A Generosity of Spirit Drives Today’s Generation of Family Foundation CEOs

What do lawyers, ministers, a whole lot of teachers, military officers, nurses, government officials, investment advisors, Peace Corps and Vista volunteers, a public relations executive, and many, many fundraisers have in common?

They are all now chief executive officers of family foundations and were part of an interview study the National Center for Family Philanthropy has been conducting for the last eight months or so. Early insights into the results of that study were released at the National Symposium for Family Foundation CEOs on March 24-25th in Washington, DC (more information on that Symposium can be found in Susan Price’s feature story).

I have been fortunate enough to conduct more than 60 personal interviews with family foundation CEOs. To provide some Board perspective on CEO leadership, our Senior Fellow, Alice Buhl, interviewed board leaders about their staff experiences. Finally, in conjunction with the Johnson Center on Philanthropy, we conducted an online survey of more than 200 chief executives.

Each individual interview told a remarkable story. I asked about everything from their backgrounds (college and career), to their responsibilities, the big challenges, and their relationship to their boards and the donor family. I wanted to know what kept them up at night and what provided some measure of renewal so they could continue to do the job with creativity and commitment. They answered without pretense or defense and with great trust in how we would treat their reflections.

I was struck by just how many reported that their grantees provide all the renewal they need. I was also amazed that fully one half of all interviewees had been nonprofit staff members with significant fundraising responsibilities. In fact, many of them came to their family foundation job because they had been a foundation grantee. They had come to know the board and family and shared their passions and their causes. I think that says great things about the sensitivity to the fundraising experience that the CEOs of this generation bring to their grantmaking work.

Perhaps one thing more than any other made the greatest impression on me. There is a generosity about these CEOs that has nothing to do with money. It is a deep and deeply moving generosity of spirit. To begin with, they took time out of very busy lives to participate in these interviews in the hope this project would be of some help to their colleagues, other family foundations, and the grantees served by family philanthropy. Second, almost all reported that other, more experienced, CEOs had made themselves available as mentors, sounding boards, and pressure release valves not only when they were new but throughout their tenure. Finally, I admired the generous candor so evident at last week’s Symposium as they shared missteps, small steps forward, and personal reflections on both. Again, there was nothing to be personally gained; it could only be in the hope it would help advance the practice of staff leadership and pave the way for others to come.

In coming issues of Family Giving News and in a to-be-published report later this year, there will be more details about the findings of all three studies as we complete the work of culling through more than 400 pages of data. As I report on those remarkable things that made strong early impressions, I know the studies will surface critical concerns and questions about this important leadership role and how that leadership can best be advanced and supported. Many thoughtful discussions will follow along with some important new educational resources and programs.

Family foundation chief executive officers sit in the pivotal seat between a donor family’s best hopes for their giving, the workings of their boards, the energies of their staffs, and all the possible groups and causes that might be supported. They guide a legacy that may be rooted in the past but which is renewed with each new board book and new generation. As Paul Ylvisaker once wrote, they are as much responsible for the stewardship of what has been as for what they will create.

The early headline? Family foundations are in good staff hands.


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