“What was it that I missed?”

A simple question with a complex answer many times. This question was posed by an experienced family foundation CEO during a recent call of our Issues Advisory Committee.  The committee—formed to make sure we stay in touch with the needs and interests of the field—was discussing “the best mistake I ever made.” Learning from failure is something we’re exploring quite a bit at NCFP, and we’ve devoted several sessions at our upcoming May 7-9 National Forum on Family Philanthropy to exploring risk taking and learning from mistakes. (If you haven’t registered yet—see www.ncfp14.org)

In this instance, the CEO was describing a capital grant that had gone awry despite lots of due diligence. The learning, or takeaway for the future, was to trust more deeply in intuition — the wisdom we all develop based on our experiences and perceptions over time.

Even the most seasoned grantmakers make mistakes every day. Over the past three years, we have been talking with many long-term CEOs of family foundations as part of our ongoing CEO Initiative. Launched in 2010, this is the field’s first in-depth exploration of the unique role a family foundation CEO plays. We’ve developed guides and webinars on hiring a new CEO; supporting a successful first year; and evaluating the performance of CEOs. We held convenings and focused retreats  for CEOs and developed extensive resources in our online Family Philanthropy Knowledge Center with CEOs in mind.

On April 10, we will be releasing a new guide for CEOs and boards of family foundations entitled Leading through Change: Advice from and for Seasoned CEOs. The Guide, accompanied by a special webinar on this topic, offers insights and tips from many of the leading CEOs in the country for both seasoned CEOs as well as those who hope to one day be seasoned themselves. There’s also vital information for family foundation boards and donors looking to ensure the continued interest and commitment of their trusted leadership staff.  Excerpted in this issue of Family Giving News, we invite you to learn from their mistakes—because forging a long-term career as a family foundation CEO involves many of these! Their candor, experiences, and learnings offer guidance for anyone working with giving families.

At NCFP, we will continue to develop resources that strive to help everyone involved in family philanthropy be more effective. We may mistakes too, though, so please let us know if we’re the ones missing something!


Kathy Whelpley
Vice President, National Center for Family Philanthropy