A Happy Anniversary

Given that I am tired, exhilarated, challenged, inspired, frustrated, and charged up, it can mean only one thing: I have just returned from spending time with donors, family members and others involved in family philanthropy. In this case it was the 2007 Family Foundations Conference.

It was a special year for the National Center for Family Philanthropy and the Baltimore location of the conference meant more staff than usual could attend. Piling our staff and our materials into a few cars saved on airfares, shipping, and – as any frequent traveler knows – the hassles of airports. We all took full advantage of the conference experience: to attend sessions; meet those we have worked with and others we might help; and kick off the National Center’s Tenth Anniversary Celebration.

The formal anniversary of our incorporation will come later this year, but it was at the family foundation conference in 1997 that the last of the organizing focus groups was held, the decision was made to move forward with the National Center, and our first funder agreed to provide start-up capital. It was more than appropriate that we celebrate first at this special event. We hosted a wonderfully celebratory reception made livelier by friends old and new. We brought anniversary mementos for all attendees, special packets for newcomers, and even found a Baltimore family-owned bakery that made hundreds of cupcakes with our logo on top for visitors to our booth in the exhibit area. (One of my founding dreams has come true – not only do we have a great logo, I have seen it in green icing!)

It just isn’t possible to be jaded by these experiences (and I say that as someone who has attended every one). Yes, we came prepared to demonstrate the Family Philanthropy Online Knowledge Center, distribute new publications, answer questions, and continue to serve, encourage and advocate for giving families. Of course, we all came back having learned even more and with a more informed, ambitious, and inspired agenda than we thought possible.

In conversations with philanthropic advisors and consultants, Alice Buhl and Kelin Gersick, I discovered a shared interest in how the current generation of family philanthropy leaders, especially senior trustees, is handling succession. We have worked hard to understand and prepare the next generation, but little has been done to understand and prepare the current leaders for their future. What have these leaders learned about this often bittersweet transition?

Alice and Kelin both worked on the groundbreaking study and book, Generations of Giving, to offer important insights into generational succession. As I have been dealing with this very issue in my own work, I am thrilled they might turn their attention to developing equally valuable guidance for the current generation of family philanthropic leaders. I hope Family Giving News readers who share our interest will let me know what your experience and questions are. Your responses to some of my inquiries in these messages have enriched our programs and our ability to help other families.

As much as I learn from many of philanthropy’s most experienced staff, advisors, and consultants, I never fail to learn at least as much, in deeply profound ways, from those donors and family members who commit to this work every day as volunteers. Betsy Nelson, president of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, coordinated a lunch plenary session featuring three of the most articulate, moving, and passionate women leaders I have ever heard: C. Silvia Brown, Lee Hendler, and Margaret Obrecht.

Focusing on how faith inspired their families and themselves, shaped their values and motivated their giving, these dynamic women are amazingly tireless and are blessed with the energy as well as the courage of their convictions. As someone who hopes to support such work, they personified the critical value of listening to the voices of donors, trustees, women, and those whose faith, circumstance, or perspective may be different from our own. These women fund in their Baltimore “backyard” and in rural Africa. They fund education and mentoring for children as well as havens for children threatened by rebel warfare. The breadth of their work is exceeded only by their commitment.

Openness to these kinds of experiences can lift the soul and renew your own philanthropic commitment. Opportunities like these meetings help us realize just how much we share and what we all hope to achieve regardless of our perspective, assets, or program goals: a healthier, better educated, more just future for all.

And they remind us of the need to listen. Listen to the objective, expert voice, including (maybe especially!) the critics. They expand our frames of reference and our minds. But listen also to the voices of those whose passion and intensely personal commitment, whose efforts – accomplishments and mistakes – represent the truly unique contribution of family philanthropy. The former stimulates the conscience and mind; the latter may just be the heartbeat.

Seek out your colleagues in this work. Attend a Council conference, or perhaps a local gathering sponsored by your regional association or community foundation. And I hope you will always look to the National Center for Family Philanthropy for solid research, practical information, and the encouraging beat of family giving’s heart.

We are very lucky to recently have welcomed talented staff members to our National Center family. Allison Feasel is our new Marketing and Client Relations Manager, and Gabriela Schwarz serves as the new Assistant to the President. (Yes, that was a sigh of happy relief you read between the lines.)

In June, we will welcome Susan Crites Price as Vice President. Susan is the author of The Giving Family, and has been doing terrific work as managing director of the Council on Foundations’ Family Foundations services area. She will add that rich experience, her many writing and speaking talents, a wonderful sense of humor, and – she assures me – enough ideas to keep me working hard well into our next ten years. I can’t wait.

For all you have done to make our first ten years so effective and satisfying, I can only say thank you and Happy Anniversary.