Generational Challenges in a Family Foundation

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Understanding generational differences can be confusing (if we’re even thinking about it). Have you heard the ringing refrain “Ok Boomer!” or “Damn Millennials!”? We certainly have. For the first time in history, our family’s philanthropy has five unique generations working and serving together on boards: Traditionalists (b.1927-1946), Boomers (b. 1943-1963), Generation X (b.1964-1980), Generation Y (Millennials b.1981-1996), and Generation Z (b.1997-2010), each with their own unique (different!) perceptions, attitudes, methods or preferences of communication, interaction styles, and ideas about connection. The aspersions thrown around have never been more vocal, vitriolic or widespread than with the advent of technology, social media and the 24-hour news cycle.

Family foundations bring with them unique sets of nuanced interactions intergenerationally. Let’s face it: it’s FAMILY after all, and family foundations must deal with all things every family might struggle with: challenging personalities, historical riffs, preconceived notions, intended or unintended biases (positive and not so much!), judgments, opinions, worldviews and attitudes. We don’t choose our family, we’re born into it. I am a member of such a family foundation, have been for 35+ years, and am currently President. I am also the founder and CEO of Future Image Group, a group of experts advising corporate clients and nonprofits on intergenerational challenges and how human behavior overlays into personal interactions at work. In short, how to function effectively in a business setting in order to accomplish the work at hand. We don’t stop being human beings when we become employees, or indeed, board members of family foundations. I speak with some authority.

Generational discord is not a new phenomenon, honestly, it’s been around forever:

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Sound familiar? Socrates said this sometime in the 3rd century, B.C.!. There’s always been a younger generation that thinks the older one is outdated. We do, however, find ourselves at an inflection point these days. How do we interact with these fundamental differences generationally?

As humans, “fear of the unknown” is a natural and understandable response to new things (people, concepts, and actions, etc.). As humans, we prefer and gravitate towards routine, the expected, the known and understood. “New” is strange, different, and sometimes uncomfortable. Humans, by and large, covet comfortability, predictability, the ordinary and regular. Different generations are, well, different, so we often find ourselves sticking with our own. It’s also a natural and understandable reaction to make “the other” generations the bad guy. It’s a useful evolutionary tool that our brains employ to keep us safe from the new and scary. However, it is not so useful for intergenerational communication and reconciliation. Institutions like Harvard and M.I.T. have been studying this shifting cultural phenomenon for years. This is, in fact, “a thing.” All of us have had board interactions that leave a bad taste in our mouths when interacting with the generational “others.”

Certainly, there are some fortunate familial architectures where members respect one another’s opinions, honor differing viewpoints, embrace and celebrate similarities and differences, respect decisions made by individuals, and support, honor, and love each other. But, we’re talking about families! A group of multi-generational people, who know each other like the front pocket of their favorite jeans: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Add to that the business of running a foundation: fiscal stewardship, decision making, governance, succession planning, hierarchy, committee work, managing investments and financial decisions, discourse and being required by law to meet and see each other at least once a year to do all the marvelous things the foundation was chartered to execute…business and family…what could go wrong?

Discord Within Our Family

Our organization, the Marcia Brady Tucker Foundation, was founded in the late 1940’s and has representatives from each of the five generations. Our most senior members are in their 80s with the newest family member just having been born in January, 2021—so we even have a 6th generation! For a moment, let’s think about the experiences of Traditionalists and Boomers and how enormously different the world was from that of the Gen Zs, Millennials and Gen Xers: Societal customs and norms, methods of communication, technological advances (think about the use of the telephone, T.V.’s with only three channels), research (they had to go to a library! Or, God forbid, actually have a conversation with someone who knew more than they did!), air travel, letter writing, doing business using only the USPS versus the ubiquity of the internet, computers, cell phones, texting, travel etc., and how SO much has changed).

In the 90’s, the MBTF experienced an existential crisis: the last member of our Traditionalist generation had died and the Boomers were now the most senior members in the group, bridging the “old way” of doing things (assumed “power,” authority rule, and “you’ll do it because I said so,” which was how our founder operated, it was her foundation after all!) and the Gen X’ and older Millennials’ more moderate approach of inclusiveness and unity with much more democratic attitudes. One of my uncles, a particularly outspoken and demanding fellow, wanted to divide the foundation equally between the two family lines. As one of the elder members of our Gen X generation, and not having the historical tendency to defer to my uncles’ demands, I objected, strenuously, citing the firm wishes of our founder and her children—the aforementioned Traditionalists—that one of the key components to the evolution of the foundation, in addition to philanthropic pursuits, was family ties. Making sure each side of the family knew each other and maintained the familial connection was paramount to her. Not surprisingly, my uncle simply ignored my argument, and went on with his demands that the foundation be split down the middle.

Fortunately, a few of my cousins, fellow Gen Xers, agreed with my argument and managed to convince our parents (Boomers), through calm discussion and advocacy, that splitting the foundation was not what our founder would have wanted or supported, nor was it a path we wanted for our collective future. Happily, as it turned out, the foundation remains intact, embracing the younger Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Zs. My uncle left the foundation for many years, has since rejoined and is beginning to show signs of embracing newer more democratic governing principles—the will of the majority of our now 45 members.

My goal is not to vilify or support any particular generation’s tendencies Each one has their own customs and norms. This is merely a rather stark example of what can happen if we remain too rigid or inflexible to be open, accessible and malleable to different ideas, standards and perspectives – from any generational perspective.

Continuing the Conversations

So, our oft asked question: What are we doing about it? Are we figuring out the underlying causes of our differences? Are we aiming to suss out a solution so we’re able to communicate effectively and with efficiency? Are we, as senior members of our Boards, reaching out to the newer members to provide institutional knowledge, guidance and historical perspective? Are we developing our younger generations and guiding them with what has been done in the past and listening to their ideas, hopes and visions for the future? Are the newer members asking the senior members questions about their history, showing a genuine curiosity about their legacy and the legacy of our unified mission? Have we asked ourselves, “Why are we even members and what are the benefits for participating?”

In our fast paced, immediate gratification world of today are we actually slowing down and reflecting on how these shifts in perspectives, ideologies and differing interactions are affecting the lives and continuation of our boards? Are we talking with each other or at each other? Are we so married to the “way we do things” as individual generations or are we open to dialogues with the others?

As the current president of my family’s foundation, these concepts are high on my list of priorities as agenda items for my 3–9 year term. It’s my goal to develop a culture of curiosity, interest and enthusiasm for embracing our family’s extraordinary history. I hope to help illustrate and define why things are done the way they are and embrace new ideas that may replace those that may be outdated or in need of dusting off. My goal is to utilize and mine from the amazing collective memories and wisdom of our older generations and envelop newer concepts and approaches from our newer members. It all begins with curiosity, courage, and communication. It is my intention to encourage and support these messages so we are able to continue to grow, broadcast, and thrive for our future generations.

Until next time…

Barbara Randell is the founder of Future Image Group and president of Marcia Brady Tucker Foundation

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.