Building High Quality Family Connections Across Generations

Editor’s Note: In last month’s edition of Family Giving News, we featured results of a new study from our colleagues at 21/64 and the Johnson Center for Philanthropy on the goals, motivations, and strategies of Next Gen Donors. In this month’s issue, we follow-up that report with a collection of practical tips and advice from the Council on Michigan Foundation’s new Intergenerational Toolkit.

Intergen-Photo-CMFBecause life experiences shape attitudes, each generation of family members involved in a family foundation has preferences about how it wants to approach philanthropic giving. Many family foundations choose to align their philanthropy with the shared values and identities of the family members. These families use the following multi-step process to build high quality connections that support intergenerational alignment.


It can be especially useful for the donor to put into words the motivations for giving and his or her hopes for the foundation going forward. A donor (or family) legacy statement reflects the life experiences of the donor and the donor’s values, priorities, and intent. These statements also help guide the mission of the foundation and encourage living donors to document their intentions while considering the flexibility succeeding generations may need in governing the foundation.


Documenting Donor Intent

Documenting intent doesn’t have to be a lengthy or expensive project. You can get started by considering a few questions:

  • What values have been most influential in your life and important in your life?
  • What motivates your giving?
  • Why did you start the foundation?
  • What do you hope the foundation will accomplish in 10, 20, 50 years?
  • How do you want to be remembered by your family, friends, and colleagues?
  • How important is it to involve your family?
  • What parts of the foundation’s mission and grantmaking would you like to remain the same?
  • What aspects of the focus and grantmaking have the potential to evolve?
  • What do you want your legacy to be?
  • Do you want the foundation to last in perpetuity?

If the donor is no longer alive, honestly assess your family’s situation:

  • What did the donor say or put in writing that would help to understand his or her preferences in family involvement?
  • What is the foundation’s mission and how can it best be fulfilled?

Whether the family foundation follows the original donor’s intent to the letter or conditions have required a shift in grantmaking focus, the donor’s intent holds the motivations and hopes upon which the foundation was established. Acknowledging and celebrating the original intent of the foundation reminds trustees of the foundation’s roots and all that has grown from them while also honoring the founder. (Note: donor intent questions adapted with permission from the Association for Small Foundations).


Finding a common mission in a multigenerational family foundation can be daunting. After all, the problems of one generation may have changed drastically in a generation’s time. A foundation focused on a community once characterized by blight may find it has become a neighborhood of pleasant eateries and boutiques by the time the third or fourth generation has come to the board table.

Variables within the family also affect foundations. Generational differences in style and motivation, family tensions and alliances, differing political and religious views, and geographic dispersion have potential to cause friction. In any family there can be many personal and philosophical differences. By building upon the values and visions family members hold in common, we strengthen family relations and the work of the family foundation.

Identifying your family’s shared values is the first step in finding common ground as a giving family. A shared set of values will inform your philanthropic mission and provide valuable context for your family identity and mission.

In addition to having a mission statement for the family foundation, many families find it useful to have a family mission statement. The family mission statement is based on shared values, the vision for the legacy they have inherited, and the legacy they wish to leave future generations.

To better understand each other, engage in storytelling and knowledge sharing across generations. Share stories that focus on underlying values and ask members why they give to the causes and institutions that they support.

Use storytelling to talk about the history and mission of the foundation. Traditionalists hold the early family stories and the foundation history. They are also the generation that values duty and institutions. One of their greatest duties is to pass on the family stories as well as the foundation’s institutional memory. Honor them and your history by preserving their stories. Consider commissioning a written or oral history or using The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide. The Gen X and Millennial members of the family can adapt these stories to animated shorts or digital documentaries.

Values and issues inventories identify a lot of useful information for a family. One Midwestern family foundation operated by deferring to the founder’s wishes with each family member using discretionary grants to fund their personal causes. Upon the founder’s passing, however, they were tasked with finding a common mission. The donor, a Traditionalist, supported his Alma Mater and the city’s ballet company. His Boomer son is passionate about autism and brain research while his Gen X niece is a dancer fully committed to the arts. After a service learning trip to Africa, his Millennial grandson became passionate about distributing solar ovens to replace the dangerous wood and charcoal burning ovens that pose a great risk to the health of the family and the environment. After using the values and issues inventory tools, they were surprised to find that while their foremost individual passions were vastly different, they held other issues of concern in common— namely, nutrition and public health. Ironically, this was something the Traditionalist founder also cared about, having grown up in an era when he saw friends stricken with polio and rickets.

Philanthropic Characteristics Across Generations

Philanthropic Characteristics Across Generations.  Source: The Intergenerational Toolkit: Bridging the Generations,  A Guide for Family Foundations


When families ask how to engage the next generation in giving there are usually two ends they have in mind. The first concern is raising engaged citizens who give and serve, and second, developing effective foundation leaders. The following ideas are offered to help you get started bridging the generations in your family foundation.

Raising Givers

Preparing young people for philanthropic engagement starts with the lessons of empathy and gratitude they receive as children. Nurturing these qualities in them begins as soon they can understand the stories we read to them. The Pearson Foundation’s We Give Books Poll on Reading and Giving showed that teen givers (those who volunteer at least once per week) were much more likely (40 percent) than their peers (26 percent) to report that parents reading to them lead them to believe they could make a difference and helped them understand how their actions affect others. Learning to Give devotes a section of its website to children’s literature reflecting these themes along with brief guides for discussing and reflecting together.

Service and volunteerism are especially powerful in helping young people gain awareness of community issues, develop problem solving and leadership skills, and instill a sense of accomplishment and value in the larger community. Finding these opportunities can be challenging because many nonprofits’ liability limitations prevent them from using youth volunteers without adult supervision. Parents and grandparents can play a key role in helping kids identify how their innate gifts, talents, and hobbies can benefit someone else. For example, a swimmer may raise money per lap for a favorite cause while a lover of current events can read the newspaper to seniors in the local nursing home. Make a game of pairing favorite activities and talents with a giving action.

Ultimately, the family foundation reflects the legacy of the founder and the family. Young people are best equipped to engage when they have an understanding that they are inheriting a legacy and living their own legacy. Just as the family foundation has a guiding mission, young people can benefit from developing their own personal missions.

The activity My True North in the sample Tools Section will help young people (ages 12-18) identify individual values and craft personal mission statements. (Adapted from Learning To Give’s My True North as adapted from Community Partnerships with Youth Inc. Youth as Philanthropists.)

Developing Future Foundation Leaders

Millennials and the following generation, Generation Z, are characterized by their tremendous civic enthusiasm. reports that 73 percent of young people believe they can help make their communities a better place to live. As a group, they are not willing to wait to make that difference. Family foundations can benefit by harnessing their enthusiasm early, even before they are full-fledged board members.

Preparing young people to participate in the family foundation optimally begins with many brief exposures to the work of the foundation. These may include:

  • Bringing them on age appropriate site visits with a parent or grandparent
  • Matching a young person’s contributions of time or money to organizations they care about

Create opportunities for younger generations to participate in the workings of the foundation. Some examples include:

  • Documenting the history of the foundation
  • Interviewing family members about their work in the foundation
  • Creating a foundation newsletter or blog
  • Working on the graphic design for the annual report
  • Inviting them to board meetings and including them in the funding discussions because they often bring a new perspective
  • Soliciting their feedback about the different organizations the foundation funds or those they are considering
  • Appointing them as advisors tasked with updating the board on trends in the issues the board funds (if appropriate) or how technology can be leveraged to further impact the foundation’s mission or internal efficiency
  • Create a junior or associate board to engage “next gen” members and prepare them for future service on the full board, and/or invite a “youth” member to serve on your board (Michigan law allows individuals as young as 16 to do so)
  • Consider making internships available for summers or a semester for interested family members who are students

Outside of their volunteer work with the family foundation, help younger family members find volunteer positions, internships, or jobs with nonprofit organizations that align with their interests. Great resources for ideas are, (Idealist Kids and Teens) and

Promote the importance of learning and networking for all family members through regional membership associations. The Council of Michigan Foundations offers over 60 events each year that build skills, knowledge and networking opportunities. A few examples are the multigenerational Biennial Family Foundations Retreat held every other summer on even years; the Annual Conference; Youth Grantmaker Summer Leadership Conference for teens; Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy Michigan for those in their twenties to early forties; and a wide range of workshops and issue-based affinity groups. Click on for details about upcoming events.

Use The Amazon River Philanthropy Challenge adapted from Learning to Give’s exercise in the Tools Section to prepare young people to participate in the family foundation by challenging them to work through difficult challenges as a team and to reach a common goal.

Additional resources that teach philanthropy to kids such as the Learning to Give curriculum are listed in the Resources Section of the Toolkit.

Engaging our kids in giving, service and the family foundation benefits the community and the foundation. And now, science is pointing to the physical and psychological benefits to the giver as well. A 2006 National Institutes of Health study found that giving to charities activates the regions of the brain associated with pleasure, social connection and trust, creating the warm glow sometimes referred to as the “helper’s high.” This is also an especially effective stress reducer. By intentionally helping our kids cultivate the giving habit, we are equipping them with a powerful tool for maintaining their own physical and mental well being for a lifetime!


Begin bridging the generations in your family foundation with a variety of activities.

Engage the “Next Gen” and “Seasoned Gen”

A simple truism in family philanthropy is that we are only as good as our connections to one another. Our impact on the community and on each other is exponentially greater when built upon high quality connections in our families. Family giving provides the opportunity to attend to both the business of philanthropy and the nurturing of family relationships. Establishing thoughtful practices for engaging both the “next gen” and the “seasoned generation” enriches those relationships and positions the foundation for successful collaboration and, ultimately, smooth transitions.

Many family foundations ask when and how to engage the next generation in the formal family giving. Few ask when and how to engage older family members in meaningful ways, especially as they make way for the family’s emerging leaders. Yet, both have tremendous value. As we are living longer and staying active longer, older family members are willing and able to remain active in the family philanthropy longer than any previous generation. When a family asks how to engage the next gen it is also an opportunity to look at how older family members can uniquely serve the foundation.

Intergen-ToolkitInterested in learning more? Purchase the complete copy of The Intergenerational Toolkit: Bridging the Generations, A Guide for Family Foundations.

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