Family philanthropists seek to do good as a family, as a group of people bound by love, lineage, law, and a little luck. Families do argue. Families have baggage. Just like their professional counterparts. Families also have affection—for spouses, parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and grandchildren. They listen to elders while reaching out to new generations. They stand up for weaker siblings. They embrace forgotten or unknown branches and welcome far-flung relatives back home. They’re loyal to one another and to the family’s cherished legacy of giving. They maintain successful family businesses, support the family’s hometown, and fund the programs their parents began even as they start new enterprises, migrate to new communities, and explore new philanthropic causes.
As an organization that has seen these dynamics serve communities and causes well throughout history and around the world, the National Center finds it unfortunate that “family dynamics” are often discussed negatively in philanthropy. While family differences may make for salacious gossip and “gotcha” headlines, the National Center has found that today’s giving families are incredibly generous and very concerned that, whatever differences they may have, those differences need not get in the way of the goals the family’s philanthropy seeks to accomplish.
The challenge for family philanthropists is channeling the bonds of family in the service of a shared charitable vision—and anticipating the conflicts that inevitably arise. In managing family dynamics, strive to:
Encourage the family voice in philanthropy
Philanthropy should be effective, transparent, and accountable. Some might say professional, but don’t let the felt need for professionalism drown out the values, the stories, and the people that continue to inspire your family to do good. Capture that family voice in mission, legacy, and values statements and in family histories and ethical wills so that inspiration can continue to influence new generations. Family has its place even if that presents some unique challenges.
While families certainly fight, many giving families report that it tends not to interfere in the family’s charitable work. That doesn’t mean, however, that it doesn’t enter the room. Families experience conflict over how different genders, siblings, branches, or generations are treated within the family. There are differences in personality, wealth, geography, communication, learning styles, lifestyles, ideology, religion, and more. These differences can become heightened and more divisive during times of transition: upon the death or retirement of the founder, while introducing a new generation or in-laws, or when hiring staff. Talking openly about underlying tensions is an important step in understanding and managing challenging dynamics.
Focus on what unites you
Anticipating conflict allows you to focus on what brings the family together, what excites and inspires family members as a group. For instance, families sometimes decide to implement discretionary grant programs to allow individuals to support causes of importance to them, only to see a family activity split into a mere constellation of trustee fiefdoms. Families that have great success with programs like these keep a core of common goals, values, and grants while allowing for and encouraging individual philanthropy. Each giving family makes a collective decision that what unites them is more important than what divides them. Find common ground—a cause, a community, or a way of making grants—and act from there.
Create processes to manage and channel conflict constructively
A well-developed set of policies governing the work of your philanthropy—from decisions about board composition, rotation, and succession to how the family meets, makes decisions, and communicates—can go a long way toward keeping conflicts from festering. Create policies about spousal involvement and how to remove a trustee, for example, before they’re needed. Create spaces for open discussion with regular family meetings. Establish guidelines for discussion and decisionmaking. Your giving program can and should accommodate and encourage constructive criticism while minimizing conflict.
Engage outside help, when necessary
Even the healthiest, most loving, most charitable families get stuck. And even the most adept, caring family members can get caught in the middle of something. If you feel like your family and your giving program aren’t moving forward, or if you feel like a conflict is wearing on the family, it might be time to consider engaging staff, consultants, trusted advisors, or some other mediator to help.
Just as you let family inform the philanthropy, let philanthropy be a force for good within the family
Sometimes, giving together can become just another avenue in which irreconcilable differences play out to the detriment of the family and the philanthropy. But more often than not, it can be a place where families that might otherwise be torn apart come together to do something good. Philanthropy can be a powerful, transformative experience—a force for good in your family and in your community.