Balancing Privilege and Responsibility

White chairs on red rose gardens

Editor’s Note: This blog post originally appeared here and on NCFP’s blog in 2018.

Balancing privilege with responsibility is no small feat. And then, after you miraculously have figured it out for yourself, how do you pass this wisdom down to your next generation? In this blog, I will highlight what I mean by privilege and then share a few examples of the responsibility that comes along with it. This is obviously a large and complex topic—I merely am skimming the surface.

In hindsight, I had a privileged upbringing. I was exposed to lots of presents each holiday season and wanted for very little, even though I grew up in a large, loving, and completely chaotic family and lived in a rural farm community. I found myself at one of the best boarding schools in the country, and was able to travel the world at an early age.

Growing up in a large family, you quickly learn your first responsibility is to yourself. It started at the dining room table, where I had to outwit or outgun my siblings in order to get that second helping (despite growing up in privilege, it never seemed we had enough food to feed us five kids).

It wasn’t until middle school with my boarding school acceptance letter in hand, that I realized I had a larger responsibility, and that was to my incredibly private extended family. About this time, my grandparents passed away and my father was deeply involved in starting the family foundation with his siblings. It became more and more apparent that my upbringing was different (please note: “different” does not mean “better”) than that of my closest childhood friends, and hiding that privilege, or “mark of difference”, soon became embedded in my daily routine.

To please my parents, I worked hard to fit in and be like my childhood peers. Along with fitting in to that norm, I was told that each time I traveled or went out in public I was “representing my family”. As a consequence, whenever I went out with my friends in my hometown, I always felt watched and judged. Still to this day, I will always try to look nice and be respectful. Although this familial responsibility is a lot of pressure (it was impossible to “let loose” in my hometown), I felt pride to be a part of the legacy my grandparent and their children had created.

It is a lot of pressure to be a recognized, value-adding member of society, but is also incredibly rewarding. Because I grew up in the foundation world, responsibility to me also meant giving back and staying true to the family legacy. My community became my third responsibility, after myself and my family. Advice was given to me early on. For instance, while serving on nonprofit boards, make sure you’re a good board member. Come to each meeting prepared. Do not bail on your board commitment during times of trouble. Be on time (I struggle with this one). Last, always add value to each organization that you serve, and each person you meet, no matter who they are.

The book of Luke said it best: to whom much is given (privilege), much is required (responsibility). A good friend of mine and the next generation leader of her family’s business had this verse in the signature line of her email. Today, she and I are raising kids who also will feel the pressure associated with balancing privilege with responsibility. We are not alone as we explore the many ways to pass our family’s legacies onto the next generation. So how do we pass this wisdom down to our kids in a way that they can still be themselves while also being a part of something greater?

‘Balancing privilege with responsibility is one of life’s great lessons,’ shared my friend/mentor/family business leader. His father had shared this advice with my friend long ago. So many seem to have grasped this concept innately and are role-models to their kids. Recently, I met a partner of a CPA firm at an event hosted by our local Chamber of Commerce. Her 13-year-old son willingly volunteers in their church’s daycare in the room designated for 2-year-olds. Every Sunday. Then there is the father who will only serve on boards of nonprofit organizations where his family can also volunteer and get involved. Clearly these parents know the secret recipe to raising civically-minded kids.

To end this post, takeaways include:

  • There is a lot of pressure involved in balancing privilege with responsibility. Be aware of how this pressure manifests itself.
  • Talk to your kids about family values and expectations early on. Explain (often time and again) why these values and expectations exist.
  • When asked to give back to your community, take this responsibility seriously. Do the best job you can at being a community member- you have more impact than you realize.
  • Be a role model— volunteer and take your family with you.
  • Remember to try to add value to each person with whom you interact during the day.

What’s in a name? Join us at the National Forum on Family Philanthropy for The Power of a Name: A Conversation about the Role and Opportunity, featuring two giving families for a dialogue about the power of your name.