The Effects of Family Culture on Family Foundations

family silhouette at sunset

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared here from the Council on Foundations website.

Most people do not think of their family as having a “culture.” They associate culture with countries and ethnic groups. But the family? For most of us, it’s just a group of familiar people doing what they always do.

Yet it is exactly this—a characteristic way of thinking, feeling, judging, and acting—that defines a culture. In direct and subtle ways, children are molded by the family culture into which they are born. Growing up, their assumptions about what is right and wrong, good and bad, reflect the beliefs, values and traditions of the family culture. Most take for granted their family’s ways, and they carry into adulthood numerous attitudes and behaviors acquired in childhood.

Even those who later reject all or part of the family culture often discover that they are not entirely free of their early influences. No matter that they promise themselves they will never repeat the mistakes of their own family—certain cultural attitudes and responses are so ingrained in family members that they continue to affect their thinking and behavior, whether or not those individuals are aware of such influence.

To say that families have identifiable cultures, however, is not to suggest that they are static. Families are in a constant state of transition as each member moves through the cycles of life and the family itself moves from one stage of development to the next. Marriages, births, divorces and deaths change the family constellation and, in profound ways, alter the family culture. Simultaneously, larger political, economic and social forces also impinge on the family culture. The social revolution that began in the 1960s, for example, changed—among other things—attitudes and expectations about the roles of men and women. The boy or girl raised in a family in which mother and aunts are professional women is exposed to a very different family culture from the one their grandparents knew.

Organizational Cultures

In the 1980s, management theorists and consultants popularized the concept of organizational culture. They described corporations in anthropological terms, pointing to their social structure, norms and laws, language, dress codes and even their artifacts. Organizations with distinct cultures invariably bore the imprint of their founders. The corps of clean-shaven IBM executives dressed in white shirts and blue suits reflected the personality, beliefs and style of Thomas Watson, Sr., just as the bearded Apple employees wearing jeans, T-shirts and Birkenstock sandals reflected those of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Like corporations, family foundations have distinct organizational cultures, and they are as varied as the families that generate them. They run the gamut from formal, with tightly run meetings held in foundation boardrooms, to informal, with gatherings around a family member’s dining-room table. As in corporations, the values and norms of the founders and their families determine the focus of the foundation as well as how it is governed, how conflicts are handled and how emotions are expressed.

To recognize the effects of family culture on the style and direction of a family foundation, Chapter 1 will look at four particular cultural attributes: values, norms, traditions and conformity. Each is examined below.


The values of the family set the basic tone for the family foundation. They inspire the choice of mission as well as the foundation’s policies and practices. Typically, the values of the individuals who have created the family’s wealth predominate. Entrepreneurs with the single-mindedness and drive to amass fortunes often have powerful and compelling personalities to match. Not surprisingly, then, they shape foundations in their image and according to their values, philosophy and preferred style of management—just as they did their business.

One such man was A. Lincoln Filene, who founded the Lincoln and Therese Filene Foundation in 1946. Born shortly after the assassination of President Lincoln, he was named by his immigrant parents in honor of the fallen president. Filene remained true to his namesake; throughout his life, he held progressive political views and acted on them.

Innovative businessman, Lincoln Filene and his brother Edward built a major retail business, Filene’s department store in Boston, which had been started by their father. Later, Lincoln Filene joined with other store owners to form Federated Department Stores. The Filene brothers were the first to employ a full-time nurse in their store as an employee benefit in an era when most workers could not afford good medical care. They also promoted the creation of credit unions to help workers generate purchasing power.

Lincoln Filene was as engaged in the world as he was in his store. In the 1930s he established programs for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany with the dual purpose of helping them get jobs and learn what it means to be an American. In the 1950s he created the Filene Center for Civic Participation at Tufts University, and he also helped establish the first public broadcasting station in Boston.

Fifty years after the family foundation was founded, Filene’s social and political commitments still prevail. Lincoln Filene would be pleased that today, members of the third, fourth and fifth generations of the family serve side by side on the board and on program committees carrying out the work he began on issues involving civic education, public broadcasting and job training.

The values of entrepreneurs who have created their family’s wealth do not always inspire family members to follow in their footsteps. In some cases, they motivate them to take an opposite course. Charles Demeré, the founder of the Debley Foundation in St. Mary’s City, Maryland, is one who took a different path from that of his father and brothers.

Demeré grew up hearing the story of his father Raymond’s “Horatio Alger” rise from rags to riches. Forced to leave school to support his family, Raymond began delivering oil from a single barrel on the back of a truck. He eventually built his one-man business into the largest oil company in the Southeast. Yet even as a young man, Demeré recognized that his father was unhappy.

“I’d see my father reading books about how to gain peace of mind,” says Demeré, “but I could see that he didn’t have it. He spent his health in gaining wealth, and then spent his wealth to regain his health. I realized that wealth alone didn’t make life satisfying. I decided to look for meaning elsewhere.”

While his brothers followed careers in business, Demeré turned to spiritual pursuits. Ordained as an Episcopal priest, he and his wife, Margaret, chose to raise their family in modest circumstances. In 1962, after Demeré and his brothers dissolved a business partnership they had inherited from their father, Demeré used 10 percent of his money to endow the Debley Foundation. The name Debley, which combines the surnames of his father (Demeré) and his mother (Mobley), symbolizes the family philanthropic effort that Demeré hoped the foundation would foster. He invited his brothers, along with his cousins from the Mobley side of the family, to sit on the board.

“My idea was to pool our money and ideas,” says Demeré, “and, in the process to strengthen ties between the two sides of the family. It never happened. They’d just ask me what I wanted to give to, and then they’d rubber-stamp it and adjourn the meeting.”

Demeré’s dream of involving the extended family in creating a family culture built on philanthropic values never took hold. Later, he would try again, inviting his children on the board when they came of age. Today, two of Demeré’s four children serve on the board, along with his wife and two cousins.

It is not only the values of the person who creates the family wealth that stamp the family culture. The O’Neill family in Cleveland traces the value it places on family unity to Hugh O’Neill, who emigrated to the United States in 1884. Settling in Ohio, Hugh O’Neill raised his children to respect and maintain family ties. His grandson, William (Bill) J. O’Neill, Jr., explains that when he was growing up, “all the branches of the family lived nearby. We were almost as close to our cousins as were to our own brothers and sisters. My grandfather passed on his value of family cohesiveness to his children, who passed it on to us. Now my generation is doing the same for the next generation.”

O’Neill family members worked together in the family business, Leaseway Transportation, a publicly traded company started by Bill’s father and his two uncles. They, with Bill and some of his cousins, built the trucking and warehouse business into a billion-dollar-a-year operation. After the family sold its shares in Leaseway, Bill set up a family office to manage the family’s investments.

In 1987, the family discovered yet another way to tie its members together. Bill and his mother, Dorothy, the principal donor, established the William J. and Dorothy K. O’Neill Foundation. In keeping with the clan mentality, their goal was to involve every family member in the foundation at whatever level they could participate. Bill and his mother are the only trustees, but his five siblings sit on the disbursement committee along with Bill’s wife and three members of the third generation. Whether or not they are active on committees, adult members of the family’s six branches are invited to attend meetings, and all receive detailed minutes of each foundation meeting explaining what was decided and why.


Norms are the spoken and unspoken rules of cultures. Reinforced over time, they operate as invisible constraints on family members’ behavior. Norms set standards for how family members dress, talk and act. They also set limits on what is permissible or impermissible behavior under different circumstances and conditions. More than just rules of etiquette, norms provide family members with a guide for living both within the home and without.

When families establish foundations, they bring with them the rules of behavior that have governed the family culture. In 1985, John and Marianne Vanboven (not their real names) set up the Theodore Vanboven Family Foundation in honor of John’s father, a Dutch immigrant who built the family fortune. Originally, the board was composed of John and Marianne and their two children, Thomas and Alexandra. Then, two years, ago, the children’s spouses Joan and Michael, were added to the board.

“In our family, good manners count for everything,” says Thomas. “As children, my sister and I learned not to raise our voices, never to ask personal questions, and to avoid dissension at all costs. If we violated those rules, my parents would only have to raise their eyebrows to let us know that our behavior was out of line.”

When Thomas and Alexandra went away to college in the 1970s, they encountered a different set of norms. There, free expression was not only encouraged but considered healthy. Both Thomas and Alexandra spent several years in therapy learning how to express their feelings, and both married spouses who grew up in family cultures in which arguing and shouting were commonplace. Nonetheless, when Thomas and Alexandra are in the company of their parents, they still follow the rules of behavior they were taught as children.

Before the spouses joined the board, meetings to discuss allocations ran smoothly. The foundation funds higher education and church-run social services programs. Although Thomas and Alexandra wanted to be more adventurous grantmakers, they were reluctant to introduce proposals outside their parents’ purview.

When the spouses joined the board, however, they had a different understanding of what their roles would be. They expected that as trustees, they would be free to debate ideas and grant proposals. Joan quickly caught on to the Vanbovens’ unspoken norms and backed away from controversy. But Michael persisted in arguing his positions, sometimes quite aggressively and long after they were voted down by the board.

“It was evident from my parents’ silence and body language,” says Thomas, “that they were uncomfortable when Michael raised his voice or banged his fist on the table, but Michael seemed oblivious to their signals. When I mentioned his behavior to my mother, she denied that anything was wrong. That’s the way my parents are. They close their eyes to whether they don’t want to see, and then hope that the problem will clear up by itself.”

As hard as the Vanboven family tries to avoid controversy, the Jacobs family welcomes it. They refer to themselves as a “loud and feisty bunch,” and there is no mistaking who inspired that image. Joe Jacobs, a child of Lebanese immigrants, grew up in poverty in Brooklyn. After earning a degree in chemical engineering, he started a small consulting business in 1947 that he built into the billion-dollar Jacobs Engineering Group.

As an undergraduate student, Joe was trained in Socratic dialogue, and this discipline sparked a love of intellectual sparring that he passed on to his three daughters. Over the years, the family has had plenty of opportunities to practice its debating skills. Joe is a political conservative and advocate of the free enterprise system, and his daughters are liberals. One rule guides the family’s arguments: say what you have to say with passion and heat, and then give others the same opportunity.

Once, in a particularly fiery argument between Joe and his daughter Linda, an exasperated Joe asked Linda what made her so opinionated. Her instant reply was, “Where do you think I learned that, Dad?” A few days later, Linda gave her father another answer. She presented him with a plaque imprinted with a quote from Jonathan Swift: “We love each other because our ailments are the same.” Joe hung it on the kitchen wall.

In 1989, Joe and his wife, Violet (Vi), set up the Jacobs Family Foundation in San Diego, California, and invited their daughters, and later their two sons-in-law, to serve on the board. Until the family discovered a common interest, funding microenterprises, their arguments over the foundation’s mission were long and furious. But they all agreed that they wanted their foundation to break new ground in philanthropy; and once again, the norms of the family culture prevailed. Joe had taken risks in building his business and wanted the foundation to do the same in philanthropy. For years, he kept on his desk a cartoon of Babe Ruth at bat; its caption read “Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times.” As Joe says, “Defeat can’t be avoided. It’s part of daring. That’s why I tell my family, listen kids, we may get knocked on our behinds fighting the system, but we’re going to do it.”

The Jacobs Family Foundation has had many successes as well as its share of disappointments. In sticking its neck out, it has made mistakes and misjudged the capacity of certain individuals for leadership. But what some families might regard as failures, the Jacobs see as valuable lessons. Undaunted, they are confident they are on the right track.


All families have traditions that are passed down from one generation to the next. In the past, when the extended family all lived in one place, traditions were built into the routines of daily life and kept alive by family elders. As family branches diverged and the elders died, the traditions often died with them.

With family members scattered around the country, families now have to work hard to create and maintain their traditions. The O’Neill family, for example, holds reunions every three years for the entire clan—some 235 relatives who live in the United States. For one family branch of the clan whose members want to meet more regularly, there is also an annual weekend gathering every summer, which nearly half the family attends. Typically, one person in the family takes the initiative in organizing family events; in the O’Neill family, that person is often Bill O’Neill. To keep track of this large family, he prints and distributes a clan telephone directory, which he updates annually.

Several trustees interviewed for this guide mentioned traditional summer gathering places where the family comes together for fun and relaxation, usually at the summer home of the grandparents or at a family camp. It was through childhood experiences of those places, some say, that they first developed the sense of belonging to something larger than their immediate family.

For 200 years, for example, the Pardoe family has maintained a family farm in New Hampshire. Purchased in 1796, the farm had been continually occupied by family members until the death of the family matriarch, Helen Pardoe, in 1988. Now the ownership and management of the farm have passed to the younger generation. Although younger family members live on both coasts, they still regard the farm as their symbolic family home.

“My grandmother was a large presence in the family,” says Charles Pardoe II, “and we were all close to her. The farm symbolizes the values my grandmother lived by and passed on to us about the importance of a tight-knit family, hard work and positive attitudes.”

The farm continues to be a family gathering place, and because the current owners of the farm are also the directors of the Samuel P. Pardoe Foundation in Washington, DC, at least one of the foundation’s meetings is held there annually. The family foundation is now exploring ways to fund educational and charitable programs that use the farm’s fields, barns and livestock in their activities.

Not all traditions are formal practices or celebrations; some are customary ways of doing things that go unquestioned. Often family members think and behave in certain ways because “that’s how it’s always been.” When families set up family foundations, they generally structure those foundations according to the same traditions.  Foundations that do not have private offices, for example, often hold meetings in the home of the family elders (the traditional meeting place).  Similarly, families with a tradition of vesting authority for business and investment decisions exclusively in the hands of the men in the family or the family elders generally set up a similar hierarchy in the foundation.

Traditions respected within the context of the home, however, may be challenged when carried over to the foundation. Coming together under different circumstances and in a wholly different arena, family members who have been excluded from decision making may no longer be as willing to abide by the usual traditions when they become trustees. Sometimes, even the family leaders themselves recognize that a different management structure is needed for the foundation.


Family cultures vary greatly in their tolerance of differences. Some demand total allegiance to the values of the culture and regard any divergence from the norm as threatening to the well-being of the family. Some even go as far as to cut off all contact with family members who embrace different philosophies or styles of living.

When families of this cultural type set up foundations, they impose the same demand for conformity on trustees. Typically, little if any debate takes place, and new voices or perspectives on issues are discouraged. One trustee, the granddaughter of the founder of a large foundation in the South, tells of her experience of joining the board when she was well into middle age. Married at age nineteen to escape what she described as an oppressively proper family life, she lived on the West Coast until her divorce several years ago. Back in her hometown, she was eager to serve on the family board, seeing the foundation as a way to reintegrate into the community.

In her absence, the control of the board had passed from her grandmother, the founder, to her father, and then to her three brothers, who, for the past eight years, had followed the same “cookie-cutter” approach to broaden the foundation’s grantmaking. She began meeting with members of the community to learn more about the foundation’s funding areas and to explore new approaches that the board might take in supporting local groups.  Excited by her findings, she recommended that some of these individuals be invited to speak to the board at its next meeting. The board turned down her suggestion.

“They reacted as if I were a traitor to the family,” she says. “They regard any changes from the way my grandmother and father did things as betrayal. It’s frustrating that they shut the door to new ideas because with the amount of money we give away each year, this foundation could be a real force for change in this town.”

Other families, like the Stranahans, go to great lengths to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. In 1956, Duane and Virginia Stranahan formed the Needmor Fund in Boulder, Colorado, with money earned from the family business, Champion Spark Plug, started by Duane’s father and uncle. The Stranahans are a large family (Duane and Virginia had six children who had sixteen children of their own), and their politics run the gamut from conservative to progressive. Despite their diversity, they place great value on inclusiveness.

“My grandfather is a quiet man who set an example of not imposing his views on others,” says Abby Stranahan, the current board chair. “He wants the family to work together, and he trusts them to make good decisions.”

The family’s tolerance for diversity was tested during the 1970s when the family and the foundation were in turmoil. Duane and Virginia divorced, as did several other family members, and others moved away from the family home in Toledo, Ohio. Meanwhile, Virginia left the board, and members of the third generation, politicized by the events of the times, had their own ideas on how to give money away.

To preserve family unity and encourage family participation, the foundation revised the trust agreement. Under the new guidelines, any family member who contributed $1,000 to the foundation was considered a voting member of the foundation. Moreover, the family felt a need to develop a broad mission that would include the wide sweep of political philosophies. To that end, they hired a strong and experienced executive director who helped them cut through their political differences to find a common interest in funding grassroots empowerment.

“Ironically,” says Stranahan, “the board’s impulse to move toward a more unifying and less politicized mission led us to more progressive funding. What was dividing the family was not values but rhetoric. Once family members discovered they had similar concerns and that those concerns cut across political differences, they were able to focus on foundation goals.”

This brief introduction to family culture points at the many strands that weave together two systems, the family and the foundation. As will become clearer in later chapters, that influence does not move in one direction but rather is reciprocal. The family is changed by the experience of running the foundation, and the foundation, in turn, is influenced by the changes in the family. Founders die, and with them often go their styles of leadership and management. In-laws join the family, importing beliefs, norms and traditions from their own family cultures, The younger generation comes on board, reflecting a new set of values and experiences and, often, different funding agendas. Conflicts erupt, circumstances change and new challenges arise that require trustees to rethink their old ways or to devise different strategies for managing situations.

And so life moves inexorably forward as both internal and external forces continuously shape and influence the cultures of the two systems—the family and the foundation. Later chapters of this guide will explore in more detail the interaction between these two systems.