The Principles of Effective Family Philanthropy: Relationships

Effective family philanthropy makes a collective commitment to meaningful societal change. It holds itself accountable to impact as defined by community, and to the proven practices that support it. It is adaptive, evolving with the family and the community or ecosystem within which it operates. It shares or cedes power with different family members and generations, as well as staff, communities, and grantees. Learn more about the principle of relationships in the context of family philanthropy here.


Maliee Walker: We go further with people when we trust them. And so, why not use that aspect of relationship making, of getting work done with our grantees? It’s almost a no-brainer. I think the difficult part is, how do we make that work with the realities and the power dynamics that are there?

Cathy Cha: I think of it as an incredible gift, that part of our jobs is to build relationships with community leaders, and to listen and to find out what’s really going on on the ground.

Liz Dozier: How do you know what someone needs? How do you know what their desires are, their hopes, their aspirations, what they want to do without having a true relationship where it’s based on trust and honesty and both parties can be vulnerable in that and to really get to the next stage of what it is to support people.

Erin Borla: Trust-based philanthropy is a wonderful thing. I think if we take a step back, we can call it relationship building and that’s truly what it is. It’s showing up in a space and saying, “Tell me what you’re working on, I’d love to hear what you’re doing. Looks like you’re doing great things.” And that’s really where it starts is building those relationships.

Dimple Abichandani: It’s not just about what you’re doing but it’s actually about how you’re being. And I think that’s particularly important for people with power in philanthropy to understand. What we are doing is we are setting culture, and if we’re not setting a culture of trust, if we’re setting a culture that’s much more about power hoarding and about micromanaging and really about ego, right? That trickles through everything.

Regan Pritzker: I think for philanthropy to be effective at all, it has to be grounded in trust and in relationships. And what I’ve observed is this beautiful chain of trust and relationships in some of the work we’ve had a chance to do. And the trust-based philanthropy as a concept really codifies that and says, you know, every decision you make, every policy you put into place has to start from a premise of deep respect and trust for the organizations you’re in partnership with.

CC Gardner Gleser: And the piece that I’m finding that is so important is especially being on the board side and having worked at a family foundation, is that we need the board to show up and be vulnerable, show up in their full humanity as we’re asking other folks to do, because it is hard as staff when this is your job and, can I show up as my full self? You’re not quite sure. But it really helps when there’s some reciprocity between the board and staff, and trying to build those relationships in the same way we wanna build relationships with grantee partners in the community.

David Weitnauer: What not many of us are good at is getting more proximate with our families. And in the same kind of patient, incremental way, getting a little bit closer to our brother, our dad, my nephew, whoever it might be, and hopefully, in the context of shared experiences, we actually develop empathy for who they are too.

Erin Borla: How do I ask what they need? You pick up the phone and have a conversation. You drive to a community and say, “I’d love to hear what you’re doing. Can I volunteer?” So having that opportunity to build authentic relationships, that’s the cornerstone of that work.

Mailee Walker: I think also, structurally, multi-year grants help to build those relationships. So every year, we’re not asking for another proposal and they’re not selling us and we’re not judging them, you take the selling and the judging out on an annual basis and there is so much more room to relax, to breathe, and really just to be there with each other as people.

Cathy Cha: In terms of building authentic relationships, I feel like, as I get to know a grantee partner or a leader more personally, somebody will say to me, “You know, Cathy, that’s not a very good idea.” And then I know, oh my gosh, we’re really, like, we’ve hit another level.