Family Philanthropy Speaks: A Conversation with Vasser Seydel

Vasser Seydel, the granddaughter of Ted Turner, is the founding chair of the Turner 3rd Generation Board (T3G), a member of the Turner Foundation Board, and is a Millennial leader forging her own path in philanthropy. NCFP President and CEO Nick Tedesco spoke with Vasser about the inception of the T3G Board, the challenges of generational transition, how to engage the next-gen, and how Vasser has developed her philanthropic voice.

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About the Series

Philanthropy is a practice borne out of compassion and commitment—and one that is deeply rooted in family. It’s also a practice that must continue to evolve to effectively meet the needs of the communities it seeks to serve. Thankfully, there are countless social sector leaders who are advancing the field with their bold ideas and unwavering enthusiasm for the greater good. The National Center for Family Philanthropy is honored to share the stories of these leaders through its program, Family Philanthropy Speaks—a series of conversations designed to feature the innovative spirit of family philanthropy. These dynamic discussions aim to capture emerging trends and solutions, share new and diverse voices in the field, and lift up the role of family philanthropy—past, present, and future—in stewarding social change. We hope you will join us to explore what it means to give with intention!

Watch more Family Philanthropy Speaks conversations here.


Nick Tedesco: Welcome to the Family Philanthropy Speaks video blog series from the National Center For Family Philanthropy. These conversations highlight the innovative spirit of family giving. Our guests today grew up in a family with an extraordinary philanthropic legacy. Vasser Seydel is a granddaughter of Ted Turner and serves as a third generation director of the Turner Foundation. She’s also an environmental consultant and an emerging leader in family philanthropy in her own right. I began by asking Vassar about her upbringing and how that helped shape her worldview.

Vasser Seydel: Nick, I can’t remember a time where I didn’t know what philanthropy was. I don’t know if I actually knew the literal definition at a super early age, but I understood what it meant to be a philanthropist and what philanthropy looked like because growing up it was all around me. My grandfather, Ted Turner, was very philanthropic and still is. But at the time of me growing up very philanthropic in the public eye specifically, but also that leaked over into our private lives, whether that was dinner table conversations, or my experiences in the outside world, or my value system. And the interesting thing about philanthropy, as Nick you definitely know, it’s different for each family. Normally a matriarch or patriarch of the family kind of sets the tone and defines philanthropy and what it means and what it looks uniquely to the family. And my Grandpa Ted, demonstrated that, in our family, philanthropy was defined as acknowledging our privilege and our responsibility and giving back to both people and the planet.

So there was this thread of conservation, and environmentalism, and stewardship, communities, hands-on education, the list goes on. But those things weren’t just a focus of what we give to, it really was a value system that’s at the core of my family and our family unity, but also who we are as individuals. So all of this is to say my Grandpa Ted and his example of giving back shaped my world view tremendously. And growing up traveling the worlds, going on site visits, on family foundation retreats, sitting in board meetings from an early age, and really just witnessing his generous spirit, really shaped the way I look at the world and who I am.

Nick Tedesco: So at what point did you become formally involved with the family philanthropy? We had mentioned your engagement on the third generation board. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about that and the role that that board plays in relation to the broader foundation board.

Vasser Seydel: So I love talking about T3G which is what my cousins and I decided to call the Turner third generation board. And I love it because the “adult board,” which I am now on can never get it right, T3G, they can’t get the acronym. But it’s really cool because the process started and the evolution of T3G started with our amazing staff at the foundation, Karen Murphy, and our former President Judy Adler, both amazing and incredible women. And really there’s a lot of girl cousins. So really who were more than just staff, they were mentors and family to us. So four years ago, this amazing team introduced the idea of a third generation board to my cousins and I, and we really liked it. And it aligned with the Turner Foundation and my grandpa’s view for the foundation of one, the obvious giving side of being philanthropic, and communities and for the environment and the other side of our family philanthropy and his vision of creating family unity.

So we started the process of creating T3G by looking at case studies, doing values assessments, goal workshops, and creating a mission statement. So really, the staff catalyzed the idea and really just were helping us and providing resources for us to create what we wanted to create, which was really cool and was a great way of making the third generation board our own idea. And what was even more cool is that we, for the first time, were able to see our goals and priorities and how they aligned with the Turner Foundation board, and also where they differed. For example, we feel really passionately about youth and more specifically underserved youth and hands-on opportunities, which wasn’t really a goal for our aunts and uncles. For whatever reason, they just had other bigger funding priorities.

So for the first time we got to sit down and in doing a third generation values assessment we could see a generational transfer of values and really see what was important to my grandpa was also deeply important to all of his grandchildren. So functionality wise, to your question about the third generation board, it gives an opportunity for my cousins to prepare for the older board and also, which I love and I think is a really great opportunity is, it’s a learning opportunity for leadership positions at an earlier age and starting some conversations just within the generation around equity, wealth, privilege, and other conversations which are so important to have within a family philanthropy community.

Nick Tedesco: So if I’m hearing you correctly this feels like a space where you all not only prepare to be stewards of the family’s philanthropy more broadly, but also is an opportunity for you to reflect on the values that drive you as a separate and distinct generation from your parents and grandparents. Is that correct?

Vasser Seydel: Absolutely.

Nick Tedesco: So what age are you eligible to be on T3G and what does the frequency of meetings look like and the rhythm of engagement?

Vasser Seydel: So originally we had it the age be 15 years old, but one of our younger cousins identified that he wanted to be part of the board and considering his request and we were like, “This is honestly great. This is not something to be exclusive. It’s really to garner interest at a young age. So since he’s interested, the more the merrier.” And it honestly was a sign of success that the junior board was galvanizing interest at a young age. So we knocked it back to 13 recently. But the age really would just depend on what works for our family and in our family the age range for the third generation varies quite broadly.

So my brother is 27 and the youngest is maybe seven years old. So we wanted to make sure that we had buy-in from the cousins who decided they wanted to be on the third generation board. So we wanted to make it old enough to where someone’s going to read a docket and have time and really show up prepared, but young enough to allow whoever wants to be on the board at that age to be able to be involved in the process.

Nick Tedesco: So I’d love to talk a little bit about this moment in time for your family and your family’s philanthropy. So as your grandfather is aging, and as the family considers transition across generations, what are some of the priorities for the foundation and what do you see your role being to be able to steward those priorities?

Vasser Seydel: So, Nick, this is such an important question. And to be honest, this is a really loaded question for us at the Turner Foundation right now, as you alluded to and many may know my grandfather has Lewy Body Dementia, and he’s been public about that. So we’re at the stage where we’ve been grappling with the transition planning process. So my grandfather also set a pretty amazing legacy and example for the philanthropic community to give his resources and see that change and impact during his lifetime. And I believe, as he obviously does, that there is no better time to make change than the present. And just look around us right now in 2020. We’re living in unprecedented times where a lot of issues are coming to the surface and there’s a great deal, to be honest, of urgency around them.

So I believe his message is more important now than ever for the philanthropic community and all that said, transition planning isn’t easy, and you have to make tough decisions that you might not really want to, but it’s just the reality of where you are. But coming from a place of family unity, and really my grandfather’s legacy at its core, it makes the process easier.

And like you said, I look forward to being part of those decisions more in the future now that I am on the adult board and for my own role at the Turner Foundation, I want to continue my grandfather’s bold legacy of giving and really being innovative. So I hope to bring more of the third generation’s perspective and priorities to the table in our giving.

Nick Tedesco: I have no doubt you do and will make him very proud as you do this work. I want to talk about a dual goal that families often have, and that is one of a goal of family engagement and family unity as well as social impact. And I want to explore whether that resonates with you and your family. Does that feel like the way that you all frame why you pursue a family philanthropy effort?

Vasser Seydel: So my grandpa has actually made this pretty clear that this was his intention, a dual intention when starting the Turner Foundation. One, like you said, the more obvious goal is to give and create impact, but his other intention is to create this sense of family unity. And as you probably know, the statistic of family foundations often don’t make it to a third generation and that’s really to do with family having to deal with wealth and the differences between family members. But I think family philanthropy creates an opportunity to unite over similarities and those similarities should stem in my view, or it works well for us in this case, should stem and does stem with our founder, my grandpa, and what he believes in and what his goals are for making impact on this planet.

So that just makes it easy to align over his vision and maybe talk about our differences aside. And also, today people tout differences as a problem, but really differences is what makes people human and what makes this world go round. And honestly, genius is born out of differences. So you just have to come from a perspective where people can bring their differences to the table, but at the end of the day you’re going to unite over the commonality.

Nick Tedesco: So as a next-gen leader in the family, I’d love to hear a little bit more about how you have found your voice amongst a large family, a family with a lot of strength, and opinions and experience. And I’d love for you to share the advice that you would give to other emerging leaders in families, because it often is quite a challenge to be able to find your footing and find your voice.

Vasser Seydel: Well, for me, it wasn’t really a challenge to find my voice because I’m the oldest girl cousin. Well, one because of the family, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree on this line, but also because of the dynamics. I’m the oldest girl cousin, my brother’s the oldest cousin. So we were kind of like the nannies when we would all get together, we’re watching out for everyone. So just this dynamics will lend to my cousins looking up to me and my siblings, but my advice is simple for the emerging leaders in philanthropy that if you have something to say, say it. And you can only develop your voice if you have practice speaking up. And a family foundation board junior board is a great place to train that muscle. Low stakes, really, because it’s a safe space. And it’s also important, and I want to stress this point, to remember that being a good leader isn’t just about your own opinion and your own voice, it’s about lifting up other voices as well. So odds are you have a cousin or a sibling that might be younger or a little bit more shy, you can mentor and encourage them to help them find their voice. And if you’re the person in the family who doesn’t speak up as much, who might be more shy or just a better listener, just know that there is immense power in that. And when you do have something to say, people are always more inclined to listen to you. So just know your power.

Nick Tedesco: It’s extraordinary advice. And I know there are going to be a lot of people that benefit from that. So thank you for sharing that on. The flip side of that, what would you say to the generations above the emerging leaders to be able to create that environment to empower the next generation?

Vasser Seydel: Generally, and a really easy one is to make it fun. Philanthropy is very serious and is seemingly even more serious today, but it doesn’t always have to feel that way. So whether you do that through retreats, or site visits, even in family board meetings, or even a third generation board, you can make it a little bit more lighthearted. It is about family at the end of the day too. So just center it around feeling good and having fun and creating memories together through the giving process. And another one would be to be deliberate and intentional around instilling values at an early age, either in a formal or an informal process, whatever works for family.

I know when I was growing up, it was more informal and now it’s started to be more formal for my younger cousins. So it really just depends what works for your family. But it’s just important to start the conversation around wealth and privilege early on. Because whether or not you know it, your child is going to be asked those questions in school, especially if your family is more public about philanthropy or you have a public figure in your family.

So just having those conversations with your children and giving them the tools to understand what does your family do with your wealth? And what kind of impact is your family having in this world? And lastly, I just want to say family philanthropy is a really unique opportunity for the next generation to learn what their passions are at an early age. And as I mentioned before, it’s also a training ground for leadership. So just take advantage of creating and encouraging leadership opportunities in these safe spaces.

Nick Tedesco: I’d love to talk a little bit about how the sector is evolving. So we’ve seen a lot of changes over the last four to six months with a lot more to come. And I’d love for you to reflect a little bit on what your hopes are for philanthropy and what philanthropists might do to meet the moment.

Vasser Seydel: Right now we’re seeing some really big systemic, urgent, and global problems. Our world is in this time of change, and although change can feel scary or intimidating to some, it really is an opportunity, an opportunity for in this case philanthropy to evolve, to be more bold, to be more courageous, to be more innovative, which isn’t new to philanthropy by the way. My grandfather is a great example of that and there’s many others as well. But to not get comfortable with where we are now. Philanthropy is faced with this challenge and this responsibility to help expedite and catalyze the change that we need to see in this world, whether it’s to solve the climate crisis, reduce our carbon emissions by half by 2030, which is no small feat and takes transformational change, whether it’s to tackle the systematic racial issues in the US and around the world, whether it’s to tackle the health crisis, all of these issues. Now we know these issues do not operate in silos. So we have to create solutions that are cross-cutting.

So my hope would be for more philanthropic families to spend beyond 5% to center racial justice and many cross-cutting issue areas and solutions, and to include expertise of people in communities being funded, which I think is happening and I’ve seen it happening across the sector a lot and more and more so. So philanthropy is doing a good job of that, but just to really embed that in best practices and lastly, to increase partnerships, whether that’s challenge grants, but just really increasing collaboration around issue areas.

Nick Tedesco: It’s a bold and succinct call to action. So that is a wonderful note to end on, Vasser. I want to thank you for your time, thank you for your leadership, thank you for your engagement with the National Center For Family Philanthropy as a board member and your partnership. So we really appreciate your time and your thoughts today, and thank you for being with us.