How to Successfully Engage in Your Family’s Philanthropy as an Adult

In our recent publication, A Guide to Meaningfully Engaging Next-Generation Adults in Your Philanthropy, we explore ways for those who are currently managing a family’s philanthropy to thoughtfully welcome next-generation adults. While so many of the formal transition responsibilities lie with the philanthropy’s current leaders, the incoming adult leaders also have several opportunities position themselves for success and to actively contribute to a positive transition. In fact, the most mutually enjoyable and effective transitions occur when all generations fully commit to strong communications, considerate process, and authentic humility.

The guide outlines three phases for welcoming next generation adults. In each of these phases, there are ways in which the new leaders can enrich and strengthen the experience for all involved, ultimately making the family’s philanthropy more impactful. Below, we offer our top tips for incoming leaders at each phase.

Lay the Groundwork

In this phase, the managing generation is working to create clear and welcoming conditions for you to join the family’s philanthropy. This is a good time for you to connect with them on a deeper level and take some time for personal reflection to understand the endeavor you are being asked to join and to make the right decision about if and how to join for yourself and for your family’s philanthropy.

1. Listen to stories

Stories help us connect to one another and our shared histories, and they help us to envision new worlds, which can be enormously helpful for you to tap into as you seek to understand and honor the generations who led your family’s philanthropy before you. As you begin to consider whether and how you may want to engage in your family’s philanthropy, ask those who are already involved about their experiences. Suggested prompts could include:

  • Tell me about the founding of our family’s philanthropic work. Who started this endeavor and why?
  • If you had to describe the purpose of our family’s philanthropic work into a few sentences, what would you say?
  • What have been some of your favorite aspects about being involved in the family’s philanthropy?
  • Tell me about a hard decision you have had to make within this work. What helped you decide what to do?
  • If you think about our family’s philanthropy in 10 years, what do you hope it looks like? Why?

2. Consider your own values

It may be that you come from a family with a multitude of shared values—where you all have similar worldviews even if you come from different generations or are geographically dispersed. More often, however, family members have (at least slightly) different personal values. Before thinking through a potential role with your family’s philanthropic work, you should get clear on your own values. Taking even a few hours to consider the questions below will help you to better understand yourself , allowing you to more confidently say “yes,” “no,” or “maybe” to an invitation to your family’s philanthropy.

  • When I think about my day-to-day life, what is most important to me?
  • How do I think my family and friends would describe me in three words?
  • When I think about my local community, what am I most concerned about? How could I contribute positively to this?
  • When I think about our global community, what do I feel drawn to learning more about and, potentially, helping to improve?
  • Are there values and/or approaches to social change that I would be uncomfortable aligning myself with long term?

Bear in mind that while your values do not need to match perfectly with that of your family’s philanthropic work, you should be honest with yourself and your family about where there are potential overlaps and divergence.

Complete Effective Onboarding

In this phase, the managing generation will be formally extending an invitation and leading a process for you to be integrated fully into the family’s philanthropy. This is your opportunity to get clear on all expectations and share your own needs and desires for an effective partnership.

1. Ask questions

Before you commit to participating in your family’s philanthropy, be sure you understand the role, the time commitment and length of service, and expectations. And ask questions about what you need to participate fully. If any of these items or others that are on your mind feel unclear or murky to you, ask for clarity. Do not feel pressure to say yes to something you do not fully understand.

2. Share yourself in a new way

Joining your family in its philanthropic work may be a new way for you to engage with your family members. They might know you as a caring granddaughter who works as an attorney, but not know about your engagement with local arts nonprofits. You will be bringing a new side of yourself to the family when you work together in a more professional manner. Help them understand how you can show up and add value in ways they might not be immediately considering.

Think through what is most important for you to share with the managing generation, including:

  • Professional skills you have built over your career
  • Knowledge or interests you have about on issue areas, geographies, or populations
  • Networks you are a part of in the local or global communities
  • New skills or approaches you are interested in cultivating
  • Responsibilities you have that need to be considered (e.g., work and school calendars, caregiving roles)

It is likely the managing generation will be inquiring about these throughout the onboarding phase, so be ready and willing to step into a potentially new type of relationship where you are becoming peers working on a common goal.

Continue to grow together

Once you are officially on board, all on the team should commit to continued growth, which takes transparency and humility to do right.

1. Consider what you need to be successful

As you begin to become more engaged with philanthropic work, you will better understand what supports and resources you may need to be successful. This is likely to look a bit different than it did for the generation before you.

You might benefit from joining a peer network of newer adult leaders in philanthropy. You might see an advantage to doing professional development work to learn more about the community you are working with, the issues you are engaged with, or the fundamental skills needed to make equitable and impactful grants. You may want to consider bringing on an advisor or set of team members who are of your generation. Think through what will make you successful and determine a way to work this into your engagement.

2. Generously share your perspectives

When you enter an established organization, it is natural to spend some time focused on learning the lay of the land and how things have been done before. While this is beneficial for all, the true magic in bringing on new family members to this work is incorporating fresh perspectives. You can learn about and respect the decisions of the generations before you, but do bring your ideas, interests, and knowledge to the family’s philanthropy.

A huge benefit of bringing on new voices to this work is elevating, advancing, and updating the family’s work. You can effectively and creatively advance your mission and live out your values. Take this opportunity to use your privilege and position in society in a way that truly brings about the change you wish to see in the world.

Read the full publication

Cara Binder-Kopchick is the author of NCFP’s publication, A Guide to Meaningfully Engaging Next-Generation Adults in Your Philanthropy, and principal at CBK Philanthropy.