Beyond the Family: An Ecosystem Approach to Family Philanthropy

The success of family philanthropy is dependent on the willingness of the family to embrace an ecosystem of partners. In fact, the most effective philanthropic leaders recognize that the family operates in relationship to many others—most importantly community and staff members. Embracing an ecosystem approach to philanthropy, which focuses on building and respecting relationships to others in the system, is an essential element of creating lasting impact.  

In family philanthropy, there is often a power and proximity gap between giving families, their staff members and partners, and the communities they seek to serve. Wealth creators and inheritors have long held decision-making power and authority over resources in family philanthropy. While families typically intend for community members to be the beneficiaries, historically many of those in the community have been excluded from actively designing or influencing approaches intended to benefit them. And family philanthropy staff members, who often have deep relationships and trust with community members, seldom have decision-making authority and autonomy to help bridge the gaps between the family and community members.

While many families can see the value in adopting an ecosystem approach, the grip of preexisting power dynamics and ingrained systemic traditions often make it difficult for them to translate their intention into action. The first step is to understand how giving must happen in relationship with others. Then, they can begin to explore ways to share and cede power within this system for it to function most effectively, namely with the people closest to the problems identifying the solutions. 

Mapping the ecosystem

Family philanthropies are complex, interconnected systems. They commonly start with the vision of a single founder and grow to include additional family members, staff members, and possibly community members as the organization and its funded work evolves. Although each family philanthropy’s ecosystem is unique, it nonetheless consists of many parts that affect each other and the health and function of the organization as a whole. Each family philanthropy ecosystem exists within a larger ecosystem of other individuals, families, and philanthropic institutions who are committing time and resources to intersecting issues and efforts to address them. 

A terrific example of a family philanthropy that uses an ecosystem approach in its work is the Bainum Family Foundation. In 1968, Stewart Bainum Sr. and Jane Bainum established the Bainum Family Foundation, spurred by the lasting impact of the poverty they and their families experienced during the Great Depression. They started the organization in Washington, DC to assist students of limited financial resources pursue post-secondary education. Over the years, the foundation has shifted its work in response to community needs, reflection, and learning. 

“Our approach revolves around supporting key partners to create a society where all children thrive,” says Board Member Brooke Bainum. “There is tremendous power, expertise, and lived experience within every community. We seek to build on these strengths by working alongside communities experiencing racial and economic disparities to create lasting systems change for the well-being of children and families. We call this co-creation. We follow the lead of our partner communities and organizations, coming alongside them to make change happen together.”

The role of the family

Family philanthropy leaders play a vital role in setting and creating the conditions for success and in fully empowering their grantee partners, community, and staff members. While many family donors have the vision, resources, and passion to realize meaningful positive change, a commitment to effectiveness requires them to make space for people with the lived experience, relationships, and expertise needed to tackle seemingly intractable issues—often ones they’ve lived through. For example, Bainum board members believe that philanthropy historically has wielded more power than it has yielded or shared, and they are committed to a trust-based philanthropy approach that upends traditional power dynamics and ensures that resources are distributed more equitably.

“We acknowledge that there may be times when it makes sense for us to use our privilege and power on behalf of (and with the permission of) our partner communities and organizations. But these instances will be thoughtful exceptions rather than the accepted norm,” says Brooke. At Bainum, the board does not approve individual grants. Instead, the board members serve as thought partners at the committee and broader board levels, providing guidance on strategic approaches. “We approve an overall annual budget to ensure alignment to mission, and then empower the staff members to live out the rest of the approaches discussed here.”

One way Bainum does use its voice, power, and privilege is by convening other funders and sectors to work on shared efforts and collaborative solutions. The foundation’s ability to amplify discussions helps create national conversations that can lead to policy and funding shifts—something grassroots organizations often lack the resources and relationships to do on their own. Approaches like Bainum’s that establish clear roles for the family that make use of the strengths and assets that others in the ecosystem may not have, help address power imbalances and move initiatives forward in impactful ways.

The role of community members

Families cannot divorce the change they seek from the people who are directly impacted by the circumstances that prevent the change. Members of the communities most impacted by the issues family philanthropy works to address best know what their communities need to thrive. When families invite this expertise, listen to understand, and make a seat for community members at the decision-making table, they build relationships and encourage learning—fundamental principles for engaging in effective family philanthropy

There are many ways families can share and cede power with community members. Some families do this by adding non-family board seats to their governance structure, establishing a community advisory council and/or creating other mechanisms for community input and engagement. Bainum, for example, closely works with organizations to identify new potential partners suited to help them jointly achieve their intended impact and follows the expertise of its programmatic partners. “Rather than impose our intended outcomes on the community, we support partners to achieve the outcomes they seek for children and families,” says Brooke.

The role of staff members

Staff members occupy a unique and critical position within a family philanthropy ecosystem. Because staff members often bring diverse perspectives—with some family members serving in staff roles and some staffers being members of the communities where the work is focused—they can and should be a bridge between the family and the community. 

The best staff members have strong relationships within the community (or are members of the community themselves) and extensive experience working in the social sector. To be successful, family leaders must entrust staff members with realizing the work of the philanthropy and have the proper authority and autonomy to do so. This includes testing ideas, nimbly changing course, ensuring the family is fully supportive of the work, and prioritizing the application of community insight and perspectives. When staff members don’t have the trust and authority needed to move the work forward, this balance is thrown off—often resulting in high staff turnover, poor community engagement and little to no progress. 

At Bainum, the board and family members believe in serving in a true governing capacity and don’t engage too deeply in the operational details. The foundation intentionally builds its staff with outstanding professionals who bring expertise and experience to this work, and then empowers them with the trust and autonomy to advance solutions and outcomes alongside partners. 

“We are focused on leading at the appropriate level of governance, focusing on critical organizational topics—impact investing, high-level strategic considerations, wielding and yielding power—that will enable staff, partners, and community to fully realize the mission and vision,” Brooke said.

A balanced, healthy ecosystem

Effectiveness exists only when there is a balanced, healthy ecosystem. In a complex system such as family philanthropy, this balance cannot be created overnight or persist without frequent reflection and recalibration. 

Bainum knows how true this is, having changed course multiple times based on community feedback over the five decades of their work, and the foundation continues to reflect on its work and evolve as needed. Ultimately, this approach is linked to the board’s belief that historically, there has not been much accountability placed on philanthropy: “Rather than holding our partners accountable for their performance and impact, we can flip that script and ask them to hold us accountable for how we show up as a funder and partner,” Brooke says. 

Practicing effective family philanthropy

Ultimately, an ecosystem approach is core to the practice of effective family philanthropy. By understanding and embracing the roles each stakeholder must play to achieve meaningful societal change, families, staff members, grantees, and community members can better experience stronger relationships, establish clear lines of accountability, employ equitable practices, and learn from each other, making for lasting impact.  

Nick Tedesco is the president and CEO of the National Center for Family Philanthropy