Use Collaboration as a Way to Embrace Change (Part 4 of 4)

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Collaboration in family philanthropy requires a deep, often emotional, commitment as it relates both to the individual and their family legacy. In our conversations with over 25 innovative philanthropic and socially-minded organizations (some of whom are listed at the end of the full article in the Knowledge Center)  experts shared many stories about families who see philanthropic collaboration as an opportunity to bring differing generations and personalities closer. In practice, however, achieving this was more complicated. That is why our final post on our series on 21st Century Collaboration directly addresses one of the most complex aspects of family collaboration – generational transition.

Weathering Family Transitions

Families have a pre-set group with whom to collaborate, but with that comes other complexities related to family dynamics.

Align on shared family values that are balanced with the flexibility to evolve as new generations engage.

Just as any collaboration requires establishing shared goals, families that intend to work together must have a deep sense of who they are as a family and how individuals are a part of that. Some of this comes from family culture, and some can be built into family culture with guidance and support from skilled advisors. For collaboration that is sustainable, it is critical to help each family member recognize their individual perspective on social impact, and help them find their place in the family and family’s collective social impact work. And, whenever there’s a major transition in the family that affects leadership, it is important for everyone to convene in a structured way to revisit their shared values and renew or adapt them for the future.

New generations must be brought into the family social impact work thoughtfully and intentionally.

New generations introduce challenges, but also opportunities. Engaging younger family members in social impact or philanthropy can build connections across generations, create a giving legacy, and help younger generations develop life skills and gain new perspectives. However, as leadership transitions between generations, it often creates an inflection point.

While working through these differences may be difficult, it is important to find opportunities along the way to empower the younger generation. A younger generation can become disillusioned if it does not share authority, and sits in the shadows of a dominant older generation. Consider giving new members a discretionary pool of giving, a project or initiative to lead, or an event to organize, so they can practice leadership skills and have the chance to advocate for their interests within the larger family.

Cousins are the key to family collaboration, but they must be brought together with purpose.

There are, of course, many benefits to passing the torch successfully. Interviewees who advise families noted that cousins tend to retain familial bonds with each other, while being less at odds with each other than siblings and parent/child relationships. When cousin gatherings are focused and designed well, they can enhance these connections and create the bedrock of healthy collaboration. In some cases, like when families are spread out geographically or members have diverse experiences, these relationships are not preexisting and must be forged.

Navigating rocky transitions poorly leads to negative consequences
In our interviews, we encountered two case studies in which foundations eventually dissolved due to poor transitions. In one, they described the awkwardness that accompanied the younger generation joining. The voting was clearly weighted toward the side of the family with the elders who were already established family leaders, which made it difficult for the younger members to find their voice. Eventually their interest in involvement diminished. In another case, the strong patriarch who created the foundation passed away, leaving the remaining family members asking themselves for the first time what kind of impact they wanted to have. This revealed stark differences between them and ultimately led to the termination of the foundation as well as the breakdown in their personal relationships. These experiences are not unique to family foundations. We heard similar anecdotes about families who rely on DAFs and other forms of giving. Not incorporating other family voices and waiting too long to empower younger generations can have ripple effects that affect the family’s giving, cohesion and, ultimately, legacy.


  • Where are there opportunities for your family to revisit and update your shared values?
  • How are younger family members empowered and how do they gain the skills necessary to be future leaders in your family’s social impact pursuits?
  • What kind of structure could provide more opportunities for building common experiences across larger or more dispersed families?

Debi Blizard is the Director of Social Impact at Intentional Futures

Zoe True is the Associate Director of Social Impact at Intentional Futures

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.