Four Critical Elements for Generational Succession

Dear FGN Readers:

The National Center for Family Philanthropy fields hundreds of questions about family giving over the phone, through email, and in person every year.  Thousands more use the Family Philanthropy Online Knowledge Center to search for answers on their own in the thousands of articles, sample documents, and other resources featured there. Without a doubt, the most frequently asked and searched topic has something to do with preparing, welcoming, and training a new generation of the family.

I was recently invited to be part of a family foundation retreat where these issues were up for review and renewal.  It was an invigorating, productive, and joyful experience for the family and one I won’t forget.  Their process reminded me that, while there are many ways to pursue and accomplish generational succession, there are four critical elements to ensuring the process and the results are effective for both foundation and family.

The first element is the wisdom to find the best of both generations.  It is often tempting to gravitate toward one of two polar opposites when preparing the foundation and board for younger family members: either nothing will change or everything will change. The richness of a multi-generational family giving program lies somewhere in between. This family convened a planning group of veteran family board members to consider what is and likely always will be fundamentally important to the foundation.  They reminded themselves of their legacy, the spirit of the founder, and the values that had been guiding constants throughout some fifty years of change. They challenged their assumptions and found guidance in what they determined to be the heart of their family’s philanthropy.

The second element is respect. While this family was so obviously full of love – grandmother for granddaughter, father for daughter or son, spouse to spouse, cousin to cousin – they brought something even more fundamental to their future work together: respect. They valued one another’s talents and experiences, their points of view, and their position at the table. Many families I meet have trouble giving up their parent/child dynamic or any other long-held family stereotype. The kind of retreat I experienced had plenty of family time and when it was time for business, the background was familial but the attitude was collegial. Bringing young people into the foundation without preconceptions about childishness can be challenging; so can coming into a foundation without preconceptions about elder inflexibility.

The third element is integrity. It is easy to gravitate toward wanting younger family members involved so much that you make it happen at any cost. Unanimously and enthusiastically, all generations of this family agreed there would be no compromising the standards of excellence expected of board and committee members. Of course, they agreed to look at new technologies and think about scheduling differently but that didn’t include looking the other way if some began missing meetings or site visits. Commitment to the responsibilities of governance was paramount in any system of identifying and evaluating board participants.

The final element is actually a question: in all discussions of policy or practice – whether it be foundation governance, management and grantmaking, or family involvement – the first and last measure will be found by asking, “What is in the best interest of the foundation?” It’s not that family interests and foundation interests are necessarily in conflict. But, when priorities have to be weighed, stewardship of the foundation’s well-being – and that of its grantees – must rise to the top.

The gift I receive constantly is observing families like this one in action and to be helpful where I can. The great opportunity is sharing experience, examples, errors, and enthusiasm with other families. Like generation succession, both are invigorating and provide endless inspiration.

Our upcoming National Forum on Family Philanthropy (May 7-9, 2014 in Cambridge, Massachusetts) will explore many classic questions and contemporary trends including bringing younger family members into the family giving with wisdom, respect, integrity, and the primacy of the foundation’s best interests.  The closing plenary features a conversation hosted by Judy Woodruff of the PBS News Hour.  Several younger members of prominent and distinguished charitable families will discuss how they committed to the family legacy while developing a philanthropic personality and interests of their own. Let’s continue this conversation there!


Ginny Esposito

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A "best of" collection of NCFP Founder Virginia Esposito's writing on governance, family dynamics, embracing the next generation, the role of the donor, and more.

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