"The best way to predict the future is to create it." – Abraham Lincoln

What does the future of family philanthropy look like? At NCFP’s 20th Anniversary Symposium in San Francisco, 10 thought leaders attempted to answer this question, talking about trends, hopes, and in some cases, concerns for what’s to come.

Alexander “Zander” Grashow of Good Wolf Group facilitated the discussion, featuring family philanthropists and executives, impact investors, social change specialists, business leaders, and global NGOs. The conversation touched on themes emerging from NCFP’s yearlong Imagining the Future initiative, which brought some of these same experts together in focus groups across the country.

If what panelists predict is correct, the future will look something like this:

Funders will walk their talk when it comes to race, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Family philanthropists are paying more attention to DEI, and still, there is much work to be done. Daryn Dodson of Illumen Capital says: “What scares me the most is that inclusion of women and people of color hasn’t yet been imbedded. Why is it in a country that looks like our country, only one percent of invested assets are owned by women or people of color? It leaves an incredible amount of impact on the table.”

Ebonie Johnson Cooper, founder and executive director of the Young Black & Giving Back Institute, says, “The question always on my mind is: how are you doing philanthropy with instead of for? The face of philanthropy is often old, white, and wealthy, whereas many of the beneficiaries are not.”

If you want to diversify your board and staff, the simple answer is just do it, she says. “The trainings you receive about race equity—those are great for your own personal development, but whom do you have as your ally and ambassador to help you connect with your next board member? You can’t blame anybody if your organization looks the same, year after year, as it did before.”

Walking the REDI talk means more than simply attending a one-day implicit bias training; it’s a lifetime commitment, says the panel. As Mary Mountcastle, trustee of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation and Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, says: “I am interested in struggling alongside people [learning] what it means for white people to lead in this area, but not control it.

Funders will engage with the community—transparently and authentically.

According to Kate Roberts, co-founder of the Maverick Collective, “We work in Africa and India... We see North American donors want to make an impact, but feel uncomfortable because they are privileged, white, and wealthy. At the same time, charities and NGOs are terrified of donors. It’s a huge barrier, and limits transparency on both sides. It’s hindering our impact.”

Rick Williams, CEO of the Sobrato Family Foundation, says that family funders can change that. “Family philanthropy is unique in that we are from a place. We know the community. We are going to see and feel people being left behind, that don’t have a voice. We’ve always been a catalyst for change, and now we must rebuild the fabric of community. That requires going into those communities and showing up authentically.”

What does it mean to show up authentically, as a true partner in community? There’s no playbook for this. It takes work on the side of both funders and grantees to cut past the power and professionalism. Self-awareness and active listening are a good start.

It also helps to share stories—about the good, the bad, and the messy, says the panel. “Storytelling is important, and we don’t know how to do it well,” continues Kate Roberts. “We should share our failures as well as successes, and fund positions at organizations to write about their impact, failures, and successes.” Doing so will lift everyone’s learning, and encourage a more open, authentic field.

There will be more investing in community organizing, advocacy, and policy.

Many family foundations steer clear of funding anything that sniffs of lobbying. Yet in these turbulent political times, it is time to step it up, say panelists. In addition to direct services, every funder should have a portfolio that includes organizing and advocacy.

“Because the government will always be the lead payer for social services, the best return for philanthropy is to invest in community-based organizing,” says Reverend Starsky Wilson of the Deaconess Foundation. “Instead of funding early childhood education, consider investing in mamas who will go to the Capitol to lobby for early childhood education. Those mamas are going to be better at that than you every time.”

It goes beyond money, he continues. “How do you bring more than resources to the table? Be a broker. Be a convener. To engage community, ask questions: where do you want to go now, and what support do you need to get there? As funders, we have the position to do that in the community.”

We will see a bigger shift toward impact investing.

Most funders take much joy in what they are doing with the five percent of their spending policy, but they often don’t look at the other 95 percent, says Zander Grashow.

According to Mary Mountcastle, “Most of us are at a five or six percent spending policy—or we’re a spend-down. There’s no middle ground. The point of foundations is not to grow forever. How can we spend more or spend more effectively?” In 2004, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation decided to engage the other 95 percent and become entirely impact invested. Back then, it was called mission driven investing. The words may have changed, but the intention has stayed the same.

“We started impact investing 10 percent in known organizations. It went so well that we’re now going to dedicate $50MM to impact investing on a regular basis,” says Rick Williams. Family foundations, he says, are in the perfect position to pilot and try new things. “We can use our grantmaking, staff, communications, and the money in our endowment—everything we have—to make our communities better.”

There will be an increase in risk-taking and innovation.

Julie Packard, trustee of the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, says this: “What government and big institutions don’t fund is the beginning stages of innovation. If we don’t continue to innovate, we won’t be able to scale solutions to problems.”

Family philanthropy, Kate Roberts says, can and must take risks—because big government won’t. Sometimes it’s a simple solution and a matter of family funders joining together, co-investing in an issue, and rolling up sleeves. “All foundation folk can take risks, because really, who is going to criticize us? It’s important to enter our work with that attitude—that we can take risks.”

Family healing will stay outside the boardroom.  

Many families use the family foundation as a venue to work on the family. This, some say, has got to change. “The family foundation is not the place to work out your family stuff,” says Reverend Wilson.

Some respectfully disagree. Amy Hart Clyne of Family Office Exchange—say that, yes while that would be ideal, most of the families she knows work out their “stuff” through the very act of participating in family philanthropy. We all know this to be true: family dynamics show up—and blow up—in the boardroom. In best-case scenarios, families and individuals address (or smooth over) their issues in a way that doesn’t interfere with foundation effectiveness.

So will the future find more evolved individuals and families who circumvent the family drama? We must, says Reverend Wilson. There’s too much at stake for the community.

“How do we get to the point where we can heal communities? First, we have to do our own work—as individuals and as families,” he says. “We have a faithfulness to our mission, and to the communities we serve that are hurting and in pain. We can’t hear the community’s pain until we have dealt with our own.”

“While we have a lot of access to wealth, everyone has psychological and emotional needs. We’ve got to be whole if we’re are going to do this work.”

Being whole sounds right, for now and for the future. After all, as Kate Roberts says, “It’s people that create change, not just money.”


Editor's Note: Check out our graphic charts of this plenary and others here.