Lisa Parker remembers the first time she met someone like her.
Parker, now the third-generation president of the Lawrence Welk Family Foundation, had grown up in a prominent philanthropic family.
But it wasn’t until middle school — when she learned that one of her classmates was the daughter of a family that ran a California family foundation — that she discovered that she is part of a larger tribe.
“We looked at each other and thought, ‘We’re the same aliens,’” Parker recalled earlier this month from the main stage of the National Forum on Family Philanthropy in Seattle.
Parker spoke a truth that many of the 400 people in attendance at the National Forum on Family Philanthropy knew all too well — that being a family philanthropist can sometimes feel like an alien experience.
But for two-and-a-half action-packed days in Seattle, these leaders didn’t feel like visitors to some foreign land.
Instead, they were part of a much larger family that came together for an event that challenged them with new ideas, answered their questions, and gave them an opportunity to have frank conversations about their unique challenges.
By coming together, these family philanthropy leaders have made new connections and been exposed to new ideas that will help their organizations have a greater impact.
“I am feeling inspired, encouraged, renewed and re-energized about my work,” said Sharmila Thakkar, executive director of the Siragusa Foundation. “I can’t think of any sessions that didn’t leave me with multiple takeaways and lessons learned.”
Thakkar’s sentiments were echoed by many of those we spoke to during and after the Forum.
And we’d like to keep that energy alive.
With that in mind, this post marks the first in an upcoming series that will capture some of the key takeaways and lessons from the 2015 Forum.
In the coming weeks, we’ll explore topics like the importance of effective storytelling, how to engage the next generation of your family, and the challenges created by providing restricted funding to grantees.
These are just a sampling of the topics that we’re going to be discussing in this space. And we hope that you will also take the time to share your ideas and comments, so that we can have a deeper conversation.
Let’s start the conversation by asking a question:
What is the first thing you hope to implement in your family philanthropy practice based on what you learned in Seattle?
We expect that you’ll have a number of highlights to choose from. After all, the Forum provided a number of thought-provoking sessions and ideas. Among the highlights:
- The Forum offered the first-ever look at the soon-to-be-released Trends in Family Philanthropy survey, which will be released publicly on Nov. 10. The survey, which was developed by NCFP in partnership with the Urban Institute, offers a treasure trove of data about family foundations — including some interesting figures about grant-making priorities, governance, and board activities.“Family foundations have long been criticized for not being focused,” said Susan Packard Orr, NCFP Distinguished Fellow in Family Philanthropy and Chair of the David and Lucille Packard Family Foundation. “This study says the opposite.” You can look forward to a deep dive into the results in our November newsletter.
- Andy Goodman, co-founder and director of the Goodman Center, challenged family foundations to do a better job of telling personal stories about their work. Too often, philanthropic organizations discuss their work by using clinical data and facts — and they fail to convey the human stories that are at the heart of what they do.“If you can change the story in someone’s brain, you’ve taken the first step in changing the world,” Goodman said. “The good news is you already know how to tell a good story. It’s in your DNA.”
- Olivia Farr, Trustee for the John Merck Fund, and Jeff Solomon, President of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, offered an in-depth look at their foundations’ decisions to spend down their assets, rather than operate in perpetuity. Farr and Solomon discussed the opportunities that come with getting your organization’s assets out into the world more quickly — as well as the unique challenges that come with intentionally going out of business.
- Paul Shoemaker, author and former leader of Social Venture Partners, shared insights from his book Can’t Not Do — which offers an intimate look at the special personal qualities shared by people who are taking steps to change the world. Shoemaker, who shared an excerpt from the book in a recent guest post, led an intimate conversation with philanthropist Connie Ballmer, and encouraged family philanthropy leaders to act with perseverance and to continue to pursue their goals.
- Vu Le, Executive Director of the charity Rainier Valley Corps, offered frank advice and recommendations to foundation leaders who put restrictions on funding to nonprofits. Le likened the sometimes burdensome process for competing for grants to the “Nonprofit Hunger Games” in which charities are battling for funding rather than being encouraged to cooperate and focus on results. Le challenged foundations to provide unrestricted funding to high-performing nonprofits and simplify the grant-making process so that organizations can spend more time delivering on their missions.
- In a session titled, “Diverse and Dispersed,” three family foundation leaders discussed the challenges of managing organizations that have far-flung members. For many multi-generation family philanthropies, family members live in several cities, regions, or even countries, making it difficult to manage activities and grant-making priorities.For longstanding foundations like the Surdna Foundation — which has six generations and 487 extended family members — the key is communication and shared.
“We have to ensure that no matter what, our board members embrace the mission and values,” says Kelly Nowlin, Chair of the Surdna Foundation’s Andrus Family Program. “We’re aligned there. Whether we’re left, right, or in the middle, that’s healthy. But we have to embrace the values (of the foundation).”
We will be digging deeper into these and other topics from the National Forum in the weeks ahead – and we look forward to hearing your ideas and comments!