Geographic Dispersion: Opportunities for Far-Flung Families

Among all the challenges that family philanthropies of all types face, giving families increasingly find themselves struggling with geography. In 2000, the National Center for Family Philanthropy and the Foundation Center found that the grants of a vast majority of family foundations were committed to a city, state, or region; only 7.8% of family foundations were classified as national or international in scope. Family philanthropies created after World War II are now looking to their third and fourth generations to take on leaderships roles, only to be reminded that they no longer live down the street.

As young family members grow up, go off to college, find spouses, have children, or simply pursue their dreams elsewhere, a family once concentrated in and committed to a given community, state, or region finds itself with new communities, new commitments, and new interests all over the map. Families initially bound to a given area may no longer live there. Families that have always met in their beloved hometown may now find it difficult to make quarterly meetings. Family branches on different coasts may simply grow apart with new interests, priorities, and cultures in addition to new homes. While all family members may agree on “giving back to the community,” they may now have different communities in mind.

Geographic dispersion is one nearly universal challenge that family foundations face, and with new movements to build geographic commitments into the notion of donor intent, as in Michigan, families are in need of ways to respond to the dynamics that geographic dispersion can create.

In this article, we’ll look at ways families can meet the challenges of geographic dispersion While the tensions distance creates can be great, flexible and creative philanthropic families have long found ways to turns these tensions into opportunities.

The Impact of Geographic Dispersion

Simply being apart from one another introduces a number of challenges for family philanthropies: logistical, familial, and programmatic.

Logistical Tensions

The first tensions encountered are usually logistical in nature as the reality of being apart hits home. For a family concentrated in and committed philanthropically to a given region, a number of questions are already answered. Where will you meet? Where will you make grants? Where will you make site visits? The answers are clear—where you live, of course. When there are local family members, somebody will be there to take responsibility for anything that might come up. If anything goes wrong, you can meet up and work on the problem.

As the family grows and grows apart, however, the answers are not so easy. The family is not going to be able to just sit down around the kitchen table to talk these decisions through. You may have always met in Mom and Dad’s hometown, but some family branches may not be able to make it this time, much less be available for site visits. Processes that may have once been informal and impromptu now have to be formalized and planned simply because family members will have to travel to be a part of it.

These difficulties are not always shared evenly, however. As one trustee of a southeastern foundation remarked, “It would be so easy if we all lived in the same place but we don’t. We used to just meet up and talk it out, but now there are phone calls bouncing around. Some people can make the trip; some can’t. Some people are in the loop; some aren’t.” For some family members, participation in the family philanthropy might be easier. For others who may live farther away or have other commitments, participation may not come so easily. The result is often two or more groups within the family, each with its own perspective and set of priorities. From there, logistical difficulties can easily become family difficulties.

Familial Tensions

Responding to new careers, new spouses, new children, new places, and new connections, families take on new cultures, and branches of the family living in different places can have radically different views despite their common heritage. Some family members may not see each other much or relate very well when they do meet, making it difficult to talk about some problems that may be facing the philanthropy. Some branches may live nearer to one another and see one another more, making it easy to take sides or to expect someone to take your side in a disagreement. As time goes by, family members may often feel less like one family and more like a group of families.

Programmatic Tensions

Finally, geographically dispersed families encounter tensions around the philanthropy’s mission. Family philanthropy is often concentrated in a given geographic area, usually one of great importance to the donor and his or her family, and the special connection donor families have to these communities forms the basis of their giving. The reality of family life today, however, is that families will not always live exclusively in these communities.

The philanthropy may be committed to a geographic area in which few or no family members are currently living, and so the family may become disinterested and devote less and less time to it. The family may be living in new communities to which members have new charitable connections and interests and push the family philanthropy to adopt their personal interests as the interests of all. Thus, a philanthropy designed to give back to a community now has different communities in mind, and must answer some difficult questions about its future—and do so against a new set of logistical and familial tensions.

Opportunities for Far-Flung Families

As much tension as it may cause, families have learned to see a little distance as an asset. As connected as families are, distance can bring objectivity or a different perspective, which can be as valuable as the ties that bind. Some families have trouble giving themselves space to work problems out; geographically dispersed families have distance built in. Consider using that space to work through the issues distance creates.

NCFP research has found that families with a programmatic focus as opposed to a geographic focus seem to have an easier time of dealing with geographic dispersion. New donors and boards are advised to take time to reflect about a possible mission focus that can encompass the values of the donor and the family and the needs of the communities to which your family is committed.

Even without a change in focus, families have learned to stretch their philanthropy to embrace new communities and causes without abandoning their historical commitments. Some helpful tips for making up the distance:

Consider all your options

To confront the logistical challenges that face dispersed families, consider all of your options. Do all of your meetings need to be in-person or could some committee or even full board meetings be done via telephone? Does the meeting always have to take place in the same locale? Could the meeting site rotate or simply be moved? If some family members have trouble getting to the usual site, consider moving the meeting to a more convenient venue or trading off hosting duties.

Some family funds consider expense reimbursement to make it possible or easier for less affluent family members to attend meetings. Others even consider compensation for board service. This decision can bring with it a new set of legal and ethical issues for families, but some families find that the choice is a worthwhile one if it means more family participation and helps ease financial concerns.

Take care of family

Decisions made in an open, caring environment are much easier than those fraught with family tension. Pick up the phone and call family members; take advantage of email to stay in touch. Contemplate a family reunion or retreat. Some families publish newsletters and maintain websites to get the latest news out to family members. Anything you can do to bring the family together to celebrate family and validate the lives and pursuits of individual family members can make a world of difference when sitting down to do the business of family philanthropy.

Use all the tools at your disposal

Family philanthropies are among the most flexible, adaptive grantmaking institutions. There are a number of tools philanthropies can use to ease programmatic tensions. If you find yourself caught in a bind, there are ways to stretch your philanthropy to meet needs in many geographic areas.

Community foundations and regional associations can help keep you informed about what’s going on and what difference you might be able to make in the communities you care about.

Other families have looked to discretionary grants and matching grants programs to embrace new communities and validate geographically dispersed family members’ interests.

If a more sustained commitment to a geographic area is anticipated, family foundations may also consider establishing donor-advised funds, thus opening up another giving vehicle to support a new community. The Frederick H. Leonhardt Foundation established a fund at the Fairfield County Community Foundation in Connecticut when two family members moved to New England. This allowed them to make grants in Connecticut while sustaining their commitment to charities in New Mexico.

Finally, even if your grantmaking is concentrated in a given geographic area, your investments need not be. Consider mission-related investments whereby your fund can respond to the pull of the communities in which family members live through its investments. Consider investing a portion of your assets in a local Community Investing Institution or Community Development Financial Institution. These organizations provide access to credit, capital, and basic banking products to communities underserved by traditional financial institutions.


The trick for philanthropic families is in creating a set of priorities around their deepest common values and acting together on them. Despite the distance that separates today’s families, committed philanthropic families are more than up to the challenge. Whether your family is spread throughout a city or scattered around the country or the world, take the time to develop a common strategy—one that respects the values of both the past and present and responds to today’s most pressing needs. Consider all of your options, take care of family, and act in concert with all the tools at your disposal. The beauty of family giving is very much in the great rediscovery of what brings the family together despite the distance that divides it.