Geographic Dispersion

Q: My family’s foundation has traditionally given in New England and continues to support nonprofits there, but family members live all around the country. How do we keep people engaged?

A: As today’s families are more mobile than ever, geographic dispersion has become a crucial issue for family philanthropists as they try to keep distant family members involved. Consider the following tips for far-flung families.

Consider discretionary or matching grants. Some families use discretionary grants to encourage individual philanthropic goals and support nonprofits where family members live. Other families match the philanthropic gifts of their board members up to a certain amount. Even volunteer hours can be monetized and matched to support family members’ own charitable work. If your family discovers a particularly compelling project outside your foundation’s home community, you can consider a change in program or geographic focus.

Use technology where you can. Many giving families are using technology to help bridge the distance. Email and family newsletters keep family members in touch with the fund’s work and with one another. Some of the board’s meetings can be held via teleconference. Distant family members can research community nonprofits online. Families are increasingly using websites to review online applications and grant reports. Others have built family intranets, private websites where family members can discuss the latest proposals, compare notes on site visits, and review current grants.

Take time out for family. Naturally, though, technology can’t solve everything. Philanthropic decisions can be tough ones, especially for a family already stretched by geography. Families grow, and sometimes they grow apart. Consider family retreats and reunions. Anything you can do to create an open, caring environment for family members makes it that much more likely they’ll participate.

Note your local resources. You’re not alone in this. Regional associations, community foundations, and federations can be tremendous resources for families dealing with geography, providing services as they do for local donors with special attention to the assets and needs of the community. Seek out the organizations where your fund is located and where family members live and find out what they might be able to do to help your family bridge the distance.

For more tips on dealing with geography, see “Geographic Dispersion: Opportunities for Far-Flung Families” from the September 2006 Family Giving News and our monograph Grantmaking with a Compass: The Challenges of Geography.