Clarifying the founders’ intent is an issue very close to the heart of many philanthropic families, but this concern took on special urgency for the Dexter F. and Dorothy H. Baker Foundation of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1986, the $17-million family foundation is located in Lehigh County where the Orphans’ Court periodically reviews the foundations established there, and has considerable latitude in interpreting donor intent, something that troubled the Baker family.

“When our benefactors are no longer here, we do not want the courts to interpret their words,” says Ellen Baker Ghelardi, the foundation’s executive director and daughter of the founders Dexter and Dorothy Baker. “We wanted to create a visual explanation of what the benefactors intended in their giving.”

The Baker Foundation embarked on a project to ensure the intent, the history, and the impact of the foundation was clear to the family and the communities it served. After looking at other family histories, the family chose to record Dexter Baker and others on camera.

“It was important to us that future generations heard it from him,” says Ghelardi. “But we couldn’t find a single example of a benefactor actually talking.”

The family chose to make a video documentary. Storyboards were drawn up, and many hours of interviews were shot with the founder and his family plus community members. Ghelardi and others realized they had several stories going at once—one for the courts, one for current and future trustees, and still another for current and potential grantees. They created two films—a 12-minute version targeted to the courts and the community and a 25-minute movie for the family.

The films and the experience of creating them quickly transformed a family, a foundation and its grantmaking.

Simply unearthing and dusting off the old family photos, home movies, and stories for the films was a transformative and rejuvenating experience.

“You dig up material and you say, ‘Wow, that really influenced me,’” says Ghelardi. “You start to log a different emotional history. You start to see where you were philanthropic but didn’t realize it, where you’d been involved but didn’t remember it.”

Family members saw their interest in funding the arts in pictures of Dexter Baker playing trumpet in high school. Trustees rediscovered their philanthropic roots in Dorothy Baker’s tales of her parents, owners of a hardware store, accepting eggs and other goods as payment during the Great Depression.

As the benefactors spoke, family members kept hearing some of the same phrases.

“What are the criteria that really influence our funding?” asked Ghelardi. “We fund arts and culture, youth and social service initiatives, but we were using this other internal philosophy that we’d never been able to put our arms around.”

Through the course of the interviews, the phrases “making a difference,” “cultivating partnerships,” and “challenging the status quo” struck special chords and became not only the chapter titles of the short film but the core of the foundation’s new guidelines.

The foundation completely rewrote its funding guidelines to reflect its new appreciation of the family’s goals, which they’d always had even if they didn’t exactly have the words.

For families considering a similar project, Ghelardi recommends beginning with the basics.

“Start by going through all your pictures, files, and documents and see what you have first,” she says. “Start having conversations with specific questions in mind over meetings, at the dinner table, at Christmas, or whatever it might be. Have somebody take notes or record it.”

Ghelardi encourages family involvement but also recommends seeking trusted help.

“You really need to have somebody from the family involved the whole way through,” she notes. “Two are better so that you can go back and forth, and it’s important to get members from each of the generations involved.”

For trusted help, the family examined a number of options and connected with Scott Paul of Class E Media as director, producer, and primary videographer.

“We wanted artistic control. We wanted to have a lot of input, and we wanted to retain all the footage,” says Ghelardi. “We were so nervous that information we would give somebody would be sold or distorted. The level of trust was incredibly important.”

Despite a desire for artistic control, the family quickly discovered it had to be flexible enough to let the real stories be told.

“We thought it would take three months. It took a year and three months,” Ghelardi laughs.

“We departed from the storyboard questions really fast,” she explains. “There was so much more vitality because of it, because you saw thinking, reflective, spontaneous individuals not poised positioning statements.”

One year after their journey began, the Bakers had created two short films, as well as a copious digital archive of their family’s philanthropic efforts. It’s an archive that will grow because the foundation now requires grantees to submit 2-5 minute videos with their final reports.

It can be shot on a cell phone, a digital camera, or a video camera by the grantees or by professional videographers. All that matters is that the story is captured, so that others might experience for themselves what the Bakers felt during their own journey.

“We changed our application. We changed our guidelines,” says Ghelardi. “We’re changing our reports, our recordkeeping, the way we communicate with current and future trustees. And all because we decided to do this project.”