Reflection and Imagination

“So the future may learn from the past”

As I began to type this message, I had to catch my breath when I keyed in “September 2007.” Knowing that this is our 10th anniversary month, I might have been more prepared for the shock of the startling passage of time. It’s striking to realize that in September of 1997, we were trying to get both the concept of family philanthropy and an organization dedicated to serving it – the National Center for Family Philanthropy – off the ground. The intervening 10 years have been a tremendous adventure.

For those new to this field, you may be startled to learn that the term “family foundation” was rarely used before the mid-‘80s. I had been working in grantmaker education for five years before I heard anyone use it. The notion of “family philanthropy” wouldn’t make its way into our lexicon for almost 10 years after that.

Family philanthropy is now broadly understood to include all giving by donors who have chosen to work with their families in this great pursuit. No matter the organizing vehicle, the staffing pattern, the giving interests, or the geography served, family philanthropy embraces us all. What we have in common – our best hopes for our communities and our families – is much more significant and inspiring than the operational choices we make.

To mark our anniversary, we have launched a research and education initiative to answer the question: “What is the value of family participation in philanthropy?”

Through a series of a dozen symposia around the country, we will engage in a dialogue with a cross-section of donors, family members, staff, trustees and others about the contributions, accomplishments and impact of family philanthropy in civil society. We’ll also be exploring the challenges that are particular to family philanthropists and how we can expand and enhance a culture of effectiveness in family giving.

I’m also interviewing 50 individuals with varied perspectives and experiences with topics ranging from the unique value of family participation to their hopes for the future of private family philanthropy. These conversations are so rich with information and inspiration that I have come to think of them and the symposia as anniversary gifts to me!

A look at the future of family philanthropy would not be possible without an understanding of the past. Both insight and sensitivity come from understanding that history, or, to borrow the language of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: that the future may learn from the past. Colonial Williamsburg is not only a living history museum, it is the embodiment of what one donor – John D. Rockefeller, Jr. – and his family have accomplished across generations. By investing in the vision of an inspiring grantee, the Rockefeller family has, in turn, inspired many others to support and sustain this remarkable gift.

I know many donor families with stories that are just as instructional and inspirational. It is, therefore, especially fitting that the theme for this month’s issue of Family Giving News is family histories and stories. This article covers a range of approaches – from the informal sharing of family stories and traditions to commissioned histories and documentary-style videos.

We are so excited by what has been accomplished by philanthropic families seeking to chart their own histories that the National Center recently established a National Archive of Family Philanthropy. We feel a responsibility to preserve these histories and take advantage of the extraordinary resource they represent as we develop future studies, resource materials, and programming. I encourage you to share your history with us. Whether it is a typed paper, an audio recording of your donor, a scrapbook, or a full-scale history or documentary, we genuinely want to include a copy in the National Archive.

I could not let this message end without expressing my deep gratitude and admiration to those who have shaped and guided the National Center through its first 10 years.

To those who encouraged and supported its founding, thank you for your insight, faith, and courage;

To those who nurtured its development – especially our Board members and funders – thank you for your encouragement, wisdom, and sense of possibilities;

To those who managed the programs and worried over publication galleys and operating budgets – the staff and consultants – thank you for your initiative, creativity, and commitment;

And, never lastly, thank you to those who have inspired every moment of the last 10 years and for whom we so passionately and happily do this work – the donors, their families and those who work in support of them . Whether you share a proud moment or a difficult problem, you teach us. You sustain us. It is an extraordinary privilege to do this work with and for you. The National Center for Family Philanthropy is a very special organization because of that inspiration and privilege.

Happy Anniversary!

Virginia M. Esposito
President, National Center for Family Philanthropy