Transparency, Privacy, and Trust: Finding Balance for Family Foundations

Editor’s Note: We are very pleased to share the first in a year-long series of blog posts from leadership at The Russell Family Foundation describing the deep and ongoing work they are engaged in together to better understand the levels and meaning of transparency in their work. Our thanks to the Fund for Shared Insight for supporting NCFP’s work in the area of transparency and family philanthropy.

As a group, family philanthropies put a lot of energy into connecting with our constituents. We do this joyfully because we know that strong, trusting relationships are vital to our success and the communities we serve. However, these external bonds are only half of the equation. The rest hinges on the question: “How well do we manage our internal group dynamics?”

You might say this other half is the “foundation of every family foundation.” It is where deep communications can happen – often away from the community commons, but still embedded with the expectations set around transparency, public trust, and family privacy. After operating for nearly 20 years with both family and community directors on the board, we have learned a lot about balancing these bedrock considerations. At the same time, we want to develop new strategies and tactics to shore up weaknesses we have observed in our own practices. Revisiting our original agreements and making appropriate adjustments is our way of passing along as much of our learning legacy as we can.

Our founders, George and Jane Russell, created the Foundation as a way for their extended family to make a quiet, positive impact in the community. Together with community directors of the board, the family decided to place the Foundation’s emphasis on grassroots leadership, environmental sustainability, and global peace.

Over the years, family members have chosen to participate in different ways. Some play active roles in governance (i.e., board service) while others contribute periodically on topics they care about. All have provided valuable input, though we don’t always see eye-to-eye. As a learning organization, we’re okay with that. We recognize that divergent opinions are often the doorways to new information, unique considerations, and unexpected possibilities. However, as TRFF’s programs continue to grow and expand, the issues we face are becoming more complex – stretching our comfort zones and learning edges. Against this backdrop, we asked ourselves if we might need new tools to guide deliberation, decision-making, and governance.

Building tools for self-awareness and self-governance

Before going further, here’s a quick historical sidebar: Building tools for self-awareness and self-governance is deep in our roots. When we began the Foundation journey together as a family in the late 1990s, one of our trusted outside advisors was focused on strategic planning and organizational effectiveness (as were others of our family). We took advantage of their expertise at the outset and spent critical time defining the values and purpose of our philanthropic enterprise. Those early efforts proved to be an immense help in guiding us for nearly 20 years.

Fast forward to 2016. After a full board discussion, we formed a committee to reaffirm those founding principles, and consider adding tools to further serve our operations for the future. Comprised of family members and senior staff, the committee’s charge was to identify the “platform” or “stage” on which we operated, and from which we could look inward as well as forward. Given the task, the committee was dubbed the Platform Group.

The group facilitated a review of our core materials; and out of those conversations, we upheld our original values statement, which the full board then re-affirmed. We also identified a set of tools for our ongoing work, including new frameworks to help guide us through important issues – such as the succession of our family and community board members, as well as staff leadership. We call this our Legacy Communications Toolkit, and it is a work-in-progress.

In this blog, we are talking about just one of the tools in the Toolkit – a diagram of the group dynamics and multiple levels of communications involved in the work we do. In essence, it is a tactical tool; a device that helps us understand the layers of responsibilities and expectations we face in our everyday communications.

Fun fact: the model we built was inspired by the three-dimensional chessboard from the original Star Trek television series, which seemed like a great metaphor for our philanthropic work. It’s a structure that assists you in considering all angles before making your next move.

However, there’s a big difference with our “chessboard” and the Star Trek game. With our model, there is no set starting or ending point. The diagram simply presents opportunities to initiate conversation about important issues, which might be difficult to surface otherwise. Our conceptual model has four distinct levels, but there could be more (or less). It has been helpful to us in illuminating areas where different types of communications are appropriate, and where the boundaries exist for various members of our community.

Note: click image above for a full size version of this diagram.

For example, here are some key questions that might be informed by the model and involve the different layers:

This model can accommodate many possible scenarios. It is a dynamic mechanism; one that outlines a range of perspectives, which we use to reflect on our positions and respectfully manage our differences. In this way, it serves as a navigation aid that helps us avoid unnecessary distractions.

There’s nothing magical about this tool. It simply makes visible many of the invisible dynamics of our interconnected roles and relationships in a family, in a foundation, in a community. The more awareness we have of these multi-layered ties, the less likely we are to trip over them as we work through complex conversations and decisions. In our next blog post, we’ll share examples of how the framework might be applied to common foundation dilemmas. We’ll also describe other visual aids in the Legacy Communications Toolkit and how they support the chessboard.