Traveling the Road of Philanthropy as a Family: Tailored Education to Improve the Journey

Philanthropy has been described as a journey[1][2]. The stages of a philanthropic journey consist of several developmental phases, until ultimately philanthropists arrive at a place where they have a clearly defined strategy informed by years of learning and a realistic assessment of their impact. Framing philanthropy as a journey is especially helpful when engaging multiple generations in family giving. The developmental phases provide a map for understanding family members’ evolving philanthropic learning and remind everyone of where they have been and where they are going. As family members blaze their own unique philanthropic paths, mutual support of one another’s journey facilitates shared understanding and catalyzes effective family giving.

When family members embark on collaborative multigenerational giving they are often at different phases of their philanthropic journeys. The more experienced family members, sometimes the elder generation, may have a long history of philanthropy including serving in leadership roles on nonprofit boards, nonprofit capacity building experience, and even philanthropic thought leadership experience. They also often have a clearly defined sense of the causes that matter most to them, an awareness of best practices in those fields, and experience leveraging other philanthropic dollars to deepen impact. Newer givers, on the other hand, are just starting to test the waters of philanthropy; they may have a wide range of causes they seek to support and have not yet narrowed their approach, geography, or partners. They are beginning to learn about how to get involved in issues they care about, and how to use their skills and resources to best help nonprofits.

Targeted philanthropic training acknowledges that not all family members are in the same stage of their philanthropic journey and provides different learning opportunities depending on each individual’s experience and level of engagement. By following their own tailored path, younger family members, or family members newer to giving, will find their own voice and will feel empowered to contribute in a meaningful way. As each family member identifies their unique strengths and interests, the entire family will benefit from a richer and more diverse talent pool.

Stages for Targeted Philanthropic Education:

Below we describe three stages of philanthropic growth and provide tailored learning strategies for each. We group stages by philanthropic activity, rather than strictly by age range, because age ranges may vary depending on when individuals have a wealth-generating event.

Stage 1: Lacing your Hiking Boots

For families engaged in multigenerational giving, Stage 1 is when individuals begin to think about and get involved in philanthropy. At this stage, individuals learn about local and global challenges, start to identify their interests, and think about how they can give back to their community in a way that’s right for them.

Most people begin by engaging with organizations and issues where they have personal connections and where they can see the direct impact of their efforts. This could include attending a fundraiser to support a friend’s interests or making a significant gift to a school, university, museum or hospital that holds significance for the individual. In cases where the individual embarking on Stage 1 is a child or teen, it may involve volunteering locally, participating in a walk or run for charity, or becoming curious about issues of inequality. This is also an appropriate stage for youth to start to learn about their family’s philanthropic activities, and if there is a family foundation, their role as a future trustee.

Learning opportunities at this stage can include:

  • Exploring local causes and thinking about what issues matter most
  • Engaging in local or global volunteering
  • Learning about family philanthropic traditions or, if applicable, a family foundation’s mission and vision
  • Learning about nonprofit vetting, including grant reviewing, how to read nonprofit financial statements, and how to measure and assess impact
  • Understanding nonprofit governance, including the role of board members
  • Attending philanthropy conferences, speaker panels, nonprofit fundraisers, and other educational opportunities
  • Attending nonprofit site visits and increasing direct interaction with experts working in areas of interest
  • Experimenting with making a grant versus making a donation. This includes conversations about organizational needs, goals, measurement and reporting back to the donor.
  • Identifying family foundation needs that youth can assist with, including website or social media needs

Stage 2: Climbing the Mountain

At this stage, philanthropists have had some experiences making grants and have thought about areas they want to investigate further. They may also have some experience with organizations, programs or grantmaking areas that do not resonate. This is the stage when individuals sharpen their priorities and think about the role they want to play in their grantmaking areas. Ideally, having had some exposure to philanthropic best practices, they are also learning about how to be responsive and humble grantmakers. Philanthropists at this stage are also becoming actively involved in their family’s philanthropic efforts. They will spend time learning about the foundation, their role, and how they can put their own imprint on their family’s philanthropic legacy.

Learning opportunities at this stage can include:

  • Reflecting on personal experiences and values and how those inform philanthropic interests
  • Creating a giving plan that expresses a philanthropic mission statement and articulates values, experiences, and giving goals
  • Joining a nonprofit board to learn about the inner workings of nonprofits and to understand their needs and challenges and how to be a respectful advocate
  • Engaging in skills-based volunteering, or offering professional services pro-bono
  • Attending nonprofit fundraisers, speaker panels, and trainings and conferences in philanthropic interest areas to meet thought leaders, engage in peer networking, and learn
  • Creating or joining a collaborative giving vehicle centered on philanthropic interest areas to learn about grantmaking best practices and the landscape of grantmaking area(s)
  • Engaging in deep research on philanthropic priority areas to learn about best practices, promising nonprofits, and innovative strategies; this can include reaching out to community or global foundations or working with a philanthropic advisor to conduct landscape research
  • Soliciting input from experts and practitioners in the field
  • Engaging in mentoring relationships, within and outside of the family, to learn about philanthropic best practices
  • Becoming an active trustee in the family foundation; this will include learning about historical grantmaking and foundation policies and helping to establish an updated foundation vision that incorporates the newer generation’s voices. 

Stage 3: Ascending the Peak

Family members in Stage 3 have been practicing philanthropy for many years, they have had varied, immersive experiences, learned from mistakes, and have become tactical in their giving. Philanthropists in Stage 3 have a sense of what works and what doesn’t, trusting relationships with aligned philanthropic and nonprofit partners, and a realistic assessment of impact.

In Stage 3, some philanthropists seek change on a larger or more systemic scale. They are pursuing strategies informed by nonprofit partners and other funders and they continue to consistently refine their approach. At this stage, many philanthropists act as thought leaders, sharing what they have learned through a lifetime of giving.

Learning opportunities at this stage can include:

  • Leadership opportunities on nonprofit boards including chairing a board or joining the board’s executive committee
  • Leveraging other philanthropic networks to address intersecting issue areas
  • Speaking about issue areas they’ve addressed, including sharing best practices, how to measure impact, and areas of innovation in the field
  • Serving as a philanthropic mentor to family and community members to share insights on philanthropic best practices
  • Refining grantmaking strategies, based on experiences and an evaluation of your efforts
  • Continuing to support grantees that are aligned with the results you seek; deepening relationships with existing grantees and identifying additional capacity building support
  • Encouraging new generations to become involved in the family’s philanthropic efforts
  • Focusing time and energy in areas that they most enjoy and outsourcing other work to philanthropic advisors or foundation support services


Multigenerational philanthropy can be an incredibly rich and rewarding family experience. However, the work can be derailed when families lack a shared understanding of one another’s unique perspectives. Using the three stages of philanthropic growth and learning as a navigational tool can help build awareness around each family member’s personal journey and evolving philanthropic understanding. With this framework as a map, a beginner’s mindset is as welcomed and appreciated as the input of a seasoned philanthropist. Regardless of where each individual is on their philanthropic journey, every family member has something important to contribute and more to learn.

[1] HeatherMcLeod Grant and Kate Wilkinson, Open Impact. The Giving Journey. January 2018.

[2] The Bridgespan Group. Starting Your Philanthropic Journey: Exploring, Experimenting, Swinging for the Fences,-ex