Case Study: The Lawrence Welk Family Foundation

A few summers ago, the board of the Lawrence Welk Family Foundation issued a challenge to young family members. Gathered at a family-owned resort in San Diego for the family’s annual meeting, the fourth generation of Welk family members was told about a local shelter for homeless families. The shelter hosted a preschool and therapeutic learning center that needed a new air conditioner. It would cost around $1,000, and the children, ages four to 14, were going to help. The children went out in teams throughout the resort raising funds by selling doughnuts.

“They were really invested in it,” says Lisa Parker, the foundation’s President. “There was no way they were leaving without raising this money, and they did it.”

When the children heard that they had not only succeeded but that they had raised enough money for two units and the family board was going to match the funds they had raised, Parker says, “You could have heard the hollering, the cheering, the excitement all the way in DC.”

It is through activities like these that the Welk Family Foundation continues the legacy of giving begun in 1960 by musician and entertainer Lawrence Welk. His daughter, Shirley Fredricks, became the foundation’s president in 1980, and quickly established one of the nation’s first next generation boards in 1983. For Shirley, it was an obvious way to involve the family.

In 1997, Shirley stepped aside to allow one of the next generation board members to assume leadership. Lisa, Shirley’s daughter, became president. Shirley became Vice Chair. This year, the $1 million family foundation re-established the Junior Board for a new generation of potential family philanthropists, now ages 2-17.

“I can hardly believe it, but here we are,” says Parker, attributing their successful successions to innovative encouragement, savvy structure, and thoughtful celebration of their family’s history.

Welk himself created the foundation in 1960. The success of his show attracted numerous requests for assistance, and the good-hearted, thrifty musician, who grew up a poor farmer in Strasburg, North Dakota, created the charity to handle them. It was certainly tax advantageous for the family, Shirley admits, but Welk had something else in mind.

“My parents were very kind,” she says. “They just grew up in a society where people helped each other.”

The charity was managed by the Welk Group, which handled the family’s business interests. The foundation is still funded by the company, which includes the Welk Music Group, the Welk Resort Group, and the Lawrence Welk Show. Upon Welk’s retirement, Shirley’s brother, Lawrence Welk, Jr., took up leadership of the family business and asked Shirley to take on the foundation. She took up the twin challenge of involving family and focusing the foundation, which at the time was receiving more than 300 grant requests a week.

“We weren’t really having any impact,” Shirley says. “We were giving $100 here and $1,000 there. It was a shotgun approach.”

The trustees created a flexible mission—supporting families in poverty in Southern California—that would give structure and focus to the family’s giving while allowing a new generation to adapt the vehicle to new needs.

It was to the younger generation that the foundation turned next when they launched a next generation board in 1983.

“You have to credit my mother for that,” Lisa says. “She launched that with the real intention of involving all of us in the philanthropy.”

Ranging in age from 14-24, the third-generation Welk family members were included in the family board meetings and site visits but weren’t given voting power. They could review proposals and participate in discussions but not participate in the final vote.

However, third-generation family members then met in breakout sessions to distribute 10 percent of the grantmaking budget. They could vote to further fund the senior board’s choices, fund some organizations the board had not, or present their own proposals.

“They had to lobby each other and decide together how the money would be distributed,” Shirley says.

“One benefit for all of us was learning about the decisions and the jargon that comes with board service,” says Lisa. “It prepared us for board service in other areas of our lives as we became adults.”

The opportunity to make their own proposals allowed next generation board members to explore programs outside the grantmaking guidelines. They contributed to organizations fighting AIDS in the early 80s. The grants were small, but the young board members were proud to be a part of the nonprofits’ work.

“The foundation didn’t have a focus on environmental issues,” says Lisa, so next generation members found local organizations like Santa Monica’s Heal the Bay. “It’s one we’re particularly proud of because Heal the Bay has become a force to be reckoned with.”

Site visits proved a significant source of inspiration.

“I think the most important thing was taking them on site visits,” says Shirley. “They just didn’t know the nonprofit world. When they went on site visits, they were astonished and very impressed.”

The youngsters quickly took to the joys of giving.

“I had to be careful because they were coming back to our meetings and becoming extremely passionate advocates for organizations the senior board might or might not be funding,” Shirley says.

By 1997, the young philanthropists were all grown up.

“We thought, ‘Why doesn’t everybody just become a board member?’” Lisa says. “In our naïveté, we went with that. That worked for a while, but it was tough finding a time to meet. We were in that phase of life where we’re in medical school, starting families, and traveling.”

Shirley stepped aside and Lisa became president that same year. Shirley recalls that the transition, like creating the next generation board, seemed obvious and felt easy.

“I had a rich personal life,” she says. “I had a husband. I had five children. I have ten grandchildren now. I’m interested in arts, politics, history, archaeology. I could have walked away and had a wonderful life without the foundation. It was easy for me to step aside.”

“For a time, I didn’t even go to the meetings,” she recalls. “I wanted them to get their sea legs.”

Over the next few years, the board anticipated the potential problems of a larger, more involved family and created the policies to address them. The board created classes of board members serving three-year terms, staggering the classes’ terms of service so the board wouldn’t be entirely replaced in a given year. The board’s size was limited. Seven to nine board members would serve at any one time. Later, the board was opened to spouses who brought new insight and enthusiasm, but the foundation created rules in advance about what would happen in the event of death or divorce. The board required the participation of representatives from each of the three branches of the family and a certain number of lineal descendants to encourage and preserve family presence.

This year, the foundation welcomed the fourth generation to the next generation board. The members decided to distribute their $3,000 allotment equally between the Cambodian Children’s FundRight to Play, and a Romanian orphanage—the idea of one grandchild whose best friend was adopted from Romania.

When told they could break the amounts up, and give, for example, $500 to one, and then more to another, the children objected.

“They said, ‘Oh, that wouldn’t be fair,’” says Shirley, who facilitated the session.

To serve on the next generation board, family members technically have to be at least ten years old, but enterprising seven-year-olds have been known to be allowed in. At age 5, fourth-generation members can have their charitable gifts matched by the foundation. Many young family members donate part of their allowance to charity or volunteer with nonprofits.

“If they present their work at our family meeting, our foundation will make a small contribution—$100—to that organization,” says Lisa.

One 7-year-old family member recently celebrated a birthday and asked friends to bring gifts for children at the local children’s hospital instead of for her. Lisa’s son gave his Christmas money to Marin Search and Rescue. He was invited to meet the team leader who praised his philanthropy and showed him slides of the team’s rescues.

One grandchild, age 13, learned in school about Invisible Children and the plight of Ugandan child soldiers. While major hostilities have ceased, he learned, the peace is tenuous, and many in northern Uganda still live in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps. The young man wanted to do something. In addition to successfully securing matching funds from the family foundation, he went to his father’s Rotary Club to raise more money, and has since spoken at churches, synagogues, and other service groups to raise awareness.

“It’s about doing it in a natural, organic way,” says Shirley. “It’s not parents and grandparents saying what they need to do. We’re saying, ‘Go into your communities, and find out what you care about.’ They’re discovering the organizations they love, and funding them.”

Lisa’s cousin recently adopted a child from China. When family members asked the adoption agency what might be done for other children, they learned about a young boy with a cleft palate. Change jars with a picture of the young man on them were distributed to family members. The effort was infectious. Teenage friends of the family were inspired to donate their allowances to the jar. Board members personally chipped in.

“We came together with much fanfare at the annual meeting and counted all this change,” says Lisa.

Ultimately, the family raised more than $7,000–enough to help six additional children.

Whether they ascend to leadership roles in the foundation as Lisa did, or pursue service opportunities elsewhere, the experience and training in philanthropy has been important.

“As a mother, I’m used to encouraging kids and very happy to see that they find their destiny and fulfill it,” says Shirley. “To me, that’s a complete joy. Why wouldn’t I do that with the foundation? They need to know very early that they can impact their communities. There’s a power within them that they need to discover.”