As part of the National Center’s research into the Value of Family Philanthropy, President Ginny Esposito conducted an interview study with 50 philanthropy leaders. Former president of the Lyndhurst Foundation and founding National Center board member Jack Murrah was among those who were asked to reflect on this topic. Here some excerpts from that interview:

Esposito: What are the most distinctive or distinguishing characteristics of family philanthropy?

Murrah: I think that a family foundation has more of a personality, for good or ill, than most institutions. That personality allows for more original initiative, more unconstrained thought about how to do the work of the organization. Sometimes you have a freedom, a quirkiness of character, that allows you to think of things and do things others might not.

Some highly original and highly effective things get done – conventions of professional philanthropy may be set aside in order to travel down paths that no organizational scholar would recommend; there are definitely perils in this behavior, but once in a while, it’s magic.

Esposito: What value does family participation add to the philanthropy?

Murrah: Philanthropic families bring to their work a set of values and traditions that can infuse it with a distinctive sense of purpose and a strong sense of responsibility. A love of community is one of those values, and the search for it in bureaucracies or organizations can be disenchanting. The notion that we can operate from a binding set of values, responsibility and character, even inside an organization, is refreshing.

Esposito: How has family participation challenged the pursuit of effective philanthropy?

Murrah: Maintaining organizational decorum is sometimes harder in family philanthropy because people think of themselves as having different privileges than typical board members—a sense of entitlement. Balance between the organization element and the family element can be difficult to achieve.

The word “family” has a kind of halo around it, but let’s be real—family relationships can be extremely trying. Our lives are shaped by family experiences in ways that nothing in later life can quite match. Hurts that don’t heal can play out on the board of family foundations, sometimes rendering them dysfunctional. Of course, not in the foundation where I worked…. but you hear rumors.

Esposito: What do you believe are the greatest opportunities for donor families?

Murrah: At the top of the list is the opportunity to forge a consensus about the way in which the family would like to make a certain piece of the world a better place. It is not the kind of opportunity that normally flows from the everyday work of family life. But the tradition of using the surplus in the family for some purpose bigger than just the family pushes the conversation and the dynamic to a different level. A conversation about the world with someone you love and with whom you have a lifelong relationship is just different.

Esposito: How do you see the opportunities and challenges changing in the next decade?

Murrah: People live all over the place and aren’t connected in ways we think of in an idealized image of family. But because of technology, there are great opportunities for maintaining connections in ways we hadn’t thought of in the past.

I never think organizations are at their best when they have meetings only three times a year. But if they are members of your family, there may be a stronger disposition to keep in touch. The purposes of the foundation are sometimes woven into those communications, and that can make the life of the organization more continuous, more likely to evolve with fewer fits and spurts. Or, of course, the opposite!

Esposito: What do you believe are the greatest contributions facing donor families?

Murrah: More families of moderate to great means are having conversations about the role of giving in the completeness or richness of their lives. People who are having those conversations are different from people who are not having them. They are changed by those conversations, and those changes exert an influence on American culture. In the past, we imagined that kind of thing happening only in the upper echelons of wealth in American society, but now we know that it is happening all up and down the ladder of wealth.

Esposito: What are your hopes for the future of family philanthropy?

Murrah: That it remain diverse, dynamic, and that, at its own initiative, it becomes more accountable – not only for ethical behavior but for effective performance. That it continue to contribute new ways of thinking about society’s problems and opportunities and issues. Most of all, that it accept the responsibility of freedom.


Jack Murrah, reflecting on the richness of spirit, tells the story of the man who, through a lifetime of successful ventures and investments, made $200 million dollars, then lost half of it, and couldn’t get over the loss even though he still had $100 million.

“I used to believe that you don’t have to be rich to be a philanthropist,” Murrah said. “But I have come to believe you do have to be rich, just not in the way it is conventionally understood. If you are poor in spirit, I don’t think you can do this work. You don’t have the spiritual qualities necessary to do it; you don’t have the faith or the hope necessary to be charitable. I think of the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob steals his brother’s birthright and flees for fear of retribution. He goes on to have a life of abundance and, at some late stage in life he wants to reconnect with his brother. Warily he sends gifts ahead before his return. But his brother ignores the presents and embraces Jacob, saying, ‘I have enough.’ Esau is the rich person in that story. Jacob is giving out of a sense of hoping to make amends.

“How do people come to be rich in spirit? It is not a matter of how much you have in your pocket; it is a matter of how much you have in your head. Can you say, “I have enough?” Can you say, “I have more than enough?” Then you are ready to be a philanthropist.

I can think of three things that give rise to generosity of spirit.

–Teaching. It is one of the few enterprises in which you can transfer to others every single thing you’ve got, all your knowledge and skill, and you’ve lost nothing. In fact, you gain new knowledge and skill. The products of teaching are of infinite supply. Teaching is a good spiritual exercise for being a philanthropist—you learn to see the world through the lens of abundance and not scarcity.

–Giving. I remember a friend who once said that when he buys expensive things for himself, he often experiences “post partum depression.” I thought that was hilarious. I asked him if he felt the same way after giving a charitable gift. “Oh, no,” he said. “That makes me feel rich. Gosh, I’ve got more money than I need. I’ve got enough to give it away.”

–Forgiving. It is harder to forgive than to give. It is a more intense and acute form of giving. One of the ways to feel impoverished in this life is to feel wronged, and all of us are wronged and hurt. The only way out of that is through forgiveness – that makes you rich – and you have control over that. Esau found a way to forgive an enormous wrong within his cultural context. And we see that radiate from him when he says, ‘I have enough.’”

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