Every advance in our understanding of how family philanthropy begins, grows, struggles, renews, sometimes ends, and always inspires has come because of the willingness of donor families to share their experiences. Certainly everything I have ever learned about this remarkable tradition in my 30 years in this field began with the generosity of philanthropic families. Not the generosity that created the charitable funds, but the generosity of spirit that prompts them to candidly share their joys and difficulties in the hopes it might be of help to their fellow grantmakers.

Consider a few of the incredible highlights in the development of family philanthropy study and service:

  • When I was working in grantmaker education in the early 1980s, it was family members who first approached me and asked if I might tailor some programming to include the experiences of foundations where the donor or relatives of the donor still participated in the giving. They were willing to teach me what some of the unique issues and circumstances were and we were off!
  • The earliest programming and publications on family philanthropy were primarily anecdotal. We relied on families to tell us what they had faced and how they approached their giving. We told those stories in the hopes of hearing more. Soon, there were so many anecdotes that we could begin to identify the emerging patterns and themes. I recall the first who were willing to openly stand in front of their colleagues and tell about their greatest moments of meaning and disappointment; they shared their family faux pas in humorous and, occasionally, painful ways. I can’t remember a single story told solely for self gratification. As a second generation trustee once said to me, “if it will help someone else, I will share it.”
  • The “breakthrough” study came when we were able to talk the Foundation Center into working with us on their first family foundation study. To accomplish that, we had to identify criteria for family foundations and a set of foundations that met those criteria. The criteria had to reflect the research standards of the Foundation Center. But, once again, we highlighted that study with profiles of family foundations that provided critical illustration of principles in practice. We’ve since gone on to do similar work with donor advised funds and other vehicles for giving.
  • Perhaps the most intense project was the seminal study in succession in family foundations. Generations of Giving relied on dozens of families willing to let researchers into their offices and homes to interview all key players about their experience with governance, succession, and leadership. The book of the same name changed the way we think about continuity and family foundations.
  • More recently, we set out to conduct the first ever statistically representative study of family foundation practice. We had to identify every single family foundation in a broad asset category – most of whom had never affiliated with any kind of grantmaker group or communicated about their work beyond the confines of their inner circle. We had to pick several thousand of them at random so we could send them a 65 question study about their giving. We wanted to know about governance, finances, grantmaking, management, and family involvement and we wanted to know about their current practices and their aspirations for the future. Experts in foundation research guessed we would achieve a 2% return and we needed more than double that to have any sort of quality sample. But we wrote a cover letter to the survey explaining how it would help thousands of family foundations understand the field’s practice and where they were in relation to that practice. It would also help us provide better service based on genuine needs and gaps in existing resources. I never doubted for a minute we would get there and, sure enough, we went past the 10% quality return mark. What’s more, some 84% of the surveys were filled out by key family members personally. Once again, the generosity of the American philanthropic family in evidence.
  • This summer you can look forward to our latest study as “The Power to Produce Wonders: The Value of Family in Philanthropy” is published and made available on our website as well. Hundreds of donor families came together in 14 regional symposia nationwide and one national symposium to discuss this question. More than 60 individual interviews further examined the unique contributions of family participation to the philanthropic process. A synthesis of all that appears in the upcoming report.

With this issue of Family Giving News we introduce a new feature that builds on the power of donor families to help one another. Family Forum will feature the most popular and pressing questions we get from you and it asks you to share your experiences. If you have a story or if you’ve developed policies, studies, papers, forms, or anything else about the topic, we encourage you to share it all with us. We will use your information to respond to questions, to draft issue papers as well as future Family Giving News articles. We will also use your information to add to the rich resource included in our Family Philanthropy Online Knowledge Center. As always, you can choose to have your contribution attributed to your fund/foundation or you can choose to be anonymous. We respect your privacy and your trust. And you can be assured we will treat your experiences and materials with discretion – always using the information to help your colleagues and build resources for the field.

If you have a question about anything related to your family’s philanthropic work, don’t hesitate to call us, visit our website, and – if you are a Friend of the Family or supporter/subscriber – check out the Knowledge Center. If we don’t have an answer, perhaps you’ll be the next featured questions in Family Forum. I know your colleagues will step up to help you however they can. They always have.


Ginny Esposito, President