Family Philanthropy Speaks: A Conversation with Steve Toben and Susan Briggs

NCFP President and CEO Nick Tedesco speaks with Flora Family Foundation’s leadership: President Steve Toben and Board Chair Susan Briggs. Steve and Susan discuss the inception of the foundation and its governance structure as well as the way the foundation serves as a training ground for next generation family members.

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 stories highlight the innovative spirit of family giving. Today, I’m joined by the Flora Family Foundation’s Steve Toben and Susan Briggs. Steve has served as president of the foundation since 2003. He’ll be retiring next July and plans to offer consulting support to nonprofits and family foundations. Susan is the foundation’s longtime chair. Welcome, Susan and Steve.

Steve Toben: Great to be here.

Nick Tedesco: I thought we might use this opportunity to learn a little bit more about the origin of the foundation and its evolution.

Steve Toben: Well, it’s great to be with you, Nick. I’m always happy to tell the story of the Flora Family Foundation. It all starts with Billy Hewlett and his wife, Flora, back in 1966 when they established the Hewlett Foundation. Over the course of several decades, the Hewlett Foundation grew to become one of the most prominent foundations in the United States. But over on the side, Bill Hewlett had an active program of personal philanthropy that was wholly separate from the work of the Hewlett Foundation. It was a very sizable and diverse portfolio of gifts in all kinds of areas. Seminaries, conservation organizations, universities, think tanks. Bill saw that personal giving as important in the long story of the Hewlett philanthropy.

But nearing the end of his life, his son, Walter, became somewhat concerned about what happened to all those gifts after Bill’s lifetime. In 1998, the Hewlett Foundation made roughly $70 million in grants. Bill personally made $25 million in gifts in that same year. So Walter thought, well, what happens to all these organizations? How might we enable the descendants of Bill and Flora to engage in the same highly satisfying philanthropy that Bill had enjoyed? How might we deflect inappropriate requests away from the Hewlett Foundation so that the Hewlett Foundation could continue its good work? And how might we train up the next generation of Hewlett family members for potential service on the Hewlett Foundation board? So in 1998, Walter set down a proposal to establish the Flora Family Foundation, and we were off and running in 1999.

Nick Tedesco: And the foundation really has become that training ground for the next generation of family members. I’m hoping that you can speak a little bit to how the foundation operates and what it looks like for family members to engage in the foundation.

Steve Toben: A key organizing principle was that every single member of the Hewlett family, all the descendants of Bill and Flora Hewlett and their spouses, would have an equal opportunity to participate fully in grant making, fully in governance. That all aspects of operations would be transparent to everyone, that there would be a vigorous spirit of egalitarianism in the way the foundation was conducting itself. That has persisted through the years and has become really central to the way the foundation operates and has been key to the continued engagement, now down into the fourth generation. We’re about to welcome an 18 year old into the active membership of the family council.

What was equally important was giving due value and importance to the individual initiative of each family member. There was not a push at the onset to establish well defined program areas. Rather, the view was that we’re going to value the very diverse interests of these 25 odd members of the family, give them runway to develop their own ideas, to experiment, to fail, with coaching from staff. And over time, we may find that we converge around themes of interest. That, in fact, has happened, and we now have some established program areas and some established initiatives where there’s collective action. But that balance of individual initiative and collective action has really been a hallmark of the foundation and I think distinguishes FFF from the many foundations that go one way or the other.

Nick Tedesco: For those who are looking to build a similar program and promote engagement of the next generation, what does that look like practically speaking? How many times a year are the family members coming together? Are they coming together? And what does the engagement in the foundation look like?

Steve Toben: We have an annual family meeting where we get 85% turnout from the now 30-plus members of the Hewlett family. And I’m not counting the fourth generation. That’s another 15 or so youngsters who will be coming online fairly soon. We, in addition, have three board meetings per year. I make it a vigorous point to consult with each and every member of the family council over the course of the year to get updated on their philanthropic interests so that I can either steer them in the right or take direction from them on how we can make concrete their ideas about what they’d like to do. And then there are a host of other mechanisms that we employ to try to keep people up to date on what the foundation is engaged in.

Nick Tedesco: Well, we’ll come back to the governance and the operations a little bit later. But Susan, I want to bring you into the conversation. You’ve been with the foundation since the beginning and you serve as an independent board member. So first, I’d love for you to share a little bit more about yourself, your background, and any reflections to add to Steve’s comments about some of the origin of the foundation.

Susan Briggs: Well, I’m a lawyer. My specialty is estate planning. I was a partner in a major San Francisco law firm, of which Bill Hewlett was a client. At one point, I was assigned to him as his lawyer. He was just great. I loved dealing with him. I worked with him on his estate planning and gift issues until he died. He was just an amazing person. So I’ve known this family for a long time. They are an extraordinary bunch of people as individuals. And as a group, they’re formidable. The family gets along quite well and they’ve done some really fabulous stuff, and so I’ve really enjoyed being on the board all these years.

Nick Tedesco: Susan, can you share more about the foundation’s governance structure?

Susan Briggs: Well, it’s a fairly loose structure. The basic element of it is what we call the family council, which includes everyone who is an adult. That is, the children and the grandchildren and now one great-grandchild, and their spouses. The inclusion of the spouses is, I think, perhaps not unique, but it’s certainly distinctive. Various times when I’ve said to someone, “And all the spouses have the same rights,” they look at me like, surely you’ve lost your mind. That couldn’t possibly work. Well, in this case, it does work. And I think that it’s, I would say, strengthened the families, because each individual family can do their own thing or not, or can join with other family members and other generations. I think that that aspect of it has really been an important thing.

A good example is a program in Black maternal health that one of the grandchildren decided was something she wanted to explore. It turned out, I don’t know, there was something like 12 other family members who also wanted to explore that. And so we just established that as a program that we’re going to look for grantees in. So it’s cutting across generational lines and family lines.

Nick Tedesco: What about family dynamics?

Susan Briggs: One of the members of the children’s generation said about having a non-family member on the board, it’s like you’re having a dinner party, and if you have a guest at the dinner table, everyone is going to be on their best behavior. So I think merely the presence of Steve, of me, and of one other non-family member we have on the board, makes a difference just because we’re there. I don’t know that we’re making anybody do something. We wouldn’t. This is a very strong family, and they’re quite intelligent and they’re able to figure out what they would like to do. So we’re really there to support them, and that seems to work quite well.

Nick Tedesco: Well, it’s an incredible role that you play. Steve, I want to explore one of the passages on the foundation website that has stood out to me. It speaks to the expectation of family engagement and it reads, “Each individual has an obligation to go beyond the narrow confines of his or her personal interest and be mindful of the broader concerns of humanity.” I was wondering if you could speak to that and its presence on the website.

Steve Toben: Striking you should call that out, Nick, because I find very often that peers in the field will cite that passage as particularly resonant with their own experience. The key message there is to exhort the members of this family, to recognize their privilege in the world, and to extend themselves outside the confines of their lives, and to engage fully in the work of the foundation, and to recognize their responsibility to be active stewards of this precious trust.

Now, it’s important to say that we are not into mandatory service at the Flora Family Foundation. There will be times when people cannot fully participate for reasons that have to do with job changes or new babies. That’s all fine. But this particular statement, I think, is just a gentle reminder that the foundation provides this opportunity for people to extend themselves on whatever terms work for them at any given moment in their lives. And in that fashion, we elevate the family’s conversation and we attempt to do right by these resources.

Nick Tedesco: It’s an incredible avenue for an awareness beyond yourself and the family. It’s so beautiful that you’ve memorialized that on the website. I want to explore practices to engage the next generation. This is one of the most often asked questions and inquiries that we receive here at the National Center for Family Philanthropy. How do you successfully engage the next generation? You have built a model that does this, and so I’d love for you to share some reflections around the practices to engage the next generation family members.

Steve Toben: We are big on learning by doing. When you come into the family council, you’re not handed a hefty orientation manual that you’re expected to go through. Rather, the process begins with conversation. When a new spouse comes into my office, we sit down and we discuss what that person’s interests have been in social issues or environmental issues around the world. We then begin to match up opportunities at a level that is safe, doesn’t feel too daunting. Some of the spouses who’ve come into the Hewlett family do not have a prior experience in philanthropy or an experience of dispensing large amounts of money.

And so it’s a gentle process, but a persistent one where over time, we get to know one another. I can say, “What I’m hearing around your interest in the problem of obesity in Los Angeles is that you’d like to do some direct service work, but you’re also interested in potentially a policy advocacy group working in the LA basin. Let’s go out and find those groups together.” And oftentimes, the process will then continue with a site visit where I will go hand in hand with that family member and we’ll have joint interviews, and there’s an opportunity for me to model some of the questions that ought to be asked of any potential grantee.

On the collective side, what we find works very well for engaging the family is big trips. Those have been enormously powerful times when members of the family across branches, across generations, go out together in really pretty challenging field conditions, learn together, ride in bumpy Jeeps together. And even if they have no prior experience working in global poverty, that’s not in any way an inhibition to their full and valued participation.

The other method, I would say, or principle that I think is terribly important to this concept of maximizing engagement, which we really, really value in a big way, it’s this notion of equalizing power across the foundation. I’ve already alluded to the fact that every member of the family council, from the youngest to the oldest, from the scion of the family to the newest spouse, everyone has the identical access to resources. Everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in governance, everyone has full access to all documents and so forth. That balances power in a way that I think is invigorating.

And then lastly, I would say that the role of staff, not to sound immodest here, but I think the role of staff as coach advisor and supporter is critically important. So even if you’re not at a stage where you can justify a full-time executive director, having some independent consultant who provides those functions, I think, can be really valuable.

And at the end of the day, 50% of our grant dollars go out the door in the form of individually sponsored grants, and 50% of the dollars go out the door in the form of these collective programmatic grants in marine conservation, Black maternal health, climate, and our international development program.

Nick Tedesco: So you mentioned on the onset that it is not required to be part of the foundation. It is, in fact, optional. How is it communicated to the family members? How are family members invited into this?

Steve Toben: It’s not as if we really pound away at the sense that you need to come on board and get involved. It’s just woven into the DNA of the family that FFF is an integral experience in their larger experience of being part of this family. They have been at this for many decades now. And the Hewlett Foundation continues to be a very prominent beacon of philanthropy in the United States, to be sure.

But FFF is a non-trivial complement to the Hewlett Foundation, and there’s very little need to force people’s attention to the foundation. They’re attracted to it. They do see it certainly as an obligation, but also as a great opportunity.

Nick Tedesco: Susan, I want to come back to you and talk about the tension between the individual and the collective. This is a tension that often exists in family philanthropy. Do you have any reflections on how to balance that tension?

Susan Briggs: I think that by having half of the grants go to these group programs and half go to individual things, you have an outlet for everybody to do his or her own thing. I don’t really find there is that much tension between the two because there is this equal division, and everyone can pretty much find something they want to do and be really excited about it. But there’s so many opportunities to do what you want. This group of people, I would say they’re pretty sophisticated philanthropists. Perhaps not the spouses when they first come in, but they very quickly learn. Bill Hewlett once said, “Never stifle a generous impulse.” And that’s a very powerful thing.

Nick Tedesco: I want to dig in a little bit more around the relationship between chairs and CEOs. We’d love to hear from you your advice around building a strong relationship between a chair and a CEO.

Susan Briggs: I think it just happens if you have the right people. I think Steve and I have always gotten along. We each have a little different style of working. But I feel if there’s something I want to talk to him about, I can do it, and I think he feels the same. I just think it’s being open and not feeling like you’re going to run the foundation the way you want to. It’s an enterprise of the chair, the CEO, and in our case, the family, which is so important.

Nick Tedesco: Steve, as you prepare to exit the foundation, what’s your hope for the Flora Family Foundation and for the field in general?

Steve Toben: Well, that’s an easy question, right? For FFF, my hope is that the best that we’ve been able to achieve by way of full engagement from the family will continue, and I’m optimistic that it will. We are asking of this family a significant share of their time. We like to think that it’s not a burdensome responsibility, but it does call for great care. The opportunity to steward these resources is rare and precious in our society and it should be done with great reverence, in my view, given the enormity of need in the world.

I also think that there is change afoot. I think the time is right for me to step down because, to be honest, I don’t know what it means to be living in an age where social media influencers are calling so many of the shots on how society continues to evolve. That requires a different generation of leadership. And I think the cousins, and certainly the great-grandchildren, would probably agree that there is a need to really understand the new and more fluid ways the world is working and how a foundation like FFF should respond.

For the larger sector, I am very much in line with much commentary we’re seeing now around increasing the presence of beneficiary voice in all that we do. That we integrate voices that have largely been devalued and disadvantaged in our sector. That we do a better job of streamlining procedures that will reduce the unnecessary burdens on organizations that need the resources.

I do not believe there’s any inherent contradiction between the basic principles of trust-based philanthropy and strategic philanthropy. I think we can actually find a happy medium with respect to those diverse schools of thought in philanthropy. And I do hope that for family foundations taking seriously this idea of empowering all stakeholders within the family takes greater hold. I am a huge fan, based on my experience with FFF, in this notion of distributing resource, distributing decision making, equally across the system. I think it’s worked extremely well. And frankly, I don’t think old notions of hierarchy necessarily are the best way forward in the years to come.

And lastly, the truth of the matter is, I think, looking at the Hewlett Foundation with great affection. I worked there for many years. The fact of the matter is that family foundations can be more nimble, can move quickly, quite responsibly. I think the that’s an advantage that family foundations should seize, and with the confidence that oftentimes, while the Hewletts and the Gates and the MacArthurs and the Fords of the world get most of the ink, the smaller family foundations can really be powerful vehicles for enacting agendas of real progress.

Nick Tedesco: Well said. Susan, would love for you to share any parting words of wisdom for other board chairs who are listening.

Susan Briggs: Well, I feel extraordinarily privileged to have been part of the creation of this foundation and this development over these years. I probably am reaching the end of my useful life. I’m 80 years old, and that’s much older than the third generation. As Steve says, they live in a different world, really, than people of our generation. But I would say to your listeners, if they’re ever asked to be a chair of a foundation like this, they should say yes, undeservedly, because it’s really fun and it’s a great opportunity to produce something that is really helpful world as opposed to not. I think it’s a meaningful participation that kids or young adults, or even not so young adults, mid-range adults, I think really need in order to exist in our society today. It’s a real beacon of love and hope. So I recommend it highly.

Nick Tedesco: Well, I so appreciate you both joining us today. Susan, thank you for your time and for your service on the foundation board. And Steve, congratulations on your retirement, and thank you for your contributions to the foundation and the field. The Flora Family Foundation has been a supporter of ours for many years and I can’t thank you enough for that. So we hope that this next chapter is as exciting as the previous one. And thank you both for joining us.

Susan Briggs: Thank you.

Steve Toben: And let me just say, Nick, we have been friends to NCFP for a long time, and I have nothing but the highest admiration for the way this organization continues to lead in critical, critical ways. And that’s only continued… You’ve gone from strength to strength over the last several years. I’ve had a chance to watch it at close range. Just enormous admiration for you and for all your colleagues at NCFP. I promised to remain a close ally, even in my post-retirement chapter.