Whether they are parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles, family elders can play a distinct role in nurturing and strengthening their family’s philanthropy.
Drawing from cultural anthropology, the noted guru to wealthy families James E. Hughes Jr. describes the four authorities that family “tribes” entrust to their elders in successful family governance, enabling the ultimate survival of the tribe. As a philanthropic advisor to generous families – where there can be as many as four or five generations at the giving table – I see these same four authorities as influential ways our “philanthropic elders” can propel a family’s giving together, participate meaningfully even as successors take on greater leadership, and deepen their own sense of purpose and legacy.
Any people doing something together need guidelines for how they will work and make decisions – this includes families who give. In my work with philanthropic families, we take time to clarify and co-create their giving governance, or rules of engagement, which helps ensure all those participating understand what is expected and why, and reduce confusion and potential conflict.
How will we organize ourselves? What are our roles and responsibilities? How will we approach decision making? How will we handle conflict? Governance guidelines are useful only to the degree they are followed.
Elders can be asked to hold the family accountable to the rules they have agreed to for participating and decision making. Of course, this carries a heightened responsibility that they, themselves, also will adhere. This holding to account may mean reminding the group of their purpose and commitments, or flagging when actions or behaviours are close to the line or offside. In doing so, elders model what it is to be accountable for oneself and to the family as a whole, and reduce the potential for irreparable family harm.
Philanthropy can generally be a low-conflict and enjoyable activity for families. But sometimes they experience differences of opinion, personality quirks that rub and breakdowns in communication. Disagreements arise about giving or investment strategy, succession and philanthropic leadership, the engagement of extended family or non-family individuals, or how a specific gift came about or was recognized.
One man whose family has a long-established private foundation shared adolescent memories of his mother reading stacks of grant applications in advance of foundation board meetings.
Elders can bring wise counsel and objectivity to navigate these challenges, ensure that all perspectives are heard and mediate resolution that leaves no family member behind. Hughes acknowledges that robust disagreement can actually be a healthy sign of the tribe’s well-being, and my own research of generous multi-generational families found that when families work through these challenges they strengthen their capacity to face new challenges together in the future. With the benefit of maturity, insight into all those involved and a desire for the family to flourish, family elders may be trusted to put the well-being of the tribe above their own.
Stories are powerful drivers of philanthropy. As such, storytelling and reflection are often an integral part of my work with generous families, especially in the exploration of their purposes for giving and their philanthropic values, vision and mission. In both formal and informal ways family elders can be invited to reflect. What life experiences have shaped your philanthropy? How are your passions reflected in your giving? What do you want your philanthropic legacy to be?
When family elders share their stories – perhaps about hardship, heartbreak, opportunity, realization, immigration, persecution or emancipation – they are illuminating the very life experiences that have shaped them and even helped formed the seeds of their giving and sharing. These seeds grow over the generations and can animate the family’s philanthropic heritage, reminding the family where they have come from and what has informed their family culture and values.
Over the years I have had conversations with countless philanthropists, and whether they inherited their wealth or created their own, many attributed their desire to give, volunteer and be generous to what they observed in the lives of their parents, grandparents or other special adults in their lives. Our elders teach us by example, celebrate our milestones, lead ceremonies that mark endings and new beginnings, or other rights of passage that point us in the right direction. Elders of successful giving families integrate philanthropy into this tapestry.
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Elders might tell about the charitable gifts they have made but also take time to explain the rationale and values behind a gift – why they chose that organization, the difference they hope the gift will make and perhaps even how the gift was structured and given. Elders might suggest changes to the family’s giving governance to welcome and involve new members of the family, or institute a giving program for younger family members to experience giving on their own terms in ways and amounts that evolve and grow as they mature. One man whose family has a long-established private foundation shared adolescent memories of his mother reading stacks of grant applications in advance of foundation board meetings. She encouraged him to read them also and this served as an early education for him about the charitable sector and needs in the community.
Whether family elders are wealth creators, inheritors or beneficiaries, if entrusted by their tribe they can embrace these four authorities to serve an important and valued function in the life of a generous family.
Dr. Sharilyn Hale, C. Dir, MFA-P, is president of Toronto-based Watermark Philanthropic Counsel, where she helps those who give, give well and channel their wealth and influence for good. With a career spanning the charitable sector, she works with leading philanthropists, generous families and social purpose organizations across Canada and the Caribbean. An expert on governance and multi-generational family philanthropy, Sharilyn’s doctoral research led her to develop a model that helps families approach their giving in a way that works. She serves on the Advisory Council for Canada’s only graduate program in Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership at Carleton University in Ottawa.