Over the past several years, I have deepened my understanding of the profound impact that having meaningful conversations can have on members of a family. The “philanthropy” conversation, the one about engaging in the larger world, opens up dialogue and creates opportunities to discuss issues that would likely have not been broached otherwise. It deeply fills my soul to bear witness to these connecting conversations that may be happening for the very first time. What does a family philanthropy conversation sound like? I’d like to share with you a sampling of some moments that have inspired me:
- Facilitating a conversation for a married couple as they discover that their childhood messages about the value of money were fundamentally different. Once they knew what those messages were and where they originated from, they determined how to communicate the messages about money that they wanted to share with their children;
- Observing a proud father listening to his youngest child speak articulately about her passion for gender equity and women’s empowerment;
- Experiencing a family coalescing around their shared beliefs that our country would be stronger and more inclusive if people who felt marginalized would participate in voting and the democratic process;
- Accompanying a young professional on his first site visit to learn about the mission, leadership, and programs of a potential grantee organization, and watching him probe with insightful questions and interact with the staff and young people with humility;
- Feeling the tension in the room when family members were wondering, but not yet talking about, how grant making decisions would be made and power would be shared; and
- Doing the hard work of helping a family pull together, appreciate one another’s values and beliefs, set aside or even confront tensions and wounds in relationships, acknowledge one’s blessings and abundance with genuine gratitude, and get about the work of making a positive difference in the world.
Family philanthropy is not easy. Most of my clients stop and take pause during our process to say, “This is hard!”. Today, when I was asked by someone in the third generation of a large and wealthy family what I was up to, he said, “How do you get 20 people to agree on a vision?”. People are complex, and by extension, so are relationships with loved ones. Issues of trust, love, respect, and vulnerability inevitably emerge when this work is done collectively and with real intention. However, while the positive impact on the world is one side of the philanthropic coin, the other side represents the family discoveries, bonding, and beauty that emerges through the journey. It is a risk worth taking when there is potential benefit to self, family and society.