One Summer, Two Foundations, and Endless Learning

From February to August, I pulled double duty—working full-time in communications and marketing at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and interning at The West Foundation, an Indianapolis-based family foundation that focuses on international grantmaking.

My internship has come about because of another dual role—being an employee and a part-time master’s degree student at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. As part of the master’s degree program, students are required to take an internship and a corresponding class in order to earn practical experience working in the philanthropic sector. I’m fascinated by foundations, and since I worked part-time at a community foundation last summer, I knew I wanted to learn more about the work of a private foundation.

I’m also incredibly interested in international philanthropy and development. I knew that living in the middle of the country might make it difficult to find an international grantmaker, so I was positively giddy when I learned about The West Foundation and their work, and even more excited when I heard they were looking for an intern!

Digging Deeper into Philanthropy

Once I started interning at the foundation in a communications and grants role, I realized how unique it was. Not only is it a family foundation that grants internationally, all while located in the heart of the Midwest, it strongly emphasizes strengthening partnerships with its grantees. Emily West, the executive director of the foundation and granddaughter of its founder, mentioned that the foundation focuses on the needs of the grantees, not on the needs of the foundation.

For me, it’s been exciting and rewarding to see how my learning from classes can and does apply to The West Foundation. I took a course called “Grantmaking and the Role of Foundations” in the spring, where we read Joel Fleishman’s book The Foundation: A Great American Secret; How Private Wealth is Changing the World. Comparing Fleishman’s quite sunny perspective on the role of foundations with the mission and vision of The West Foundation was interesting, and I remember thinking throughout the course how different The West Foundation acted in its grantmaking then some foundations who have very strict application and reporting guidelines. I admire The West Foundation as one who builds relationships and trusts its grantees to do their work without having strict reporting requirements. As someone passionate about philanthropy, the past six months have illustrated that foundations can act as good partners for their grantees. Building and maintaining solid relationships requires trust, but foundations can more equally and equitably balance the role of the foundation as a funder and the role of the grantee by trusting that organizations will ask for money that best fulfills their needs and helps them further their impact.

Thinking About the Next Generation

I’ve enjoyed working in a family foundation where one family member serves as executive director and two others volunteer on the board. I’m a member of a family that has a foundation—my grandparents began their charitable foundation about 25 years ago in Fort Wayne, Indiana. As of now, my grandmother and her five children run the foundation as board members (my grandfather died about two years ago, but he played an active role on the board when he lived). Eventually, the reins of this foundation will pass to my cousins and I—the third generation to serve on the board and help carry out my grandparents’ visions.

Seeing how The West Foundation has transferred the decision-making power has made me wonder how this transition will happen within my own family. As only two of my cousins still live in Fort Wayne (and they are quite young still), I do wonder when the transition to younger board members will take place, how long it will take, and how decisions will be implemented during that time. Will we all serve? There are 12 of us, but five are small and many of us live outside of Fort Wayne, if not outside of Indiana. How will we rotate on and off? How will we all communicate during board meetings—in person or over a video conferencing platform? I have questions, but I know we have time to work on them together, and know that we will all have my grandparents’ wishes at the forefront of our minds as we move forward.

Grantmaking and Donor Legacy

Interestingly though, while of similar asset size, The West Foundation and my family’s foundation are quite different. Beyond the basics (The West Foundation has paid staff, my family’s foundation does not), they have completely different grantmaking focuses. The West Foundation focuses on international grantmaking, while my family’s foundation mostly focuses on grantmaking in Fort Wayne, with a small portion being granted out to communities that my dad and his siblings now live in.

It speaks of donor intent—Harold West, the founder of The West Foundation, developed a passion for the international community through a position at his church. My grandparents spent almost their whole lives in Fort Wayne. I asked my grandmother once why they focused on Fort Wayne in their philanthropy, and she remarked it was because they “knew the community.” Different reasons for different missions, but reasons understandable in both regards.

Looking to the Future

Moving forward, I’ll think about decisionmaking, and how and when it becomes the best time for younger members of a family to become involved with a family foundation. I hope to speak with my cousins and brother about family values and legacy, and consider how we can effectively follow my grandparents’ vision while also staying updated on current and best practices in philanthropy. I hope that we’ll be able to work with the foundation’s long-standing and newer grantees, and discover how we can best serve them as they work hard to expand opportunities for everyone in Fort Wayne. I’ve thought about all of these questions and considerations during my time at The West Foundation, learning about how their board and staff interact with and best assist their grantees, all while honoring Harold West and the West family legacy.

Working in and being a part of philanthropy in multiple ways has shown me that one can make a difference, especially in family philanthropy. We have an important role of not only being responsible grantmakers, but also inculcating philanthropic values in future generations. My grandparents and parents showed me the value of philanthropy, community, and family as a child, which is why I want to work in this field. I’m reminded that I’m quite lucky to have experiences both working in the philanthropic sector and one day, serving on a foundation’s board. As Rebekah Jones, one of the board members at The West Foundation said, “It’s not your choice what family you’re born into. I’m just a recipient of what’s been passed down to me, but it’s a unique opportunity to help make these decisions and one not to be taken for granted.”

I’m excited to take what I’ve learned at The West Foundation this summer and utilize it in my professional career and personal life. I hope that I, as well as others, can use family philanthropy to catalyze change and make the world a better place.