Legacy is not Synonymous with Complacency

“Why do we have to change?” This was the question posed to me by my board chair last year while the Zellerbach Family Foundation (ZFF) was in the depths of its first ever strategic planning process. It was a fair question. For over 65 years, ZFF has sought to serve as a catalyst for constructive social change; our work throughout our history has been strong and anchored by our deep partnerships throughout the region. But our long history was the very reason we needed to take time to ensure the foundation’s grantmaking was responsive to the needs of today’s Bay Area.

As the fourth executive director in the past 65 years working with the third board chair over the same period, we’ve prided ourselves on our deep historical perspective and took seriously our responsibility to maintain the foundation’s legacy within the community. But it’s easy to be lulled into a sense of comfort or even complacency, especially after doing the work for so long.  The challenges and needs facing the communities we serve had evolved over the years, and it was increasingly clear that for ZFF to be truly responsive, we needed to evolve as well.

After two years of listening to our community and reflecting on our work, we understood that we needed to be more intentional in our efforts, less siloed in our approach, and more explicit about our commitment to racial equity. ZFF is a relatively small family foundation, but our work is ambitious. Our new framework centers four building blocks of change: transform systems, diversify art and expression, build power, and ensure healing, connection, and belonging. These building blocks work independently and together toward a Bay Area that celebrates the rich diversity of the region; where everyone feels safe and welcome and has equitable opportunities to thrive.

Our new approach includes significant structural changes, unifying three independent program areas into one cohesive and integrated Theory of Change. We also updated our operations, shifting most of our grants to general operating support and simplifying reporting processes for grantees. Most importantly, we made (and continue to make) time to explore and understand the structural inequities and barriers in our cultural and civic systems that block opportunity and cause harm to so many, especially communities of color. The application of this understanding is a critical component to our new framework.

For ZFF, many of these shifts felt intuitive and timely; some changes were more difficult, but the urgency of this moment required us to move out of our comfort zone so we could better respond to the needs of the communities we serve. It was also hard and at times painful work. ZFF is one of the region’s oldest family foundations, and some in our organization were worried about compromising the investments made by previous generations.  While there are many family foundations that have made similar or much bolder changes, it’s important to acknowledge that the qualities that make family philanthropy so powerful, can also challenge our ability to evolve our programmatic, operational, and/or governance structures. Legacy, donor intent, and family boards create conditions for powerful giving, but can also serve as unique obstacles that narrow our perspective and hinder our ability to grow.  These obstacles are often deeply embedded in our organizations and difficult to recognize let alone correct.

What we’ve learned, is that legacy doesn’t have to be synonymous with complacency. Rather than conflicting with our history, the changes we’ve made have clarified our purpose, offered opportunities to deepen our impact, and introduced new possibilities for our future.

We had to change because the world had changed, and we’re not done. ZFF is committed to continuously listening, learning, and adapting so we can be a responsive and trusted partner now and in years to come.

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.