Editor's Note: This blog post originally appeared here.
My recent trip to the Sunshine State was missing the yellow stuff as I drove in blinding rain up the coast of Florida from St. Augustine to Jacksonville. Driving a rental car, listening to directions from my tablet and not being able to see more than the lights in front of me was unsettling.
I missed a hairpin exit where the sign said to slow to 25 miles. I did see the exit, but while processing what kind of curve it was, I simply drove right by it, forcing me onto an alternate route. Two miles later, the rain had slowed, and the new route was better ‑‑ less traffic and better visibility.
The drive from St. Augustine to the airport followed a weekend of working with three generations of one family gathered for an annual meeting to make giving decisions. The entire family includes one remaining member of the first generation, six siblings and 16 grandchildren. Barely 30 percent of the living family tree had gathered this weekend - grandmother, two siblings with spouses and three grandchildren.
Of the three grandchildren who joined us, one had attended previous meetings. Two were curious, hoping to learn how the family worked together to accomplish this venture called a family foundation.
The first generation was just proud to see grandchildren interested, but the second generation was wrestling with how to include more of the third generation, and more importantly, what impact that would have on future giving decisions.
Family foundations are legally organized entities with specific rules, requirements and obligations. They have a board of directors commonly made up of family members. They are most often established in perpetuity, creating the eventual challenge of when and how to involve the next generation.
Giving decisions lead to writing checks, and they simply can’t be written from the grave. It’s a reality with which every foundation founder must come to terms. The same can be said for donor-advised fund holders.
Families don’t have to create legal entities to share the experience of giving together. They can use a donor-advised fund at a community foundation or a family member’s checkbook.
The choice of which way to do it should be determined by what works for the family, taking long-term intentions into account.
Let’s get back to those 16 grandchildren. Remember I said the family had six siblings? Those 16 grandchildren represent the complex extension of one family culture intertwined with spouses to create six new micro-families. Diverging opinions, choices and decisions quickly complicate what we call family when we are asking various members to think, work and decide together.
In this family, like any other, not every sibling wants to join in the work for all kinds of reasons. But again, what about that next generation? Can a family skip over the second generation and include grandchildren from across the spreading branches?
At this point, the answer may look like the exit I missed in the blinding rain. The good news is there are alternate routes to get where you are heading.
A family giving meeting can provide the perfect opportunity for the next generation to observe a family at work. It’s OK to skip a generation to the next branch of the family tree.
When the second generation doesn’t want to join in, but the grandchildren do, it can serve as a workaround solution that helps avoid the loss of entire family branches.
I’m often asked the question, “What do we do if we can’t get everyone involved?” My answer is simple - start with who is interested and begin creating your family’s shared-giving experience, focus and mission. Working together will lead to a family giving culture.
Leave the door open for late-comers and the next generation across the branches. Provide the opportunity to observe and learn about the work without promises and commitments. When someone understands the focus and mission and is still interested, then it’s appropriate to invite them to join you in the work. You may have rules to follow, or just extend a simple invitation to show up. In any event, giving well across generations can grow and strengthen the family tree.