In these economically challenging times, it would not be unusual for the new President, Congress, governors, and state and local officials to see everything in terms of the costs they represent. Certainly there is a history of seeing private philanthropy primarily as the tax deduction donors receive or the decision-making processes they use to allocate funds. I write to encourage you to look to private philanthropy – indeed, to the entire nonprofit sector – as an extraordinary partner and resource in addressing the seemingly intractable problems we face.

Partly in response to the negative tone of the government and media scrutiny of philanthropy over the last several years, the National Center for Family Philanthropy has worked for months to better understand and articulate the value of family philanthropy in our democracy and the value of family participation in the philanthropic process. A report of this work will be available in late January and the appropriate timing of that release is not lost on us. And neither will it be lost on you as we look forward to ensuring you have a copy of that report. So as you look to solutions for our considerable problems, let me help you see the extraordinary resource to be found in America’s donor families.

  • Philanthropic families – through their foundations, advised funds, businesses, offices, and countless other giving vehicles – embody the central democratic principle of personal initiative for the public good. Their work is as much an act of citizenship as their industry, their vote, and their taxes;
  • Family philanthropy demonstrates the passions, loyalty, and commitment these donors feel toward the communities, causes, and institutions they support. Family giving is not a bloodless transaction; it is an intensely personal act of gratitude, optimism, and faith;
  • Donor families are a tremendous resource for you – beyond the dollars they give. They know their communities – the assets and the problems. They are civic and business leaders – they have a “name brand” if you will – with the inclination and the power to convene, mediate, assess needs, solve problems, and sustain energy and resolve;
  • While they provide critical knowledge on issues, regions, and processes, philanthropic families are also advocates. Their collective advocacy extends to every issue and every part of the globe. Look to them to inform, yes, but look also for their inspiration, encouragement, advocacy and – not infrequently – a kick in the pants;
  • Families understand both legacy and renewal. They appreciate the traditions, values, and history that gave rise to their social commitment. Further, their personal family experience helps them understand the importance of renewing that legacy – passing those values on to successive generations. Today’s problems will not be solved without an honest assessment of how they came about nor will they necessarily be solved with old thinking. Families not only understand that, they have to live it – in their family life, in their work, and in their philanthropy;
  • Philanthropic families make possible many of the services and programs our communities depend on. They provide health and social services, educational opportunities, arts programs; they are dedicated stewards of our environment, our history, and our future. They don’t require appreciation for those roles, but understanding of what the obligations and privileges imply.

Donor families are not without their problems and challenges. They still have a long way to go to fully understand the effectiveness and results of their giving. They struggle with the dual goals of the family philanthropic process: making a positive difference in the world while providing a shared opportunity for family members to experience and contribute meaningfully to society. They have to find meaningful ways to access expertise, diverse opinions and experiences, and critique.

But these challenges do not dim the fundamental quality of the donor family: the gift of hope and the sense of possibility. We heard a lot about hope in the recent campaign. To see it made manifest, look no further than those who choose to express their gratitude for their own blessings and success by investing in our shared future. They have a remarkable way of seeing that future both in the causes and communities they fund but also in the eyes of their grandchildren – grandchildren often at the table with them helping to make their giving choices. And look to their grantee partners for a sense of what that hope can make possible.

Philanthropic families are a tremendous force for good. As you consider the philanthropic sector, it may be tempting to see it as the cost of the charitable deduction, and I’m sure that can be well measured. But think also of what the efforts of these philanthropic families buy. That is beyond measure.