Benefits of non-family participation in your philanthropy

For many families the act of giving remains an intensely personal one and discussions regarding their philanthropy are more likely to take place across a kitchen table than a boardroom table. For this reason the idea of inviting non-family perspectives into their philanthropy may seem more like a complicating factor than a boon. Even families whose relationships are relatively trouble-free may have difficulty managing the personalities and reaching consensus within the family, let alone trying to involve new people and points of view. Including diversity in your philanthropy, however, doesn’t have to mean more complications, chaos, or cacophony. Instead including non-family perspectives can increase your family’s satisfaction with the philanthropic experience by: 1.) making your giving more responsive to community needs; 2.) bringing in fresh ideas and energy; 3.) bringing new skills and experiences to your giving; and 4.) providing new insight into the personal mechanics that govern and influence your giving. In this month’s issue Family Giving News will explore the means and benefits of including non-family participants in your philanthropy.

Finding the Comfort Zone

While some members of the family might relish the idea of bringing a trusted advisor onto the board or hiring your first-ever non-family executive director, others might feel some anxiety about welcoming outsiders into the fold. What if Uncle Earl and Cousin Paul get into a shouting match or Aunt Silvia sulks in a corner and refuses to vote because someone forgot her birthday? Even families whose lives are relatively drama-free may have concerns about inviting non-family board members into what had previously been closed-door sessions for fear of exposing bad behavior or strife within the family. Additionally, even in families that feel positively about entertaining new or different ideas about their giving in the abstract there may also be concerns that new perspectives might fundamentally alter their philanthropy. Some family members may feel that outside participants may attempt change their giving in ways that are incompatible with family values, ethos, or tradition.

While testing boundaries can be an impetus for growth and revitalization in your philanthropy, without the support, or at least goodwill, of the entire group you may find the process frustrating and counter-productive. If your philanthropy has traditionally been a family-only affair, before inviting outside participants in, you and your family should have a serious conversation about the level of outside participation that you are comfortable with as a group. Some of the questions you might ask yourselves include:

  • What do we hope to accomplish by bringing non-family participants into our philanthropy?
  • What do we expect from these participants?
  • What level of confidentiality do we require in order to feel comfortable?
  • Whom do we trust to fulfill this role?
  • How confident do we feel in his/her understanding of the goals and mission of our philanthropy?

The answers to these questions will help you and your family to determine what level of participation would be most beneficial to your family and its philanthropy. Depending on your needs and comfort level, you might consider the following roles for non-family representatives:

Board Members or Fund Advisors

Bringing non-family representatives onto your board or as advisors to your fund can be a great benefit to your philanthropy. Depending on their skills and experiences they may be able to:

  • provide expertise—professional or experiential—that current family board members do not possess
  • bring new perspectives on the family’s giving and new ways in which the family philanthropy can accomplish its mission
  • oversee evaluations of staff performance, which can be particularly helpful if the staff person is a family member
  • provide insight into community needs
  • provide constructive advice for reducing the negative impact of family dynamics on your philanthropy
  • act as an arbiter or moderator when philanthropic discussions become heated among family members

Although this last item may seem like a very attractive way to handle family disagreements or disputes, you should be aware that assigning a single trustee the role of “referee” can place that person in an uncomfortable position, making it difficult for him/her to fulfill his/her duties as a trustee. While non-family trustees may seem uniquely suited to mitigating family giving conflicts because of their position outside the family and their relative freedom from emotional entanglements, you should be sure that there are clear expectations about what his or her role will be in these discussions. Be sure to establish open avenues of communication that leave the non-family trustee or trustees free to blow the whistle if things become to intense and call in reinforcements.

For some families the decision to bring a non-family representative onto the board is a not controversial because as a close advisor to the founding donor, a non-family trustee has been involved since the early years of the foundation or fund. In Generations of Giving, our study of multigenerational philanthropy, 17 of the 30 foundations surveyed reported at least one non-family representative on the original board. Although subsequent generations had little to say about the original donor’s reasons behind the appointment, author Kelin Gersick surmises that in some cases the philanthropic work was seen as a natural outgrowth of a family business, in which case the most qualified person was brought on board to manage the process, family or not. In other cases, however, it seems clear that the presence of these representatives was intended to quell anticipated family misbehavior, which the founding donor feared might stymie the family’s giving.

In the cases of several of the foundations profiled in Generations of Giving, non-family trustees played significant roles in shepherding the family through the succession process. Because of their close ties to the original donor(s) and positions as a trusted advisors personally invested in the continuity and success of the family’s giving, the non-family trustees were in unique positions to provide guidance and support to new board members.

For more on the role of non-family trustees in multigenerational philanthropies, and much more, see Generations of Giving.


Like non-family trustees, staff members can bring new perspectives, new skills, new ideas and new energy to your family’s philanthropy, as well as serving as guides and advisors through tough times. Several of the families profiled in Generations of Giving reported that their foundations were guided through some tough periods by the hiring of a non-family executive. Particularly for philanthropies controlled by one or more founding donors, the death or resignation of the philanthropy’s primary decision-maker can mark a turning point in the life of a philanthropy. For 24 of the 30 families surveyed, the second and third generations of trustees brought in the foundation’s first non-family executive, and in some situations this decision followed an abortive attempt by another family member to assume the role of the original donor. Other families—even those who philanthropies are relatively small—sometimes bring in non-family professional staff in response to the growth of their philanthropy in assets, required time investment, or both.

Hiring even a part-time staff person can remove some of the administrative burden of managing the philanthropy from family members—who often have other demands on their time like work and family. Rather than distancing the family from its philanthropy or reducing the family’s commitment to their giving, this kind of professionalization can revitalize a family’s efforts. By sharing the work-load among staff and family trustees, you can ensure that more members of your family can and will want to participate in your philanthropy.

Advisory Committees and Issue Briefings

Maybe the idea of appointing a new trustee, board member, or staff person to your philanthropy doesn’t appeal to you and your family. Perhaps yours is still a very small operation, run by a few select family members and that suits your family and your goals just fine. You may consider gathering an advisory committee together to brief you and your family about the latest events and needs in your community. If gathering your own advisory committee around an issue is more than you have time for, contact your local regional association of grantmakers and attend an issue briefing or focus group meeting. If your family has a donor-advised fund at a community foundation, consult with the staff about opportunities to attend topical sessions they may offer, or request a special briefing by a program officer. These activities can offer opportunities for your family to keep current on issues related to your mission and grantmaking, engage in some creative thinking about grantmaking, goals and mission, and to interact with others in your community working in philanthropy.

Resources on Non-Family Participation in Your Philanthropy

  • Commentary: It Takes a Village to Raise. . .Our Family Foundation
  • Building Community Inside and Out with a Good Neighbor Committee
  • Generations of Giving: Leadership and Continuity in Family Foundations
  • Splendid Legacy: The Guide to Starting Your Family Foundation