Family-Ness: a Clunky Word That Says it All

Surdna is a family foundation.  A simple statement, but one that carries deep meaning for us – meaning that shapes much of what we do.  At our most recent board meeting, we continued our examination of potential changes to the way we invest our endowment, we discussed some important modifications to the role of the board in our grantmaking process, and we breathed new life into a conversation between Surdna and the Andrus Family Fund, a grantmaking fund we created just over 15 years ago.

These are all challenging and complex topics for an institution to consider. And our approach to addressing them was guided by what we have come to refer to as our “family-ness.” It might sound clunky, but it exemplifies how we go about our work, our style of governance, and our very culture. It’s who we are at our core.

Family-ness is rooted around our board table and is fundamental to how we see ourselves as staff and partners. While the majority of our trustees are descendants of Surdna’s founder John E. Andrus, family-ness is about so much more than a branch on a family tree.  It is about a culture of cooperative action, of honest reflection, and the willingness to talk with one another.

Family-ness is not about sticking to conversations about what’s going well and only applauding success. And there is no place for finger pointing or superstars in family-ness.

When the board and staff think together about the best path forward on investing, or the board’s role in program oversight and strategy implementation, or relationships between Surdna and the board of the AFF, we do so with a clearly stated devotion to the legacy of family governance of this institution. We do so with family-ness.

As we consider whether to embrace some aspects of impact investing for our endowment, we keep in mind Surdna’s multigenerational, nearly century-long history, and our roles as only the most recent stewards of this institution. Board and staff are acutely conscious of the importance of retaining our ability to fund social justice work in perpetuity. The men and women who governed this foundation in prior generations understood that answers to some of society’s most pressing problems required patience and the fortitude to commit to long-term solutions. Preserving this inter-generational commitment, a central tenet that has allowed the foundation to sustain and increase the impact of its work over the past decades, is the board’s starting place for this conversation.  This perspective shapes the way we manage our endowment.  It also honors the Andrus family’s longstanding commitment to spending and investing the foundation’s assets with discipline while also preserving Surdna’s capacity to continue to effect change under the leadership of future generations of the family.

Likewise, as we consider changes in the way that board members interact with the grantmaking process, perhaps leading to additional staff authority to approve certain kinds of grants, we do so with guidance from our core set of values as a family foundation.  For example, whatever changes the board enacts regarding their grant oversight role, we will continue to emphasize the importance of having board members “touch the work.”  When they are meeting grantees in the field and seeing the work first-hand, learning where and how it is impacting communities, and reflecting on it when we meet or speak –that’s when our trustees are at their very best.  This is an essential element of our family-ness, it’s the bread-and-butter of Surdna, it’s at the core of our reputation and, therefore, the family’s.

More than 15 years ago, the Surdna board established the Andrus Family Philanthropy Program, a set of initiatives that was designed to engage younger family members in the family’s philanthropy.  The flagship operation has been the Andrus Family Fund, a separately-run foundation that is governed by fifth generation members of the Andrus family.  These initiatives have been remarkably successful at engaging a cross-section of a family now numbering 485 people.  These programs are about exposing family members to the impressive philanthropic legacy of their forebears.  As we have refreshed these programs over the past few years, the commitment to the project of engaging family has never wavered.  This is perhaps is one of the purest expressions of Surdna’s family-ness.

With our centennial fast approaching, the work continues.  We are proud of the grantmaking we do in the name of the Andrus family, and are energized by the ongoing commitment to being the most effective change-maker we can be by using all of our assets—our grantmaking, sound investment strategy, dedication to partnering, long-term view, and our distinctive family-ness.

The discussions we are in the midst of are some of the thorniest and most probing we have had in a generation. But each member of the board is confident in our family-ness and how it very directly shapes our approach to addressing these complex issues.  Whatever solutions we come to, the board views as its fundamental responsibility ensuring that Surdna remains true to our understanding of what a family foundation can and should be.  This does not mean compromising on the quality of the work or kowtowing to a vocal family minority on one issue or another. Rather it means deeply honoring the nearly 100-year legacy of the institution, continuing to embrace the values–modesty, thrift, practicality, delivery of innovative solutions–developed at the foundation by preceding generations. And it means continuing to embrace and celebrate the role of family members as governors of the foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the March 3rd News section of the Surdna Foundation and is reprinted here with permission. To view the original version of the article, go to: