Fostering Connection for More Effective Philanthropy

Colleagues collaborating and laughing around a table

NCFP Distinguished Fellow David Weitnauer notes the importance of personal connection among family, board, and staff members in the context of their philanthropy and introduces his research on the concept of giving related.

In the drive to improve our philanthropy practices and contribute to greater impact, we often overlook the very characteristic that sets our field apart: family ties. Cultivating family relationships and a sense of personal connection among the giving group in the context of doing philanthropy can change the atmosphere of a board room and make a significant difference in the character of a family’s giving.

As a Presbyterian minister, a former marriage and family therapist, and a 25-year veteran family foundation CEO who has worked with two families, I’ve seen how important it has been for families to cultivate a sense of personal connection in the service of their impact goals. I’ve begun to explore this concept more deeply as a NCFP fellow, working on a project focused on the cultivation of relationships and a sense of personal connection among family trustees (and staff members) as a distinctive aspect of philanthropic practice and culture.

The project will explore ways that personal relationships serve as a medium for more effective internal practice and contribute to improved engagement with philanthropic partners. In effect, the project’s core contention builds on what many have long known: philanthropy done well is a relational enterprise.

I will ground my research in the lived experience of philanthropic families who know what it means to “give related.” Using interviews, I will invite philanthropic families to share practices they’ve used to strengthen family ties in the context of their philanthropy.  Building on practical wisdom from the field, I will share examples others can emulate.  I will also share practices associated with giving related that have grown from distinct contexts such as customs related to a family’s ethnicity or religious beliefs.  While too idiosyncratic to be relevant for all, those examples can inspire others to try new approaches to fostering connection rooted in the particularity of one’s own family circumstances.

“Good Governance” Sometimes Works Against Us

Traditional governance practices, by design, prioritize a balance between effectiveness and efficiency in the difficult work of allocating time and resources. It’s not unusual for governance practices in family philanthropy to take on the look and feel of boards in other disciplines such as banking, higher education, or corporations, in part, because our field has historically emulated their practices. We rely on the same conventions (e.g., Roberts Rules of Order, (busy) meeting agendas, etc.). It’s common for board chairs to cut leadership teeth and hone skills in other settings so it’s natural they’d draw from that experience when leading family boards.

While an efficient, business-like approach has merits, it can also have unintended consequences. Even families with historically warm, close family relationships can conscientiously or unwittingly do their best to check personal relationships at the door when entering the board room, bearing down instead on a relatively safe, reliable framework of doing business to get the work of family philanthropy done “well.” For family members invited into new or established boards, it’s only natural to gravitate toward the structure and transactional exchange of classic governance as a way to find one’s place among the group. The softer, more ambiguous currency of relationship building is more challenging, if it’s even possible at all in that context.

And yet, giving related does not imply a rejection of good governance.  But it does require reframing our understanding of what makes for effective governance in family philanthropy to include a commitment to employ conventions and practices that foster relationships among family trustees and staff members alongside more traditional methods for doing family philanthropy well.

Trust-Based Philanthropy: Welcome First Step

Most recently, the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project has provided a helpful correction for family philanthropy by elevating the importance of relationships, both internally and externally. At its heart, trust-based philanthropy is grounded in a recognition that a donor’s ability to implement trust-based grantmaking practices starts with an internal organizational culture based on trust. This requires a priority on relationship-building marked by equity, shared power, humility, and growth. The overall objective is to address the inherent power imbalances between foundations and nonprofits.

The Trust-Based Philanthropy Project offers great potential for boosting relationship work among giving families. That said, the Project does not speak specifically to the context of family relationships. If a family giving group’s shared values are naturally aligned with or growing toward the central values espoused by the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, the model provides a wonderful on-ramp to strengthening a priority on relationships, internally and externally. Some families, however, are more likely to find common ground and build relatedness on shared values that are organic to the family.

Important Considerations

Reframing good governance in family philanthropy to include the intentional cultivation of family relationships is not to suggest family philanthropy is a suitable context for resolving complicated personal histories, trauma, estrangement, and the like. Family philanthropy is not family therapy and board chairs and/or staff leaders are not equipped to manage that level of family process. It’s worth saying that improving or repairing one’s family relationships is not a sufficient motivation for pursuing family philanthropy.

We should also avoid idealizing the relationship building process in a family philanthropy context. First and foremost, it’s still about the work. There is no one right way to go about it. Families start where they are and likely do best when building on what they know. The most difficult parts will always be difficult (e.g., differences of opinion). While there will be commonalities from family to family, each family will have its own history, culture, traditions, style, assets, and liabilities. Regardless of how any giving family goes about it, the process must always be an ongoing practice. There is no finish line as relationships in any context require tending.

Learning More

At its core, this project seeks to gather wisdom from our field, and I would welcome the opportunity to connect with and learn from donors and staff members who resonate with the notion of giving related, know something of practices that promote it within their context, and would be willing to share their experience. To volunteer for an interview, learn more, or ask questions, please contact me at


David D. Weitnauer, Th.D., is president of the R. Howard Dobbs, Jr. Foundation and a distinguished fellow at the National Center for Family Philanthropy.

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.