The winter solstice is drawing near, marking for us in the Northern Hemisphere the shortest, darkest day of the year. Even as many of us bustle around—shopping for holiday gifts, prepping for parties and closing out grantmaking for Q4—this time of year reminds us to find moments of stillness and reflect on the past year before we begin anew the next.
I was reminded of the importance of reflection when listening to NCFP’s most recent webinar Trends in Family Philanthropy: A Conversation with NCFP Fellows Katherine Lorenz and Doug Bitonti Stewart. It was a rich discussion led by Ginny Esposito on what matters to family philanthropists, based on NCFP’s 2015 Trends Study. This study marks the first national benchmark survey of 2,500 U.S. family foundations, drawn from the Foundation Center’s family foundation database. NCFP enlisted the Urban Institute to design and survey a nationally representative sample of family foundations.
While the study reveals many interesting trends, here are a few to inspire your own reflection within your family board:
Make sure all voices are heard—especially those of the next generation.
The 2015 Trends study revealed that, for family foundations, the number one concern is engaging the next generation. 56% of family foundations said they are indeed engaging younger family members—most commonly by inviting them to vote on the foundation board (66%) and to join group discussions on core values (64%).
To do this well, families first need to create space for these next gen voices around the table—and then they need to listen. “As successive generations came on the board, we realized how different generations communicate in different styles,” said Doug Bitonti Stewart, executive director of the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Family Foundation. “Our three next gen trustees told us they felt the second generation always led the discussions, and they didn’t feel their voices were being heard.” To overcome this obstacle, the board engaged in training on how to communicate together, and created a framework they can use going forward.
“It’s more than adding the next generation; it’s about truly incorporating them—because these are the people who will be leading the foundation in the short and long term,” said Bitonti Stewart. “We had to slow down in order to speed up.”
Ask yourselves: How are did we create space for all voices at our board table? What does the next generation recommend for how we can do better?
Embrace risk and being okay with failure (really).
There’s a lot of talk these days about being effective and having an impact. Family foundations want to practice grantmaking for a purpose, and they want to see results. In fact, achieving results was the #1 purpose for family foundation boards and donors: 90 percent of survey respondents said results mattered when it comes to keeping the family interested and involved.
Yet how do funders get the results they ultimately want to see?
“Family foundations need to be more open to embracing risk and learning from our mistakes,” said Katherine Lorenz, president of the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. “Foundations often complain that nonprofits are inefficient, but a lot of that is driven by funders. We don’t allow them to be efficient. We don’t pay for overhead, so they don’t invest in a database or communications or strategic planning—those things that are often part of an overhead budget. We must invest in these things to be able to have the impact we want our grantee partners to have.”
It’s the same with risk, she said. “We want to be associated with new and innovative models—funding the seeds of something that scales—but in reality, a lot of things that could be innovative may fail. We don’t want the same old story, we want something new, and yet we’re wary of failing. As funders, we have to be the ones to help our grantees take more risk.”
Ask yourselves: What results do we want to see? How can we challenge ourselves to do our work differently—even if that means taking a risk and failing? How can we share what we learn (the successes and the mistakes) with others?
Stories matter more than you think.
We never know how long we have with our family members. Taking the time to share and document stories, along with the wishes of the foundation founders, is more than “a nice thing to do.” It can guide the foundation and family giving for generations to come.
“We are lucky to have lots of information—including an audio file of my grandfather and grandmother sharing what they wanted back in 1993, when they formed the foundation,” said Lorenz. “When I started this position, I sifted through many video and recorded conversations that took place over 20 years. In these recordings, my grandfather talked a lot about values and the big picture. So now, as a board, we’re talking about how to apply those values to the issues we’re facing today.”
“We know that the philanthropy should and will evolve, but there’s still the question to answer: what would my grandparents have done?” she said.
According to Bitonti Stewart, stories can create shorthand phrases that a family or board can use over and over again. “Mrs. Fisher always said: ‘Giving starts with your heart and then you use your head.’ To that, the next generation added ‘and then you dig your hands into it.’ This is a phrase we come back to in our giving, as it’s very much in line with the heart and ethos and the humility in which Mrs. Fisher approached the work. We talk about it in grant meetings and we underscore it in our materials—so even though the founders are no longer at our table, their memory and principles live on.”
“Capture the stories of the founders. Get them talking about what it is they would like to have happen in the foundation in the long term, what are their lessons, and what is their legacy. If you have a reluctant chair or founder who doesn’t want to talk about it, you can frame it in terms of succession, asking: how do you want the next chair to be leading this?”
Bitonti Stewart remembers that in the Fisher family, when Marjorie Fisher was alive, she would refer in advance to her own passing as “when I go to Tahiti.”
“A lot of people are comfortable talking about death. It’s more that we, as staff and family, aren’t as comfortable asking them. Ask the questions and give the founders space to talk about it, and you may be surprised how they answer,” he said.
Ask yourselves: How do we share stories? How can we make sure to capture the stories of the founders, family members and those who are part of the foundation’s legacy—before it’s too late? (Teaser alert: Tune into NCFP’s next webinar on Family Philanthropy Stories.)
Reflection isn’t a onetime gig; it’s an ongoing practice.
The Trends survey found that among board activities—with grantmaking and investments being the top two—evaluation and reflection on the foundation’s work ranked third, with one in three family foundations listing it as one of their top activities.
Those that do make time for reflection on a regular basis say it’s absolutely time well spent. “We’re so busy moving forward. We need to spend more time reflecting on the lessons we’re learning and making sure we’re sharing those.” Bitonti Stewart points to the desire to become a learning organization: learning and synthesizing so that the foundation can become better partners to people on the ground. “Stepping out of our day-to-day transactional work and taking time to look at our governance—that’s an important investment in the foundation.”
“Doing the work of building, sustaining and healing communities starts with our own need for introspection,” said Bitonti Stewart. “We work at doing things differently, and we challenge ourselves along the way. Board members may have different beliefs and opinions, but we concentrate on what we share, we dig into our work, and we stay open to the conversation.”
Ask yourselves: What value do we as a board place on reflection? How do we make time for reflection now? How can we build in regular time for reflecting on our work going forward?
Here’s wishing you a happy and reflective holiday season.