The late Gary Tobin dubbed family foundation chief executives Mad Hatters. It was a reference to the many hats these professionals have to wear: administrator, mediator, visionary, ambassador to the community, confidant and, occasionally, family therapist, just to name a few. Tobin believed there were four core components to the work: intellectual, emotional, spiritual and moral.

It’s a big responsibility.

Through his research and observations of this unique profession, both as president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research and as an advisor to numerous family foundations, Tobin concluded that “The ability to navigate the world of philanthropy, the world of the family and the world of the community comes with experience that no training program can possibly anticipate.”

The staff at the National Center is frequently called on to assist both new and more experienced CEOs tasked with the unique leadership role of enabling a family to achieve its philanthropic mission. Sometimes the call comes from a new CEO who has not worked with a family before. Sometimes it’s a seasoned CEO whose foundation is going through a transition such as bringing the next generation onto the board. Occasionally we hear from a CEO who is also a family member and has an even trickier job to navigate. And sometimes it’s the family that calls us. They want to know what experience to look for in their first – or next – CEO, or how to enhance the relationship they already have with their current one.

As the number of family foundation professionals has grown along with the questions, we have come to realize the large gap in the field’s understanding of this most unusual career. For that reason, we are launching a new research and education initiative to help families and CEOs work together most effectively and to prepare future leaders for this simultaneously rewarding and demanding profession. Components of the initiative include a personal interview study with a sample of CEOs, and an online survey open to many more. In addition, we will be sponsoring an invitation-only symposium for 100 family foundation CEOs in Washington, DC in spring 2011 to examine the themes that emerge from the preliminary research. Following the symposium, the National Center will produce a variety of new resources for the field based on what we learned.

Here’s a sample of what some long-time CEOs say about the many dimensions of their jobs…

The subject of family dynamics comes up early and often in any discussion of a CEO’s job. Joanne Florino, executive director of the Triad Foundation in Ithaca, NY, has worked with the same family since 1996. “We know each other very well, and yet we can still be surprised. Family dynamics are just the stuff of everyday life. The foundation may be my employer, but I work for and through a family. And I know that as a foundation professional, I can’t meet my own goals and expectations if the family isn’t operating at a very high level.” In dealing with this aspect of the job, she says, “Honesty has always been my best tool.”

Another part of the job is being a mentor and teacher for new board members. At times, CEOs may be called on to help teach the family’s children about philanthropy. Not all foundation CEOs are enthusiastic about adding “teacher for the kids” to their many other responsibilities. Richard Moore, president of the Weaver Foundation in Greensboro, NC, sees it differently, viewing it as a logical part of his job. “I don’t see a lot of difference than the role I play with the parents, helping them decide how to accomplish what they want to do with their grantmaking.”

Grantmaking is different in a foundation where the decision makers are related. For some CEOs it can be frustrating when trustees are geographically dispersed, differ ideologically, come from different generations or have widely divergent funding interests. However, Jack Murrah, former president of the Lyndhurst Foundation in Chattanooga, TN, and founding board member of the National Center, sees opportunity for creativity. “I think that a family foundation has more of a personality, for good or ill, than most institutions. That personality allows for more original initiative, more unconstrained thought about how to do the work of the organization. Sometimes you have a freedom, a quirkiness of character, that allows you to think of things and do things others might not. Some highly original and highly effective things get done.”

Bruce Maza, executive director of the C.E. & S. Foundation in Louisville, KY, and National Center board member, feels his key role in grantmaking is to help his family “find the locus and genesis of their passion. My work is to encourage a constant process of renewal, which is to articulate their desire for positive change. Then, my staff and I assist the board in finding the most effective ways to exercise that passion.” He also acknowledges his dual responsibility to the community that the foundation serves. “I create opportunities for the shared values and goals of nonprofit organizations and the family to become apparent.”

Maza, who is helping plan the upcoming CEO symposium, says it is “designed to begin to create the language with which CEOs and family trustees can have productive conversations about the most productive ways to deploy mid- to late-career foundation professionals.” He hopes the symposium will also identify specific ways in which veterans can help prepare the next generation of foundation leaders. He noted that the field has matured to the point that “it is time to ask ourselves what are the most valuable lessons we have to share with our successors.”

Readers of Family Giving News who are family foundation CEOs—either family or non-family—can help this effort in two ways. First, you can answer our Family Forum question to give us a better idea of issues you are dealing with. Second, let us know if you’d be willing to take an online survey which will be emailed later this summer.

Attendance at the national symposium will be limited to 100 invited CEOs. The initial invitations will go to National Center supporters, including our Friends of the Family annual donors. If you would like more information on this initiative or would be willing to take the online survey, please email Susan Price at susan@ncfp.org.