Editor’s note: This month’s feature story is excerpted from our new edition of Passages by NCFP Senior Fellow Alice Buhl. A full copy of this issue paper is available for members of our Friends of the Family Program and subscribers to the Family Philanthropy Online Knowledge Center.

In 2008 I wrote a Passages paper titled “Passing the Baton? Generations Sharing Leadership.” That paper outlined a variety of ways that generations of family foundation leaders can overlap, take charge, let go, share leadership and pass the baton. As I looked for information for that paper, I discovered that there were many stories illustrating the ways that next generations learn and assume leadership. However there are very few stories of the paths senior generations take in these times of transition.

This new article was developed from interviews with a dozen seniors, all over 60 and several in their 80s.

The stories of seniors involved in family philanthropy are fascinating reminders of the many philanthropic paths available, whatever your age. My thanks to these generous elders for sharing their stories, experience and wisdom.

Senior Philanthropic Lenses

As seniors think about their future roles, there are several lenses to look through. Each might look at his or her personal dreams, hopes for his or her nuclear family, as well as the direction the larger family may have set for its philanthropy.

Personal Dreams

Increasing evidence indicates that seniors who continue to have meaningful lives are happier and live longer. In philanthropy we often talk about the dreams of the next generation and the relationship of those dreams to the family’s philanthropy. Seniors need dreams also. A recent book, Give Smart by Thomas Tierney and Joel Fleishman (Public Affairs 2011) can help anyone at any age think about their personal philanthropic role.

The seniors I talked with all had ideas of what was important to them. For most, this took the form of a passion for something, sometimes the promotion of philanthropy itself. They knew what they wanted to accomplish in their own lives and philanthropy. This is an important starting point, as the following quotes from interviewees suggest:

I had other things in my life that I wanted to do. The foundation wasn’t part of my identity so I didn’t think I was giving up. The next generation will keep coming to you for advice; you become their mentor.

The big thing is that you have to have something else that you want to do. It can’t be just something you are leaving, but something you are going to do-work, write, whatever-something tangible to do next.

I’ve learned that retirement is largely a myth; all you do is switch your activities to things that don’t pay you a salary.

Find what you want to do; do it sooner, rather than later, rather than sit back and let history take its course. Don’t wait until the timing and politics are right. Try to change the situation and mindset now. The older I get, the more active I want to get.

I’ve learned that one of the functions of a working philanthropist is to promote the notion of philanthropy to others who may not have it in their sights… try to share the experience of seeing your money at work.

My wife and I are doing something new (said by an 80+ year old). We are creating a campus for experiential learning in the city. If you find things you are passionate about you will be more philanthropic than if you are just following traditional things or things you feel you have to do as an obligation. I want to leave the city a bit better. Do the best you can; do what you feel your job is.

Don’t be afraid to give away more than you need to. Follow your heart. You’re the only one who feels it inside of you and you know when what you are doing is right.

Learning and Hopes for Immediate Family

Today, many seniors are paying increasing attention to the philanthropy of their immediate family. Some, who have the means to do so, establish separate funds or branch foundations to provide their adult children with the opportunity to learn as the parents did with their siblings. Their experiences can then be shared and broadened within the larger family’s foundation. Some are choosing to match next generation gifts out of their own resources. Others actively involve their grandchildren in understanding the importance of nonprofits and philanthropy.

None of these activities require approval of the larger family but each prepares family members for participation in that philanthropy, including serving on the foundation board. Several of the interviewees were very clear about the ways that they wanted their family’s experience with philanthropy to be different from the roles they had played growing up.

I feel as if I’ve played some role in getting them to think differently about their own philanthropy. I’ve learned that I can change my own mindset and the thinking of some of our family members.

I’ve encouraged our kids to be philanthropic but what they do is their own business.

The Larger Family and its Philanthropy and/or Foundation

Most of the seniors I interviewed were giving careful thought to the role they want to have in the foundation or the larger family’s philanthropy, now as well as 5 or 10 years from now. Most of them have been deliberate in preparing themselves, as well as the next generation, for a different role or moving on. They suggest seniors:

  • Be self aware and think about the long term future of the organization, the extent to which we are hearing from younger people and getting fresh ideas.
  • Be self critical: play an important role… but don’t hog all the jobs.
  • Turn over responsibilities to the next generation… but stay in the game

Other comments and advice from current seniors include:

The next generation needs to benefit from the wisdom we have accumulated, and it needs to be presented working hand in hand; let children loose to make some of the mistakes we made and also to learn from them.

Leave while they are still clapping… you ought to go when you are at the top of your game.

Don’t be afraid of change. It is marvelous and fun seeing young people learn about philanthropy.

Play a positive role in larger family dynamics issues. I make a contribution by trying to moderate some of the stronger feelings among the third generation.

Stay interested, but when it’s time to let go, let go. Have faith in those following you.

Step aside, you have to let go. Hopefully you can let go and let the foundation go the course it will take. Let every generation of leadership have some flexibility.

We’re all going to be seniors one day. Those of us in philanthropy have a special opportunity to continue to make contributions of our time, experience, wisdom, and personal dollars. I have learned from these seniors the importance of having a passion, planning deliberately, and recognizing and dealing with change. Thanks again to all of them for sharing their experience with the rest of us.

A full copy of this issue paper is available here for members of our Friends of the Family Program and subscribers to the Family Philanthropy Online Knowledge Center.