It’s January and the New Year is still young enough to leave most of us feeling invigorated by its possibilities. I think of possibilities when I think of New Year’s resolutions, but I’m not sure that is the prevailing attitude. Somehow, resolutions have come to stand for all the things we didn’t do last year (or the year before, or the year before that…). Consequently, resolutions tend to be reflections of regrets and guilt — no wonder they are forgotten (except as a new source of guilt) by mid-January.

At the National Center, we have a lot of goals for the New Year and are pleased that the Board of Directors approved a comprehensive 2008 Program Plan at their meeting last November. My resolution is part of that Plan and, specifically, came from the work we did as part of our anniversary initiative. We are working to determine and articulate the value of family in philanthropy and the value of family philanthropy in our democracy. We have held regional discussions and individual interviews – and both are ongoing.

My anniversary interviews on the initiative theme have been enlightening and inspiring. In one of them, a thoughtful leader in our field was more than ready with an answer when I asked him what his hopes were for the future of family philanthropy. “That donor families will realize the full power and potential of their own voice.”

The ensuing conversation considered all the way donor families, family foundations, and funds have a voice. Certainly, the grants you make are the biggest statement of your voice – what you believe in and want to support. But, in his essay “Small Can be Effective,” the late Paul Ylvisaker detailed 20 possible functions available to foundations – only one of which was grantmaking. Paul acknowledged that he was appealing for more creativity in the stewardship of philanthropic assets, but in keeping with my anniversary conversation, I began to see the possibilities of using your philanthropic voice in each of the 20 functions. I also began to see how some funders are already doing so.

  • In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the McKnight Foundation funds special reports on current and future policy issues. In 2007, such reports highlighted water quality, biofuels, and government responsibilities.
  • In Seattle, Washington, Mary Pembroke Perlin, a founder of Social Venture Partners and a fund advisor at The Seattle Foundation, has been a resource and mentor to countless new and potential donors, ensuring they both get started and thrive in a supportive, learning community.
  • In Dallas, Texas, the Meadows Foundation and, specifically, its president, family member Linda Evans, recognized the need for better legislative understanding of the work of family foundations. Linda met with dozens of legislators and regulators at the state and federal levels to help them appreciate the contributions and the challenges of philanthropic families;
  • In New York, the F. B. Heron Foundation decided they could use a greater portion of their financial assets – beyond the grantmaking payout – to further their mission to increase wealth-creation opportunities for low-income people and communities in the United States. They established a mission-related investment program to remarkable results. By participating in conferences, including one of our own teleconferences, they have ensured other grantmakers can benefit from the lessons learned.
  • In Los Angeles, California, the Durfee Foundation has found a way to draw attention to the needs of area nonprofits and, particularly, nonprofit leaders. Recognizing the stress these leaders are under, the Durfee sabbatical program seeks to support leadership preservation by offering time off and promoting staff development while they are away.

Many donor families are modest about their work and the extent of their contributions. They don’t see this as their profession or area of expertise. Yet many bring a wealth of experience – as grantmakers, as nonprofit board members, and as social entrepreneurs – to the field, to potential donors, and to our stakeholders (including the government, media, and the public). Most involved in family philanthropy are civic, business, and social leaders who have colleagues and influence in many arenas. And I suspect all are mentors or respected voices with the power to encourage and lead.

I resolve to use the inspiration and amazing examples of “The Voices of Family Philanthropy” to encourage donor families to explore the opportunities and range of their own voices. I look forward to sharing more of my findings, lessons, and case examples as the research progresses. Our full report will be out around year end.

Happy New Year! Raise your voices!


Virginia M. Esposito
President, National Center for Family Philanthropy