The Laird Norton Family
With a family business that goes back 152 years, the Laird Norton family has a lot of history to chronicle. That’s why they’ve chosen several ways to do it, including some novel approaches.
In 1855, two brothers, Matthew George Norton and James Laird Norton, and their cousin, William Harris Laird, formed the Laird Norton Company, the first of many Laird Norton family-owned businesses in the timber industry. Today the company is one of the nation’s longest-standing family businesses.
Much of that longevity can be attributed to the family’s philanthropy, currently embodied in the Laird Norton Family Foundation. It is a philanthropy that encourages a unique family’s 380 members to maintain their connections to the past, to the community, and to one another.
Patrick de Freitas, President of the foundation, is quick to point to the comfortable family dynamic that characterizes the family’s work together.
“It’s easy for us,” de Freitas explains. “We’re all fifth and sixth generation now, so we’re far removed from any original contentions and it’s a whole lot easier to get along.”
That ease comes from an extraordinary sense of family the members discovered and nurtured early in the company’s history.
“We didn’t start out with one patriarch. We started out with three—two brothers and a cousin,” says Chalan Colby, Family President of the Laird Norton Company. “We started out with a team. That made it easier as the years went on to be inclusive. It felt more like a community.”
The Laird Norton Company and the philanthropy that evolved from it was never any one individual’s creation. It was always a family enterprise, and the next generation only added to that feeling.
The family maintains its connections to its storied past by employing an archivist who compiles information on the family’s history. Along with a collection of countless pictures and stories and their quarterly newsletter Woodstock, the family produced two books, Timber Roots in 1972 and Branching Out in 1989, as well as a 150th anniversary DVD entitled “Roots and Wings.”
“We created a 105th anniversary committee,” Colby says. “We did a number of things. We had a time capsule, for example. Then, we found a local company that had done videos for other families, and we had this wonderful video chronicle of all the years of the family’s history.”
The family has even produced a play, first created in 1955 and occasionally revived at the family’s annual meeting, and a coloring book for younger family members.
“It simplifies history, but it makes it easier for kids to grasp,” says de Freitas. “Here’s what happened in 1755 when Matthew and Margaret Laird took a ship from the north of Ireland,” for example.
“Getting to them when they’re young” is key to maintaining that connection to the philanthropy, says de Freitas. That’s why the family also created Camp Three Tree–named for the three branches of the family that started it all–for younger family members ages 1 month to 13 years.
Camp Three Tree happens in conjunction with the family’s annual “Summit,” the Laird Norton Company board meeting and family foundation meeting held in June, and offers a curriculum of activities and field trips for infants and children designed to teach children about the philanthropy and one another.
At age 14, the teens “graduate” and are introduced to the family in a special ceremony. Annual meetings become mandatory, and, as the teens grow up, they become eligible for professional development and, eventually, associate directorships on the family’s committees and boards.
It is the philanthropic boards and committees, as well as the recorded history, that have proved instrumental in engaging the nearly 400 family members.
“When you have a family business, if you’re not actually actively involved in the management, you might feel like you’re just sitting on boards that meet and steer money around,” says de Freitas. “That’s not particularly engaging or enlightening for most people who don’t care about that stuff.”
When the family held a meeting to develop a new funding focus for the foundation, a group of 80 family members voted on program areas by placing dots on posters around the conference space. One poster read: “No Dot Left Behind.” That poster became “Taproot,” a matching fund that supports the charitable work of individual family members in addition to their collective work in conservation, arts education, global climate change, and watershed conservation.
Family members’ individual charitable contributions are matched by the family fund up to $500. And, to truly ensure that no charitable work goes unrecognized, family members’ volunteer hours are monetized and matched as well.
Today, what began as a family philanthropy continues; no outsiders serve on the board. More than 50 family members participate in the foundation’s various grantmaking and advisory committees. And that strong sense of family remains.
“Collectively, we take governance quite seriously, but we’re not Robert’s Rules people, says de Freitas. “Robert’s was designed for people who didn’t know each other.”