Honoring Legacy And Adapting To Change: A Case Study

Editor’s note: This case study is based on the experiences of a real foundation. The name of the foundation and other details have been changed to protect the anonymity of the foundation and the individuals involved.

The New Idaho Foundation (NIF) is over 50 years old. The current president, Sally Jones, is a family member who has held that position for nearly 20 years. During the history of the foundation and during her tenure, the NIF has adhered strictly to the clear wishes of the donor to give in a certain specified academic, medical area. As Sally notes: “We have a purpose, so we are relieved of that issue. My job is to help the board consider how to best accomplish that purpose in a way that excites and involves them.” Indeed, the foundation stands as a remarkable philanthropic success, since its focus has permitted it to make a tremendous mark on the academic community.

Two concerns led Sally and the foundation to embark upon a review process different from most of the other reviews of donor legacy discussed in this volume.

First, most of the trustees are family members, but as they have become further removed from the founder’s life and work, they have also become less dedicated to the mission of the foundation. There is still agreement with the mission, but it tends to be less understood and the agreement is less emphatic; some trustees are not interested and one or two are now fairly hostile. As president, Sally is concerned about this trend, noting, “The most important part of my time is spent seeing that the foundation doesn’t go astray.”

Second, although the foundation has taken the donor’s original intent as a given, it has acknowledged that circumstances and society have changed since the organization was founded. Sally is becoming increasingly concerned that the foundation may have done about as much as it can in its area of focus. Are they having less impact now? Have their grantees become “entitlement recipients” rather than partners in a common effort? Thus Sally and the board have begun to focus a great deal of attention on how best to adapt the purposes of the foundation while keeping true to the donor’s original intent.

As both a professional staff member, and a family member from the second generation, Sally is deeply committed to continuing the donor’s legacy. She has chosen not, however, to “dote on” the donor’s biography, written instructions, and giving history. She has chosen not to begin a process of “internal naval gazing of something we shouldn’t touch,” as she describes it.

Instead, she has chosen to focus on the changing state of society. Do societal changes require changes in the ways the NIF carries out its grantmaking? If so, how might NIF reaffirm the donor’s legacy and, at the same time, adapt to changes so that they can be even more effective in carrying out that mission? Can this be done in such a way that the board becomes more engaged in the mission of NIF? To answer those questions, Sally undertook the following steps over several years to prepare for an important board retreat to discuss these issues, and the future of the foundation.

Step 1: Mission and Donor Intent

A short, clear statement was prepared of the foundation’s mission, based on the will and writings of the donor. This was a necessary first step, but it was not seen as unduly important in and of itself.

Step 2: Review Grant History

An historical list of grants and recipients was prepared. This was quite a long list, so effort was made to organize it into useful categories. Sally and her staff also prepared a detailed assessment of the precise goals sought and some assessment of the impact of the grants over time. Several articles and summaries of external evaluations were also included in these materials.

Step 3: Determining where do we go from here?

Sally felt that this next step was the most important in the process and the one where she showed the most creativity. Charles Whitaker, a scholar and futurist, was chosen to provide an environmental scan of the foundation’s chosen area of concentration, its grants history, and of the ways society was changing. He was asked to consider carefully whether the foundation’s mission had been accomplished or if its basic methodology was obsolete.

Charles had participated only peripherally in the work of the foundation in the past, but he was known to be sympathetic. He knew the subject matter well, but was best known as a creative – even iconoclastic – thinker who liked to “think outside the box.” NIF’s basic mission was pretty much a given; the question that Charles was asked to answer was, “What are now the most pressing unsettled questions and what are the best methods to resolve them that are most consistent with the donor’s beliefs?” Given the foundation’s original mission, Charles reported that, “we need to examine what we’ve been doing for medical research, and determine as best we can what worked and what didn’t; what we have done wrong; what we have left undone. Finally, we need to creatively ask what we most need to know and do to maintain the momentum of this program, wherever that may lead us.” His emphasis was to focus on what could be done prospectively to meet the mission.

Step 4: Reviewing the Review

As she had hoped, Sally received a remarkable paper that challenged all involved. On the one hand, Charles acknowledged the impact of the foundation to date. On the other hand, he made a strong case that continuing its current grantmaking activities would not be nearly as effective in the future, nor would those activities any longer effectively meet the donor’s original purposes. Instead, he mapped out a new methodology to carry out the foundation’s mission.

Sally commissioned several critiques of the paper and also convened two conferences to discuss the paper. While trustees did not attend, NIF staff did. The conferences were surprisingly charged as, with many past grantees challenging the assumptions and conclusions of the author. Other participants agreed with the author or suggested additional ways to meet the mission.


Engage Board and Family Members in Process

A retreat on this topic should be designed to build trust among family members, and to help communicate the family’s shared tradition and legacy of giving. One of the best ways to ensure that this happens is to engage family and board members in all aspects of the planning and retreat process.

Collect Relevant Materials and Information

Collect information and materials related to the donor’s—and the family’s—hopes and dreams for the foundation. These might include:

  • Information on the donor: Personal interviews, letters, videos, etc.
  • Information on the family’s history: stories, traditions, family business, shared values, etc.
  • Information on the foundation’s history: bylaws and other legal documents, grants history, board history, feedback from grantees, etc.
  • Information on the foundation’s field of interest: thoughts on the future, environmental scan, etc.

Determine Who Will Attend

The Board may wish to consider inviting one or more of the following types of individuals to part or all of the retreat:

  • Family members who do not serve on the board, including the next generation
  • Friends and associates of the donor(s)
  • Staff and advisors
  • Experts in the foundation’s key areas of giving
  • Others?

Determine Goals for Retreat

Determine in advance what you hope to get out of the retreat. Common goals include renewed family interest in the foundation, a revised mission statement or grantmaking guidelines, or a statement of donor legacy.

Options for Facilitators

Many families have individuals with facilitation skills who can be recruited to help lead a meeting. Some families choose to use two family members as co-facilitators—this lessens the burden on an individual facilitator, and provides a system of checks and balances to the discussion. Other families use outside facilitators to help with planning and conducting the retreat. See the resources listed below for additional ideas.

Develop Agenda, Dates, and Location

Deciding on a specific agenda, as well as where, when, and how to hold the retreat, are all extremely important factors in determining the success of a retreat.


As Sally prepared all of this material for the forthcoming board retreat, she was the first to admit that she didn’t want to have a discussion about whether the donor’s intent was appropriate (as several family members were suggesting). She believed the donor’s basic intent was a given and was ready – only if necessary – to make the case for honoring that intent. But deep down, she felt the donor’s basic goals were untouchable. She took her responsibility to be one of assessing how effectively it had been met and to bring to the board a discussion of how best to adapt the donor’s values and philanthropic intent to changing societal needs and situations. That, for her, was the true donor legacy.

Adapting donor legacy is never easy. In this case, the foundation leader chose simply to take the original intent as a given, and focus the discussion on the substantive issues facing the foundation in the future. It is possible that resentments on the part of some family members will continue to fester or other important issues may be ignored. Indeed, there was some feeling that not all board members were conversant with the donor’s values and purposes when the foundation was formed. But Sally maintained that the future focus of the upcoming discussion was the best way to minimize disagreements and to focus on positive future opportunities. Framing the questions in terms of honoring the legacy while adapting to a changing society led to several unexpected results. One of these was the likely appointment of non-family trustees who were experts in the field, thereby further solidifying commitment to the mission rather than to the family alone.

Finally, while the process this foundation undertook was very academic, as befits the medical research mission of the foundation, it suggests a way to avoid “navel gazing” about intent and focus instead on the hard questions of how to “implement” a foundation’s mission and vision as society changes.