Renewal and the Healthy Family Foundation

Governing and managing a family foundation is as much art, values, and even feelings, as it is science. It doesnt even have to be particularly difficult science. Jaylee Mead, co-founder of the Gilbert and Jaylee Mead Foundation and former Research Astronomer at the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, once remarked that creating that foundation wasnt “rocket science.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

In fact, it is highly unlikely that you and your family will ever find the permanent, perfect strategy for achieving your philanthropic goals. Even your goals may change over time, as do the families that create and oversee them.

Given the likelihood of an unpredictable evolution, unique to each family foundation, what might be the most effective approach to resolving the consequent challenges to effective, satisfying, and harmonic grant-making?

A management school professor made a point years ago that offers a profound, yet simple, clarity and insight. “It is easier for a C+ organization to become a B+ organization than it is for a B+ organization to stay that way.”

Improvement is usually an easier endeavor than ensuring ongoing vitality. How does the boldness you summoned up for taking risks and solving problems support you once youve experienced success? How do you resist going into “protect mode” – trying too hard to hold onto what you have accomplished? How do families who have achieved excellence in giving maintain the quality of that giving over time? How do they continue to meet the high standards youve set for management, finance, communications, and community relationships?

How does the “B+” or even the “A+” organization stay that way, vigorously committed to the revitalizing promise of renewal? And what can members of newer family foundations learn from those who have successfully been meeting these challenges?

Renewal offers the chance to anticipate change. And anticipation often allows you to operate from a position of strength. What you are trying to maintain – what still works for you and other family members – is a critical question. It ranks right up there with determining what might be on the horizon that might adversely affect your foundations existing strengths.

Foundations whose trustees and/or staff fear that any revitalization exercise might result in losing something precious are well-advised to wrestle with these questions:

  • What about our foundation is most important and to whom — board members, staff, and key members of our ‘public(grantees, the press, other philanthropic families, etc.)?
  • What are our responsibilities and roles in managing and directing change?
  • What do we want our foundation to be or continue to be in the future?
  • Are our family foundation values sustaining us as we move forward?

Struggling with these questions allows you and your family to think objectively about how circumstances might affect the wellbeing of the foundation and those it serves. If family boards wait to respond to change, they can be overwhelmed by feelings for the people directly involved. They might be tempted to see any change in policy less in terms of how the board/foundation could benefit and more as a reaction to the emotions generated by the moment.

For example, the engagement of an especially-loved daughter might result in an impulsive change in a long-standing policy against spouses serving on the board. The consequences for future family members might not be factored into that loving but spontaneous gesture. Are you prepared to do for all what you have done for one? The earlier you consider possible changes in circumstances, the more likely you are to make your decision based on principles, not personalities.

Finally, planned renewal is critical to sustained grantmaking success. It allows you to consider new practices that hold promise for advancing your mission in ways you might not have imagined. It opens opportunities to engage new voices in your work as stewards of the foundation.

Such opportunities expand the base of knowledge and ideas that either confirm the wisdom of the philanthropic path you are on, or to identify areas for improvement and suggest ways you can improve or re-shape your giving areas or strategies.


Editor’s Note: The preceding passage was adapted from Splendid Legacy 2: Creating and Re-Creating Your Family Foundation for the Alliance for Charitable Reform. Splendid Legacy 2 is the National Center for Family Philanthropy’s extensive new guide to starting and sustaining effective family foundations.