On September 10-11, the National Center for Family Philanthropy celebrated the culmination of the year-long initiative that marked our Tenth Anniversary. The results were more than I could have ever imagined or hoped for! The feature of this month’s newsletter offers a few glimpses into the rich and provocative conversations in this first ever national symposium on family philanthropy.

Much work had gone before. For more than a year, we had travelled around the country and, with colleague regional associations and community foundations, led twelve regional symposia. I personally conducted some 50 individual interviews with leaders in the field. Inspired by our Board of Directors, we wanted to better understand and articulate the value of family philanthropy – the value added to the communities and causes served, to our democracy, and to the family itself. Based on the themes that emerged from that study, we developed the agenda for the national symposium.

We gathered our founders, our volunteers, funders, and those who had been instrumental in the success of our first ten years. Thanks to the generosity of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, we were able to host the symposium at the Barbara Jordan Conference Center in their Washington, D.C. offices.

On February 1, we will publish a report on the findings of the anniversary initiative with several key essays on issues in family giving. We’ll also be taking to the road again as we share our findings and look for feedback in more regional conversations. Armed with all this material, we will be even more vocal and powerful advocates for family philanthropy.

Let me offer a few thoughts from the symposium conversations:

  • While giving families can be nimble, flexible and responsive – they are grounded in their values, passions, and traditions;
  • While they are grounded in their history and legacy – as families evolve, they renew and revitalize their traditions and practice;
  • Family rightfully celebrate their individuality and diversity – but it may be that it is in our collective action and mutual support that we achieve our greatest potential;
  • Philanthropy is not about a sense of obligation nor the exclusive practice of the elite – it is an act of citizenship;
  • Democracy may not only encourage that citizenship through private philanthropy – it depends on private initiative for the public good; and
  • Our ability to continue to do this wonderful work may very well require greater public understanding of our contributions and our processes.

Families Respond to Difficult Economic Times

Many of you are calling the National Center for Family Philanthropy to find out how other donor families are responding to the economic turbulence. We began collecting these questions and stories immediately – the family foundation holding an emergency board meeting to adjust investment allocation, the foundation asking about revising a formula for project and operating grants, and many others. Right now, our Contributing Writer Joe Foote and his colleague Dorna Allen are interviewing a number of you to learn how you are responding. How are your investment and your grantmaking practices changing as a result of the climate? We will publish a special edition of our Passages issue paper series on how families are responding to the economic crisis written by Joe and Dorna later this fall. If you would like to share a story or questions, don’t hesitate to contact me so we can pass the information on to the authors.

A Sweet Memory

I am always puzzled when the public – whether the press, policymakers, or partygoers – take a single – albeit dramatic – story and make so much more of it than it is. Sometimes the story is so obviously an exception to common practice yet there is always the chance the exception may come to be seen as the rule. The current debate over Leona Helmsley’s will is an example of such a story. Is it charitable to leave a fortune “to the dogs?” Is that what was intended by tax policy that favors philanthropic giving? Should we be changing public policy and tax laws to prevent the idiosyncratic choice? I have read a dozen news stories and heard about a number of discussions on just these questions.

I wish I could read more that reflects our experiences with donors, stories like that of the Tracy Family Foundation in this month’s issue. More discussion of the Tracy families of the world could promote better understanding of the difference between common and idiosyncratic practice. It might also help us appreciate that the same democratic values that promote freedom of expression when it comes to visions of the public good require some measure of risk – at least a measure of tolerance – for personal expression that appears idiosyncratic. By way of further antidote, let me share a story that I believe demonstrates just why our democracy supports private giving for the public good.

George Boone thought it was a genuine privilege to share his good fortune with others. He turned personal passions into private generosity and a true commitment to his community. His love of art and the environment became gifts to support Catalina Island conservancy and arts organizations in the Los Angeles/Pasadena area. His love of his family made it a shared endeavor as he established a family foundation. He was humble both in his giving and in his philanthropic learning curve. He asked nonprofits what they needed and what he could do. I am lucky enough to have had George take me around Southern California and show me so many wonderful organizations doing great work. He never peppered that pride in the work of others with anecdotes about what he had done or funded. I knew how generous he was, personally and through the Foundation, but I didn’t learn that from George.

The one time George told me a personal giving story was one Christmas. He told me that his family had decided they had enough and didn’t want to exchange gifts. So they looked for something to do together. They discovered that an area high school had removed lockers from the school to cut back on drug trafficking. Students were forced to carry everything with them from class to class. George, his wife, Mary Lou, and their three children bought backpacks for every student. George didn’t tell me that story out of philanthropic pride but out of paternal pride. He left a very loving family when he passed away this summer. And one very sad admirer.


Virginia M. Esposito
President, National Center for Family Philanthropy