaxed and informal in its communications, it is useful to consider, discuss, and document your collective expectations for the meeting before it takes place. Some questions to think about include:

  • What do you expect each person to do before, during, and after the meeting?
  • How will communication take place?
  • How can issues be raised in a respectful way?
  • What are the “rules of engagement” on sensitive issues?
  • How will decisions be made? By a single individual? By a democratic vote where majority rules? By consensus?

If these expectations are made clear to everyone, anyone who fails to live up to them cannot claim to have been treated unfairly. Agreement about commonly held codes of conduct, can, according to Esposito, “take the burden off family dynamics.” If these rules are understood and applied equitably past or current perceptions of family members as “the slacker,” “the bully,” or “the nay-sayer,” lose their power to dictate the tenor and outcome of philanthropic discussions. Grandpa Wayne, whom everyone considers to be a tyrant, is compelled by expectations to listen to the concerns of his nephew Ted, whom Wayne believes to be a hippie, tree-hugger, because the rules stipulate that all voting members have a chance to speak their piece. No one is put in the position of defending either Ted or Wayne, or advocating his right to be heard because the rule is being applied indiscriminately to all parties, preventing a squabble, which might overshadow the important issue at hand.

Shulman shares the story of a philanthropic family that created a shared understanding of what it means to participate in the family’s philanthropy, thereby improving communication, and helping to resolve a frustrating situation:

I once worked with a family in which one sibling did the lion’s share of the planning for the family meetings–organizing, making sure all the proper documents got to all the right people. Each time they had a family meeting, in which she had invested so much time and energy, one brother routinely arrived without having read the preparatory materials, but still expecting his voice to be heard on matters. Invariably, the sister was infuriated by what she saw as his lack of commitment and laziness, and he would be irritated by her insistence on taking things so seriously. While I could empathize with her frustration, and thought that reading the materials seemed like common sense I couldn’t endorse her right to criticize her brother. Since they had never actually agreed upon what constituted participation in their philanthropy, she couldn’t really say that he was in violation of any particular rule. His definition of ‘being involved’ and hers were simply different.

As a result of our work, that family established a list of rules and expectations for participation and behavior at meetings. And, of course, the rules include: “If you want to be heard, you must read the packet before the meeting.”

 5. Consider the Role of Non-Family Board Members

Whether your family philanthropy is large or small, has a staff member or two, or no paid staff, you may have several important people on your board or as fund advisors that you might not find also seated around your Thanksgiving table. They may be trusted advisors, friends, community leaders, or business associates, but regardless they bring valuable insight and expertise into your board meetings. Consider how these non-family board members will be included in your meeting. While their outside perspective and position “above the fray” of family interaction may make them enticing candidates as moderators or facilitators, be wary of placing them in a burdensome or difficult position.

6. Plan to Spend Time Not Discussing Business

To improve communication in your family to increase the level of overall satisfaction with the meeting outcomes, Esposito recommends that families set aside some time to spend discussing things other than philanthropic business. Whether it’s just a few minutes devoted to discussing what has happened in your lives in the time since your last meeting or time spent sharing photos of a recent vacation, graduation, or other special family event, it’s a good idea to take some time to establish a rapport with one another outside “business.” It’s a good time to reflect on what your philanthropy means to you, your reasons for becoming engaged, and your hopes for the future.

Looking Ahead to Next Year: Consider a Family Retreat

The time that families set aside to reflect on the personal impact of their philanthropy during their board meetings often gives rise to the idea for a family retreat. A successful family retreat is not simply a family meeting with a nicer venue, by a stream, at the beach or in the woods. According to Esposito, a retreat should be a departure from a standard family board meeting as much as possible: “A retreat involves a change in structure and activities. It’s a time to kick back and think about your philanthropy beyond the day to day business. It’s very much about reflection on your commitment to giving.”