Virginia Esposito, President, National Center for Family Philanthropy

Virginia Esposito, President, National Center for Family Philanthropy

Happily, it is Spring. Those in the Northeast may be wondering about that but I assure you, it is coming to you too. There is something about the spirit of Spring that, for me, embodies the spirit of family philanthropy. It’s renewal. Without the promise of new vitality, of renewing the promise of all that can be, what would be the meaning of all we’ve been through?

Renewal doesn’t mean a completely brand new day. Nor does it mean a rejection of all that has been.  What have you been doing over this past year if it hasn’t been planting seeds, nurturing (and, yes, composting) and believing in all that would come? You’ve invested in your grantmaking and grantees. You look forward to the results of those investments, to hearing from your grantees about their progress and cultivating a new set of partnerships.

Maybe the promise of Spring is the opportunity to think a little about all that and more. How is your board doing? Are you happy that your management choices are giving you the organizational support you need? Are things going great right now? Are there issues on the horizon? Could some things be a bit better? Maybe it’s time to take a cue from Spring and do a little renewing. Oh, it doesn’t have to be the wholesale drama of my Spring closet cleaning. To extend the metaphor just a bit further, maybe you just need a little turning of the topsoil, a few seeds and some watering.


If things are going pretty well right now, it’s a terrific time to do some reflection. What have you been doing that has made this a great period? What do you want to make sure you continue to do? How do you sustain this good feeling? One thing that really stuck with me from my time spent in an Executive Management Program is this: It is easier for a C+ institution to become a B+ institution than for a B+ institution to stay that way. Think about it. Those of us in a C+ situation know we have work to do and being responsible folks, we do it. We are willing to be bold in achieving our goal of better performance and we’re constantly aware of the need for improvement. Those of us in a B+ situation can be pretty proud of ourselves and spend all of our time trying to maintain our excellent status. We may forget the risks we took or the investments in our process and people. We can slip into protect mode. However, if excellence is taken for granted or if we’re overly cautious, that B+ can slip away.

So to all you B+ folks, have a conversation about what got you here and what you can do to maintain – even increase – momentum. Look out on the horizon for issues that may be coming up and use your “era of good feeling” to begin preparing. You’re more likely to make decisions in the best interests of the foundation from a feeling of strength rather than one fraught with concerns, insecurity, or fear.

If you’re in the second group – things seem to be okay but there are issues or transitions in the offing – use this time to get ahead of them. Maybe a planning process should be considered. Maybe you need to get a better handle on what is coming and the strengths you have to build upon. A good board retreat, even a family foundation self assessment process can help you articulate what makes you good, what needs to be improved and what are the opportunities you want to seize. Such a process – like the National Center for Family Philanthropy’s family foundation self assessment, the Pursuit of Excellence, can help you do all that and more. Anticipate rather than react. Enjoy the flowers in your grantmaking garden and be willing to pull a few weeds.

For those in the third group – there are some things not going as well as you might hope – then roll up your sleeves because Spring is the time for house cleaning – even painting and new drapes. (I could have continued on with the garden metaphor but didn’t want to make you bring out the tiller!). Take stock of all the things you have going for you and mull over which things worked at one time but don’t seem to be doing the job any longer.

Perhaps you want to take a new look at the shared values that guide your policies and practice. Maybe it’s renewing your commitment to your mission statement or figuring out if it needs a review. How are management and investments serving you and your mission? Might a board assessment re-energize your governance and the commitment of those who serve?

If you think you’re in this group, I encourage you to see options as well as challenges. Can you do a self-review and create a plan for moving forward on your own? Are things more complex and you need to develop that agenda with a tool like Pursuit of Excellence? One of my favorite things about the POE self-assessment process is that it can point out where there is consensus around things good and bad and it can point out where there are inconsistencies or differences of opinion. Perhaps, like many family foundations in transition, this is a time to find an experienced consultant to work with your family. The consultant can interview all the principal players and get a sense of the group: the good; the challenging; and hopes for the future. Then, at a retreat or other special meeting, the consultant can lead you through the findings and help you work through those inconsistencies, set goals, and develop a strategy for achieving them.

At the National Center for Family Philanthropy, we are often called upon by our Friends of the Family to listen, make a suggestion, or refer a few possible consultants. It is a genuine privilege to talk things over with our Friends and try to help. I know many regional associations and community foundations are called on similarly. Please know that you are not the first to need suggestions and support and I assure you that you’re not alone. One of my favorite solutions is to match a family with one who has gone through something very similar. The only tragedy would be for you to struggle without the kind of expertise and experience we’ve worked so hard to develop just for this time in your foundation’s/fund’s lifespan.

This is also a great opportunity to renew your personal vision and sense of hope. As the late family foundation trustee, Paul Ylvisaker, wrote: “Never stop affirming. When you find your battery of hope, excitement, and even idealistic naiveté so drained that you don’t let an applicant finish a presentation without pointing out why it can’t be done, it’s time you departed for another profession [Editor’s note: “or took a board sabbatical”]. Philanthropy builds on the hopes of rising generations; it lights fires rather than snuffs them out.”

A very happy Spring!

Ginny Esposito

President, National Center for Family Philanthropy