Family Philanthropy or Family Foundation Philanthropy?

Alice Buhl, Senior Fellow here at the National Center and Senior Associate at Lansberg, Gersick & Associates, joins Family Giving News with the third of a series of occasional columns on issues in philanthropy.

When I first began working with families, I was often fairly oblivious to the many ways that families were engaging in philanthropy beyond their foundation.

Now, however, I actively look for all manner of contributions as signs of a healthy notion of family philanthropy. I have seen family members choose to work for a nonprofit at little or no salary and others who became full-time volunteers because their income was augmented by a trust fund. Some family branches have funds in a community foundation, or choose to establish their own foundations. I have seen many families who still own a business which is contributing actively to the community. Many, if not most, wealthy individuals make significant personal contributions to organizations they think do important work, sometimes the same ones supported by the foundation, sometimes not. I’ve also seen families who coordinate giving among themselves for key community organizations.

To what extent does your family acknowledge and celebrate all the ways your family practices family philanthropy? Many families are what I would call “foundation-centric” in their philanthropy; that is, thinking primarily of preparing the next generation for service in the foundation rather than including their role as personal givers of time or dollars. We know our sister regularly volunteers at an AIDS center, but have any of our family members talked with her about this work and its importance in her life, even though that’s not a focus of our foundation? Mom is no longer on the board, but she has a wealth of experience with organizations and her own personal philanthropy. How are we using her wisdom to help us build a legacy for the entire family in philanthropy?

In what ways does your family encourage learning and participation in philanthropy beyond the foundation? In what ways do you include all family members in this discussion, not just those on the board? Family members often say that a foundation can help keep a family connected, but as the family grows, it may take a shared project or interest to keep everyone interested and involved. If the ultimate goal is to make a difference in the world, what better way than to expand your reach through all family members?

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