Arthur B. Hill, a pharmaceutical salesman with no formal education who worked his way to the board of directors of Johnson & Johnson, created the Arthur B. Hill Foundation in 1959. For years, the foundation would operate as a “kitchen table” philanthropy with volunteer family members managing the assets and supporting personal interests. Ashley Snowdon, Arthur Hill’s great-granddaughter and now President of the foundation, notes that philanthropy was “very much done [as a] Christmas holiday affair.” Family members, already gathered for the holidays, would meet to discuss the latest round of grants. By the late nineties, however, the family had become concerned that the foundation should concentrate its energies and become more strategic about its giving. The foundation that emerged from this process is the $37-million Washington, DC-based, family governed, staff managed Hill-Snowdon Foundation, which supports youth organizing and economic justice.

It is the foundation’s focus that allows it to reconcile powerful forces that could otherwise be at odds with one another: How do you balance the professional obligations of trusteeship while respecting the element of family that in many ways makes the fund special? How does a philanthropy engage individuals but also encourage them to act collectively? These are challenges faced by many family philanthropies, and the Hill-Snowdon Foundation has found that these forces are not contradictory when viewed in light of its larger family goals.

With the passing of Arthur Hill in 1983 and that of his daughter Lee Hill in 1993, the nineties saw the foundation’s assets rise considerably. A gift from Lee’s estate was accompanied by a substantial increase in the value of Johnson & Johnson stock. By 1995, the foundation was eight times the size it had been just two years earlier. Ashley Snowdon, just sixteen at the time, became involved along with her fourth-generation siblings Andrew and Elizabeth, when it was apparent that the foundation needed to “get more serious” about its operations and assemble a board to govern in the future. The foundation took a long look at the grants it was making, found that many of its grants took the form of support for young people, specifically youth leadership. Working with consultants, it developed its program focus around youth development, which later evolved into youth organizing. The foundation also eventually made the decision to hire its own staff. Each of these moves would highlight the “huge tension,” as Snowdon mentions, between concern for family involvement and the family’s hope that the institution’s wealth was spent effectively and accountably, which, for them, meant strategy and professionalism. While the role of staff in a professionally managed foundation was obvious, the role of family was not.

The foundation, Snowdon declares, “tries to be creative about ways to get board members engaged.” It’s a bit of balancing act. On the one hand, board members want “a meaningful role beyond rubber-stamping staff recommendations.” On the other, board members place great faith in staff expertise and have limited time to devote to the foundation. Family members are scattered around the country and have full-time jobs of their own. The concern, says Snowdon, is that their engagement becomes inefficient and burdensome.

To engage the family while respecting their other commitments, the foundation has started publishing a monthly family newsletter and making the transition from meeting twice a year to quarterly, with two or three of the meetings via conference call. The family also works extensively in small committees, staying engaged on the finance, grants, and executive committees outside of board meetings. Thus, while the staff has its professional interest and obligation to move the foundation forward, the family board cultivates its personal and familial interests in, as Snowdon says, “making sure that this money is used well.” “None of us… is directly involved with youth organizing or economic justice work,” says Snowdon. “There’s a sort of a lay perspective that we bring that I think can be helpful. But we also recognize that we need to dedicate time to getting smart about these issues to responsibly make decisions for the foundation.”

But as staff and trustees each work together around a set of shared goals, how does the family reconcile its desire to engage individuals with its desire to engage the family collectively? For the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, it was precisely the development of shared goals that allowed them to engage individual family members. Snowdon points out that, for most of its history, the Hill-Snowdon Foundation operated in a discretionary way, with family supporting projects close to them. The family soon found this approach unsustainable when it came time to engage the next generation. Snowdon argues, “If you continue to operate that way, either the pie has got to get a lot bigger… or you’ve got to rethink that whole mode of operating. You can’t really engage new generations because there’s no room for them.” The family took a look at what it was already supporting and found a common interest: youth development. When the family did this, Snowdon recalls, “people were willing to let go of their individual interests. There was agreement that the foundation was not the right vehicle to support pet projects.” Instead of offering the next generation family members ever-shrinking pieces of the grantmaking pie, Snowdon encourages families to identify and support common interests. She also suggests determining roles on the board that meet unique interests. For instance, those interested less in program can be engaged in the investment side of the philanthropy and vice versa.

Staff and next generation engagement aside, the foundation is not all that different from when it met at the family’s kitchen table—the Hill-Snowdon Foundation board still focuses on what brings it together as a family. Now, in addition to the family’s holiday gathering and grantmaking, the family makes its site visits together. Snowdon recalls her site visits as some of her most rewarding experiences as a family trustee. “I think this happens on family foundation boards all the time,” Snowdon laughs. “You go on a site visit and you sort of fall in love with the work that these organizations are doing and these amazing people you meet, and we absolutely do that.” She remembers spending fourteen hours in a van in the fall of 2001 traveling to meet with different groups working in the Mississippi delta. “Getting in front of organizations and learning from them – there’s just nothing that compares to doing that as philanthropists,” she says. “And there’s nothing we’ve found that’s as effective in engaging board members as doing that collectively…there’s no replacing that shared experience.”

For more on this family’s foundation, a complete history of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation is available on their website.