I have never had a donor family member turn me down when I asked for help on behalf of another giving family. Even when I needed someone to share a difficult experience, they agreed, knowing it might help a colleague. It has been a powerful testament to the generosity of spirit of these families; they share resources beyond financial and often something much rarer: their time.

But what would happen if I asked 2000 family foundations – most of whom I’ve never met and most of whom are not affiliated with any donor support organization – to fill out an extensive survey of their foundation practice? To make the survey findings credible, we needed to start with all 4,900 family foundations the Foundation Center records as having between $5 million and $250 million in assets (our target group). Next, a random sampling of 2,000 had to be mailed the survey (and, in some cases, emailed). Then we needed at least 10 percent of those to complete the survey and send it in.

What I found out – perhaps not so amazingly – reinforced my previous experience. We quickly found our mailbox full of completed surveys, and reached our sample goal. Some 84 percent of those returns had been completed by a family member trustee – very different from most field surveys that are completed by paid staff members. And since we were asking questions about governance, family dynamics, and family perception of donor intent – among many others – having those family members’ responses adds to the compelling nature of the findings. The survey results will have a lasting, living impact on our field.

To start, it will become critical benchmark data for the Pursuit of Excellence assessment process we will roll out in the coming months. After several years of work, under the thoughtful and tenacious leadership of National Center Senior Fellow Alice Buhl, we have developed the first comprehensive self-assessment for family foundations. Many other assessment tools miss key elements of the family foundation experience: donor legacy and impact; succession planning; dynamics; and the influence of family history and traditions. Our Pursuit of Excellence assessment addresses all those as well as mission; grantmaking; financial management; governance; and administration.

When a foundation board participates in our assessment, it will be able to assess current practice as well as aspirational practice – you will be able to develop a shared understanding not only of where you are, but a shared vision of where you want to be. You will also be able to evaluate your practice against the survey findings of common practice. Finally, where organizations have established standards of excellence, we will share those with you, too.

We believe this comprehensive assessment process speaks to the distinctive nature of family foundations as well as to the striking diversity of structure, staffing, assets, and history. In February, we will begin training family foundation advisors and consultants who want to be able to offer this tool to their clients. By having a broad, well-oriented network of consultants available, we hope to add to the accessibility and individuality of this assessment process. In the future, we will work on a self-guided process and related resources tools.

At the National Center for Family Philanthropy, we understand that families are proud of the work they do and they want to ensure they are doing the best possible job of stewarding their precious resources. Pursuit of Excellence is a significant milestone in helping families to do just that.

I hope you find the survey results highlighted in this issue helpful as you think about your own practice. I want to thank Alice Buhl, the Pursuit of Excellence Advisory Committee, and the families who participated in the test phase for their work. And, because we could never do this work without you, I want to thank all those families who, once again, helped advance their own practice and that of their colleagues by completing the survey. Your generosity of spirit is always inspiring and gratifying.

 

Virginia M. Esposito
President, National Center for Family Philanthropy