More than 100 of the nation’s leading thinkers and practitioners in philanthropy gathered in Washington, DC last month to discuss the question: what is the unique value of family in philanthropy?

Organized by the National Center for Family Philanthropy and held at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation’s Barbara Jordan Conference Center, this first National Symposium on the Value of Family Philanthropy marked the National Center’s decade of service to giving families and the culmination of more than a year of regional conversations with donors, trustees, staff, and close advisors in family giving.

“This symposium is the lynchpin of a research and education initiative that seeks to better understand and articulate the value of family philanthropy,” said Ginny Esposito, founder and president of the National Center for Family Philanthropy. “Until now, no one has examined and made a clear, compelling case for the value of family participation in philanthropy. This initiative aims to fill that urgent need.”

“We are here to have some honest conversations about specific ways in which we can build on the strength of family philanthropy, tackle its weaknesses, and inspire others to join the field,” said Mary Mountcastle, trustee of the Z. Smith Reynolds and Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundations and the National Center’s board chair.

Those honest conversations revealed a growing, vibrant field that, amid heightened scrutiny, insists on the unique value of family philanthropy. From the impact giving families have had in communities around the world to the civic spirit such giving represents and nurtures, participants commended the necessary contributions of giving families to society and democracy.

Impact

Giving families make a difference. Family foundations and funds occupy a privileged space in our society, which families use to great social benefit.

“To me, we are the only institutions that are essentially unaccountable, and that’s our strength,” said Lance Lindblom, president and CEO of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

“Because we don’t have to get votes, because we don’t have earn a profit, because we don’t have to raise money, that allows us to be risk-taking and innovative,” he said, pointing to how philanthropic independence allows philanthropists to take on problems governments, markets, and societies fail to address or have yet to recognize. “It doesn’t necessarily happen, but it’s a possibility.”

Much the same could be said of other types of foundations. Participants, exploring the unique contribution of family, noted how much of that space was occupied by generous families looking to make a difference.

“It’s important to remember that most private foundations in the United States are family foundations,” said Joel Fleishman, director of the Heyman Center on Ethics, Public Policy and the Professions at Duke University and author of The Foundation: A Great American Secret —How Private Money is Changing the World (PublicAffairs, 2007). “It goes without saying that almost every new foundation that’s established starts off essentially as a family foundation. And all of that really speaks for itself.”

“Imagine what society would be like if we didn’t have the things which the Rockefeller family has done, the Packard family has done, the Donnelley family has done,” he said.

Indeed, participants argued, the presence of a philanthropic family serves to amplify a philanthropy’s potential accomplishments.

“It allows us in some ways to punch above our weight,” said Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. “We are able to do things outside the financial asset base because we have the added assets of this extraordinary family deeply engaged in the work with us. For us, the family’s engagement is a great multiplier.”

“There is power in the [family] name, power as a convener, power as a leader, power in giving that first grant,” said Phillip Henderson, president of the Surdna Foundation.

Carol Larson, president and CEO of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, noted the great influence of the Packard family’s personal giving and involvement on school and nonprofit boards outside of the family’s shared institution.

“There is something that’s new with [donors like Pierre] Omidyar saying I’m going to use all tools available from lobbying to for-profit investment to non-profit grants,” she said. “In some ways, I think, that’s probably what philanthropic families have been doing all along—using all the tools available to them because they were committed to making a difference in their community.”

Such commitment, said Rockefeller Brothers Fund Chairman Richard Rockefeller, “is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. It’s essential to the healthy balance of society. If it withers, the quality of society degrades and democracy frays.”

Civic Spirit

It is that commitment to community, that civic spirit, that philanthropic families nurture and defend in a way few philanthropies can. Symposium participants took questions about the accumulations of wealth in the hands of private actors seriously, noting the responsibilities as well as the opportunities of affluence.

“If people are going to continue to generate large amounts of wealth, and I suspect that they are, one essential job of philanthropy is to inculcate those same values much, much more broadly,” Rockefeller said. “Everybody’s got to get involved in thinking through their contribution to the world.”

When the question of whether family foundations represent “the last bastion of aristocracy” was raised, Colin Campbell, president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and former president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, encouraged giving families to confront questions of wealth and elitism.

“People do inherit resources. Our economic model provides for that. The question is how do you make the best of it, not whether you approve of it,” Campbell said.

For Campbell, the answer to that question is found in an appeal to citizenship: family philanthropy represents civic participation, a private dedication to public service. Far from being antithetical to democracy, family philanthropy is a natural consequence of allowing, encouraging, and depending on citizens to participate in community and political life.

“I think a critical factor has to do with citizenship,” he said. “It seems to me that, if you argue that citizen participation was absolutely essential to bringing about the American Revolution… and citizen participation is essential to sustain the democratic experiment, then what you start looking for is the vehicle for achieving citizen participation.”

Philanthropy, especially family philanthropy, can be just such a vehicle because it encourages private individuals to contribute time and resources for social benefit.

As Valerie Lies, president and CEO of the Donors Forum, put the question, “The real issue here is whose money this is: do people think that this is their money or do they realize that they are stewards for this institution on behalf of the public?”

Critics who argue that family foundations are prone to conflict may be surprised to learn that families often think philanthropy too important to let their disagreements get the better of them.

“One of the things about family foundations that makes me smile a little bit [is] that people start them and sometimes they say, ‘Well, it’s because I want to keep my family together,’” said Susan Packard Orr, trustee of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. “I personally think that, even though things get buried, if you have to deal with each other in something as important as your family philanthropy, being conflict-avoidant is a good thing.”

Indeed, trustees know they are being watched and that much is expected of them. Curtis Meadows, director emeritus of the Meadows Foundation, noted the advice he once gave to a group of family foundation trustees meeting for the first time.

“Let me introduce you to the other directors in this room that you don’t see,” he said, creating place-cards for the attorney general, the media, Congress, and the public. “If you think you’re operating alone, you’re totally wrong.”

Families are especially aware of not operating alone if for no other reason than many of them work in the shadow of beloved founders who have come before. Julie Fisher Cummings, managing trustee of the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Family Foundation, explained how her father left little in the way of explicit instructions for the family foundation he created.

“I really wish he had left us more donor intent on the one hand, but on the other hand, I guess he trusted our philanthropic values,” she said.

Critics who point to foundations’ perceived abandonment of donor intent can see in family philanthropies both the commitment to a donor’s vision—and the trust—that makes for an enduring legacy.

A Lasting Legacy

The legacies of countless generous donors and their families are perhaps the best defenses of family philanthropy. Insofar as they inspire new generations and new families to take on the joys and challenges of giving, there are fewer families left who do not know what it means to give and achieve together.

When asked when he first became aware of philanthropy, Rockefeller replied, “One thing about being raised in the Rockefeller family is it’s the water you swim in. It’s like asking a fish, ‘When did you first become aware of water?’”

“It’s hard to grow up in a family like that, and not take some of that on,” agreed Rebecca Rockefeller Lambert, trustee of the Rockefeller Family Fund and the David Rockefeller Fund and Richard Rockefeller’s daughter. “I had the role models of both my parents, both sides of my family. How can we give and how can we give more? My first introduction was just watching them, constantly engaged and talking about issues that mattered and things they were passionate about and how they were going to go about changing the world. That, to me, growing up, was really inspiring.”

Meadows noted how the Rockefeller legacy inspired his uncle to begin his philanthropy and how his uncle had, in turn, inspired others.

“What you do when you stand up and say this is what a family can do is you give that confidence that something good can come from [philanthropy],” he said.

Whatever our roles in philanthropy, “we have the best jobs in the world,” Larson contended, noting Lucile Packard’s constant invocation of the joys of philanthropy.

“We have a lot of work to do in terms of deepening the understanding of philanthropy,” she said, “but it will be contagious to show the joy and to celebrate that to make sure that our society protects that.”