Milestones in Family Giving: the Contagious Joy of Philanthropic Celebrations

Everyone loves a good celebration.  Families particularly mark the special moments in their lives with celebrations: an anniversary, graduation, wedding, or a birthday (especially those birthdays that end in the dreaded “0” – 30, 40, 50, and whatever numbers come after that!). While families may celebrate personal milestones, their approach to their philanthropic work may be more “nose to the grindstone.”  The work of giving is taken seriously.  The problems of society are keenly felt and the inadequacy of the resources (regardless of grantmaking budget), even more so.

National Center for Family Philanthropy research on the value of family participation in philanthropy (The Power to Produce Wonders: The Value of Family in Philanthropy) underscored this seriousness of purpose.  Initially, families were reluctant to talk about how the family had been enhanced by giving and volunteering.  They felt it was inappropriate to talk about their personal joy or the closeness that comes from sharing a deeper or higher family purpose.  Conversely, they happily recounted their hopes for how their family’s giving could benefit their community and the issues served by their philanthropy. They also spoke enthusiastically and at length about the achievements of their grantee partners. Are the two so mutually exclusive?

In the course of a family foundation’s or other giving program’s life, there are many occasions for happy celebration.  Anniversaries are an obvious milestone.  So are celebrations of a founder’s legacy, the welcoming of a new generation to the privilege of trusteeship, or a spectacular success by a grantee partner.  Celebrating those milestones can support both family and charitable goals.  The families featured in our new Passages issue paper – and in our June Family Philanthropy Teleconference on this topic – had different reasons for taking time to acknowledge key milestones in the life of the family’s philanthropy.  Some families chronicled the history of their giving to renew and re-dedicate the spirit of the family’s philanthropic commitment over time. Others used the occasion to highlight the work of their grantee partners.  Special grants were made, gatherings hosted to bring family members and grantees together, events held to recognize community leaders and organizations, and publications or press releases issued to focus important public attention on (and potential new funders for) local nonprofits.

Of course, there are positive consequences of such celebrations that might be welcome if unintended.  Your story might better acquaint the public with the work of donor families and nonprofit organizations.  A potential donor might be inspired to finally make the commitment and join your ranks.  The history of family philanthropy will be enriched by the vibrant new chapter you add as you tell your story, archive your records, or publish an account of your aspirations, accomplishments, challenges, mistakes, and lessons learned.

Despite all the wonderful reasons for celebrating your next milestone – all valid, practical, and productive – let me urge you to do so for a less practical, more intangible reason – simple joy.  In all those interviews for The Power to Produce Wonders, I learned that the responsibility and public trust implied by philanthropic involvement do require a seriousness of purpose.  They also require a sense of stewardship more than ownership, more public benefit than personal privilege, and more service than self-gratification.  But none of that, in any way legal, ethical or otherwise, means that family philanthropy is anything other than a joyful commitment to something larger than any one family.  The late Lucile Packard once remarked that it was her responsibility to communicate to her children the sense of joy that comes from philanthropy.  In so doing, she believed she would do her part to ensure the future of America’s philanthropic vitality.

So celebrate your special moments, your family’s legacy of charitable involvement, the passing of the tradition to new generations, and the extraordinary work of your grantee partners that you help make possible.  Let the rest of us know about your milestone and how you commemorated it.  The joy is contagious.



Virgina Esposito President, National Center for Family Philanthropy

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