Nurturing Family Culture #4 – Fortify for Durability

Tending The Family Garden
Tending The Family Garden

In our previous blog posts about family culture, we have discussed why it is important to identify your family’s shared values and culture to align them across generations. Our most recent post outlined how governance structures embed core shared family values.  

At this point it can feel like the work is done: your family has defined its shared beliefs and clarified its culture.  Yet, this is often where the elephant can wander into the room and erode all that hard work.  Without fortifying these cultural pillars, mindsets and behaviors can shift away – sometimes even subconsciously – from what has defined and guided your family.  

Think of family culture like creating a garden. You identify the location, prepare the earth and plant the seeds.  But the garden must also be nourished and protected from both internal and external forces by weeding and pest protection to ensure a healthy crop.  Cultural fortification is the nourishing, weeding and protection of your “family culture garden.”  

Fortifying your family culture requires regular care by revisiting and reaffirming core shared values, tending to traditions, and providing opportunities to learn, connect and support during transitions. Consider the following examples of how family culture is fortified through specific family activities.



Family Sing
Singing From the Family Songbook

In Jamie’s family, there are various activities and traditions that reinforce the cultural values of connection, cooperation, and stewardship.  “Music has long been part of my family tradition.  We gather regularly at different family homes during the summer to make music, literally choosing songs from the family songbook.  Some of the music is fun for all ages, and other music is more complex and includes multi-part harmonies or rounds.  These gatherings celebrate our love of music, while also reinforcing subtle cues about the importance of working together.”  

In the context of family philanthropy, consider moments when new family members are brought onto a Board.  How do you integrate these new members?  This socialization process is important.  At the Surdna Foundation, there is a Board orientation process that includes new members spending a day learning about the story of the founder and the 100 year philanthropic legacy.  They meet with Surdna staff and learn about the different program areas. They visit the Andrus Children’s Center, a residential treatment center for kids and Andrus on Hudson, a retirement home in Yonkers, NY, both of which are a significant part of the family legacy.  New board members are also assigned a “board buddy” with some tenure to help with their integration onto the team.  These approaches to learning – storytelling, information-gathering and mentoring are designed to convey the values, beliefs and identity of the family foundation, which fortifies the overall culture.  

Finally, consider HOW you educate family members about the values, beliefs and approaches to giving that make up the culture.  To nurture and fortify culture in multigenerational families it’s important to allow family members to find their own identity in the fabric of the larger family.  Welcoming diverse viewpoints and approaches can ultimately enhance the existing culture and strengthen efforts to engage the next generation.   



Talking about your family’s culture is one thing, but to truly inspire and embed this learning requires building connection.  Connection can occur in a number of ways including through storytelling or shared experiences that strengthen relationships.  

How do you share stories in your family?  Do the stories from the past connect the threads of your philanthropic values?  Do they surface where the core values and beliefs are rooted?  

In families that connect across more than two generations, some tell their stories through publications or biographies, that include timelines, family trees, artwork and artifacts.  For example, the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation uses an online platform called The History Project to tell the story of their founder and the creation of the family foundation.  The collection includes hundreds of images of artwork collected, with the expectation that this platform will continue to catalog family treasures as new items are added.  They recognize that stories aren’t finite but that they continue to evolve and expand provides access for the extended family to learn about both the past and the present.  

Traveling with family can also build deeper connections with one another and help to fortify culture.  Think about the travels you may have experienced with family. The spaces and experiences we create with each other build connection.  They often put the entire family on the same level because often the experiences are new for everyone.  This allows members to learn from each other while also creating memories that can be revisited – some even becoming part of family lore.   

Jamie’s family has a tradition designed to create connection on their shared family property.  It’s called ‘Work Week’.  More than twenty cousins between the ages of 13 and 16 live together in the same house for a week of doing jobs to help maintain the property (yes, there is adult supervision!)  As important as the labor, the kids bond with their cousins, learn about family history and how they are related to each other.  And they get a chance to explore the land together.  This orientation also helps create a sense of both individual and collective accountability for stewarding the property for themselves and for future generations.

"Work Week" Teens
“Work Week” Teens

There are other activities that are no longer done that have become part of the family lore.  Jamie recalls, “My generation grew up hearing about the annual sheep drives that required “all hands” to form a human chain across the property that physically drove the flock of several hundred sheep into pens.  Back in that era, kids grew up looking forward to the day they were old enough to participate, and those unable to make the physical trip would hold other logistical jobs to support the effort.  Even though the flock of sheep is smaller and managed differently today, these stories of the sheep drives convey the family ethic of working together to manage and care for the property.  Our reverence for the land and the connection it creates for all of us means that our individual needs are not as important as the needs of the community.  It’s a pretty powerful concept that we reinforce – even by talking about some of the activities we no longer do.”  



Life is filled with transitions.  We move to a new location, attend a new school, change jobs, get married, and have children. We have blended families.  The list goes on and on.  These transitions play a part in how families show up in their giving.  How do we move through change at different paces but stay connected?  How do we not let personal transitions get in the way of family culture that is focused on service and philanthropy?  A great example of tending to transitions was experienced by Kelly during her board service on the Andrus Family Fund.  

Kelly explains, “The Andrus Family Fund is a sub-fund of the Surdna Foundation, launched in 2000 to engage fifth generation family members in more strategic and formalized philanthropy.  I was a founding board member with seven other cousins I had never met before.  We spent a great deal of time paying attention to transitions – both internally and in how we approached our work.  This had a significant impact on fortifying a healthy culture.  We created an officer position called the “Transitions Keeper” and made time at every board meeting to have personal check ins, mark moments and honor transitions. We planted a tree in the Andrus Children’s Center’s apple orchard each time a new family member joined the board.  We honored our family board member who passed away unexpectedly by placing her favorite roses at the table at every board meeting for a year and taking a moment of silence to think about her.  Ultimately, we took time to honor ourselves, each other, our grantees and our beneficiaries by recognizing and tending to transitional moments. This strengthened both our culture and the relationships we had with our grantee partners which I believe made us more effective in our work.”


Fortifying culture in families takes time, effort and regular attention.  Simply identifying cultural values and creating structures to embed culture isn’t enough.  Building opportunities to learn about the family history, share in new experiences, welcome diverse viewpoints, create connection and tend to transitions is hard work, but it’s work worth doing.  Think about the subtle and intentional ways you may fortify your family culture.  These approaches will be unique to each family and help clarify how families work together and support each other, whether in their home lives, businesses or in their philanthropy.  Cultures that are tended to are more durable and are more likely to endure over time.


Co-Authored by Jamie Forbes and Kelly Nowlin

Jamie Forbes is a member of the sixth generation in a family with a history steeped in shipping, transportation and communications dating from the 19th Century.  He is the Founding Partner of Forbes Legacy Advisors, which specializes in helping families plan for and make generational transitions.  Read his bio here.

Kelly Nowlin is a fifth generation family trustee of the Surdna Foundation – a 100-year-old family foundation – and is also the Founder and Principal of KDN Philanthropy Consulting, helping family foundations mark milestones, engage the next generation and realize both legacy and impact in their work.  Click here for more info on Kelly.

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