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Many of us grew up sitting at the family dinner table. Often, it was rectangular, with the family’s primary bread winner(s) sitting at his or her end of the table. Regardless of the shape, the rest of the family sat at designated seats, night after night, year after year. Sometimes, long after the kids had grown and left the household, when they returned for a family meal, they automatically assumed their childhood seats at the family table.
In most families, that dinner table had built-in power dynamics, family customs, and sets of expectations and rules. Sometimes they were subtle and unspoken; other times they were much more apparent and pronounced.
Once the kids have left the nest for school, work, building their own families and more, multigenerational family philanthropy creates a unique opportunity to set a new table so that young adult and adult family members can be invited to sit, share, develop and act upon common values and goals around money, philanthropy and making a difference.
Think of the new philanthropy table as a round one (actually or figuratively), where every family member can be invited to sit as equals, encouraged to share their own lens on the world with comparable voices and votes on how the family can evolve its philanthropic impact and legacy.
Most philanthropic capital is actually no longer owned by the family and represents a relatively small percentage of a family’s overall assets. Instead, it has been irrevocably donated to a family foundation or donor-advised fund and no longer even appears on the family’s balance sheet. Alternatively, this capital has been earmarked for charity and will soon be donated. Either way, philanthropically committed capital usually sits apart from the rest of a family’s assets making it easier to discuss and distribute with less attachment to personal impact.
Establishing a clear process for family philanthropy is essential for its success. Based upon our experience in working with dozens of multi-generational families, we’ve learned that three steps are essential to its success.
The first step is to jointly establish new ground rules, different from those that governed the dinner table. Ask each other, “How would you like all family members to show up at the new philanthropy table?” This is often the hardest step for members of the wealth-creating generation, who are accustomed to ruling the roost.
It is clear, however, that rising-generation members will actively participate in a mutigenerational philanthropic family endeavor only if they have meaningful, equivalent seats at the table. Good ground rules emanate naturally from family members. They are not imposed by elders or outside facilitators.
Here are just a few examples of the many ground rules established by families with whom we’ve worked:
- All family members have an equal voice; all are encouraged to actively participate.
- Decisions won’t be made unilaterally; collective decision-making is the objective.
- No “eye rolls” or “sighs” permitted; rather, show respect for all points of view.
- No interrupting.
- Accept conflict and its resolution as a necessary catalyst for learning and change.
The next step is to articulate a common purpose for the family‘s philanthropic endeavor. Ask each other, “What do you want to get out of this experience?” Each family member may answer this question differently. Some answers we’ve seen are to:
- Learn more about effective, strategic philanthropy;
- Learn more about each other, especially across the rising generations of geographically dispersed siblings and cousins, as well as their spouses;
- Establish new ways of communicating and supporting each other in the family;
- Help the family continue to thrive across the generations;
- “Pay it forward” out of gratitude for the family’s good fortune; and
- Make an impact in their communities, country or world.
Creation of a good mission statement is the next step in setting a new table for family philanthropy. Family members can ask each other these questions:
- What is our focus?
- What do we want to preserve or change — specifically?
- Do we want to focus on a geographic area?
- Over what period of time will we give?
- Do we want to collaborate with other funders — or go it alone?
- How will we measure success?
Most families aspire to preserve wealth, values and legacy over the generations. Research demonstrates that a number of factors influence a family’s ability to reach that goal. Almost always near the top of the list is a family’s shared commitment to community, service and philanthropy.
Following these three steps makes it much more likely that the family’s philanthropic efforts will succeed. It also makes it much more probable that the family itself will thrive — by learning to communicate better, work together and support each other across generations, distances and time.
Nonprofit of the month
Founded in 2012, Second Chance Center is now the largest re-entry program in Colorado, assisting formerly incarcerated individuals in reestablishing their lives and becoming successful members of the community. It maintains a recidivism rate under 10%. Housing, training, employment, health care and addictions counseling are important in building a new life; SCC provides them all with peer mentoring – those showing the way have the lived experience of incarceration. www.scccolorado.org
Bruce DeBoskey, J.D., is a philanthropic strategist working across the United States with The DeBoskey Group to help families, businesses, foundations and family offices design and implement thoughtful philanthropic strategies and actionable plans. He is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and workshops on philanthropy. Visit deboskeygroup.com or @BDeBo