Editor’s note: In this edition of Family Giving News, we’re pleased to showcase the new Philanthropy’s Promise campaign, sponsored by our colleagues at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Former FGN editor Kevin Laskowski, currently serving as research and policy associate at NCRP, reveals the motivations behind 20 family foundations’ decision to sign on to this new campaign that prioritizes underserved communities and systemic change approaches in grantmaking. The foundations are among the more than 70 foundations that have committed publicly to Philanthropy’s Promise. Kevin combs the foundations’ own words to ask: what role could these strategies play in your own family’s grantmaking? And what could family giving become as result?

Philanthropy's Promise: Family Statements

Earlier this summer, more than 70 foundations, including some of the nation’s largest family foundations, signed on to a new initiative called “Philanthropy’s Promise.” Launched by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), the campaign celebrates foundations that make a public commitment to providing:

  • At least half of their grant dollars for the intended benefit of underserved communities, broadly defined; and,
  • At least one quarter of their grant dollars for systemic change efforts involving public policy, advocacy, community organizing or civic engagement.


“Most of the nation’s private foundations are family foundations. It is meaningful to us—and encouraging to hear—that family foundations, large and small, are willing to commit so significantly to prioritizing underserved communities and creating positive, lasting change,” says NCRP’s executive director Aaron Dorfman. “It’s my hope that other foundations can take their lead and that other family foundations will join with them and us in this important initiative.”

More than a quarter of the initial dedication letters were from family foundations, including The McKnight Foundation, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. These letters are important windows into what, in family foundations’ own words, family philanthropy is and can be.

Making the Promise

An analysis of larger foundation grantmaking in 2009 by NCRP found that, among a sample of 809 larger foundations, only 13 percent gave 50 percent or more of grant dollars for the intended benefit of marginalized communities, including economically disadvantaged persons; racial or ethnic minorities; women and girls; people with HIV/AIDS; people with disabilities; aging, elderly, senior citizens; immigrants and refugees; crime or abuse victims; offenders and ex‐offenders; single parents; rural communities or LGBTQ persons. Only seven percent of sampled foundations gave at least 25 percent of grant dollars for social justice, including some types of economic development, advocacy, community organizing, and various forms of civic and public policy engagement. Less than five percent of foundations pursued both of these strategies.

These numbers, however, are changing. Tracking of such data is improving, and enthusiasm is growing for greater inclusiveness and for strategies that achieve lasting, system-wide change. For instance, a review of new Foundation Center statistics on family foundation giving reveals that family foundations as a group demonstrate significant support for underserved communities.

Still, joining Philanthropy’s Promise places these families in a rare group indeed. What motivates such a commitment?

The Founder’s Vision

Like many family philanthropies, some draw poignant inspiration from their founders. For family philanthropies, the name on the door isn’t just a name on the door. It’s the name of a grandfather or a mother—sometimes, it’s your name—and these founding voices continue to speak in these foundations’ commitment letters.

Located outside of Los Angeles, Calif., the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation gives $80 million annually in grants in ten priority areas, reflecting the Hilton Hotels founder’s life interests and last will.

“[Conrad N. Hilton] was a philanthropist long before he entered the world of philanthropy. He had a deep sense of justice and was always concerned about the less fortunate—the disabled, the helpless children, the poor,” writes Steven M. Hilton, president and CEO of the foundation and Conrad Hilton’s grandson, in the foundation’s commitment letter to NCRP.

“When he died in 1979, Conrad Hilton left nearly all of his estate to the Foundation to continue his legacy of giving,” Hilton continues. “Today, we are a family foundation focused on serving those in great need and our work continues to be guided by Conrad Hilton’s last will and testament: ‘There is a natural law, a Divine law, that obliges you and me to relieve the suffering, the distressed and the destitute.’”

The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in Winston-Salem, N. C. looks to its similarly iconic namesake: “Mrs. Reynolds.”

“We have an image to guide and inspire us of a woman ahead of her own time—a woman who created safe housing options for young women who traveled to work in the city’s factories; a woman who helped form the first hospitals in the area; a woman who personally gave of her wealth to individuals in the community,” writes Karen McNeil-Miller, president of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. “Mrs. Reynolds set for us a mandate to serve underserved populations. Today, as always, we embrace that mandate and spirit to serve the underserved.”

Shared Values

Giving families often identify a set of shared values, a philanthropic culture that has grown up around their giving.

Victor de Luca, president of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, draws on founder Charles Noyes’ own commitment to diversity in the foundation’s commitment to Philanthropy’s Promise. Charles Noyes, the New York “Dean of Real Estate” well known for his sale of the Empire State Building in 1951, created the foundation as a memorial to his wife, a prominent New York philanthropist in her own right.

“The Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation was founded in 1947 to provide scholarships to the next generation of leaders,” writes de Luca. “At that time, Mr. Noyes decided that fifty percent of the scholarships would be offered to non-white students.”

“The Foundation, which no longer provides funding for scholarships, supports social justice grantmaking in the areas of environmental justice, sustainable agriculture, and reproductive rights. Our mission is to promote a sustainable and just social and natural system by supporting grassroots organizations and movements committed to this goal,” de Luca continues, noting the diversity of not only its grant recipients but its own board. “More than 50 percent of the non-family members of the Noyes Board are people of color.”

The Daphne Foundation, co-founded by Abigail Disney and Pierre Hausner, funds programs that confront the root causes and consequences of poverty in New York City and Western Africa.

“We believe a foundation should fund in a manner that reinforces and facilitates the work of the programs it funds and that the most inventive and humane solutions to social problems often come from the people most affected by those problems,” writes Yvonne L. Moore, executive director of the Daphne Foundation.

View the Families of Philanthropy's Promise on a full screen map.

Maximizing Impact

For others, the approaches of Philanthropy’s Promise—prioritizing the underserved and systemic change—are strategic choices made by the foundation to maximize their own impact. According to the Foundation Center, 64 percent of family foundations had assets of less than one million in 2009, and 49 percent gave less than $50,000 in grants. Families frequently ask: how can our limited dollars do the most good for the causes and communities we care about?

The McKnight Foundation seeks to improve the quality of life for present and future generations in Minnesota through grantmaking, coalition-building, and encouraging strategic policy reform.

“With limited resources, McKnight’s programs seek to provide support where we believe we can have the greatest impact. In many cases, this requires that we attend to underserved communities,” writes Kate Wolford, president of the McKnight Foundation. “Additionally, McKnight’s board has long recognized the power of pursuing lasting, systemic change through advocacy, community organizing, and civic engagement.”

For the Warner Foundation in North Carolina, the strategies of Philanthropy’s Promise were the only way to accomplish their mission.

“The Warner Foundation fully supports the precept that only through advocacy can non-profits most effectively improve life circumstances for the underserved and disadvantaged in North Carolina,” writes Elizabeth Craven, president of the Warner Foundation.

The Hill-Snowdon Foundation in Washington, D.C. came to a similar realization as it adopted supporting community organizing as a strategy.

“For the majority of its fifty year existence, the Hill-Snowdon Foundation operated as a typical informal family foundation, making grants in support of a variety of issues with a focus on social services as a strategy,” writes Nat Chioke Williams, executive director of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation. “As the assets of the Foundation increased, the trustees wanted to be more strategic in their grantmaking in order to have a greater impact. Through an intensive process of consultation, research and experiential learning, the trustees adopted a social justice frame for its grantmaking, with community organizing as the core strategy.”

“The solutions to chronic diseases, poverty, and disparities are complex. We cannot achieve our mission by simply funding good people to do good work,” echoes McNeil-Miller of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. “We must seek impact and results. Thus, KBR is also committed to funding systemic change. This work reaches beyond direct services to one individual at a time. This work seeks to change the factors that create barriers to wellness, education, and thriving communities. This work affects the way entire systems operate—the health care safety net, public education, mental health treatment, juvenile justice, to name a few—in order to improve the quality of health and the quality of life for our entire society.”

Fulfilling the Promise

In her keynote essay for the National Center for Family Philanthropy’s The Power to Produce Wonders, NCFP President Ginny Esposito concludes by channeling Alexis de Tocqueville, who argued that, though democracy was not always “the most skillful government,” it was able to produce something other systems were not: “an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force” that could “produce wonders.”

Whenever family philanthropy “pursues a vision greater than its growth for a community broader than its board,” Esposito writes, “family philanthropy will continue to ‘produce wonders’ for our democracy.”

Drawing on wells of inspiration that motivates giving families of all kinds, the families of Philanthropy’s Promise have committed to a vision of system-wide change and maximum impact to benefit the underserved in our society. Certainly, we can expect wonders from these families—and from all families who make a similar commitment.

Take time at your next foundation gathering to discuss your own founding vision, shared values and desire for greater impact and consider the challenge presented by these families. The “restless activity” of self-examination and “the superabundant force” of grants well-made will help your family fulfill the promise of family philanthropy and reveal its own “power to produce wonders.”

For more information about NCRP and Philanthropy’s Promise, including the full list of who’s signed on and how you can join them, please visit NCRP’s website.