Family Philanthropy – More Than Just Giving

Year-end is a time of year when many families discuss philanthropy.  The first part of the new year is the time to put all that talk into action.

Whether the conversation is focused on things you have already done together or it’s about creating a way to do some of your charitable giving as a family, I have observed a handful of practices that serve families particularly well.  By “serving a family well”, I mean that the family is actively involved and invested in the process and the results.  One thing that may surprise you is that the families who are the most engaged across generations and who report the most fulfilling family giving experience are those who focus less on giving and more on learning.

Of course, the philanthropy is what brings them together, but what keeps them together is the overall experience of working and learning together.  It sounds pretty simple, but doing this well requires people to behave differently, casting aside (or at least trying to) those deeply ingrained roles we all play in our families and instead focusing on how we can deepen family connections while also doing great things collectively.

What kind of learning comes out of this experience?

  • About each other – Effective family philanthropy can’t be about being right or about winning because you’re stronger, older, better at a sport or at reciting poetry. Don’t miss the opportunity to understand what about the issue or the organization is it that your sister finds compelling.  When you really hear the underlying reasons, it helps you understand your sister better.
  • From each other – When a younger sibling can teach a parent or older sibling about an issue, that helps create a different kind of relationship. Recognizing that we can all learn from other family members helps us all appreciate how we think differently.
  • About issues – Listening to a family member explain what they understand about an issue and why it’s important to them. Bringing in experts who run organizations is also a great way to learn about how to make an impact.
  • Learning from successes and mistakes – Most people don’t enjoy making mistakes. But the way we become really good at anything is by trying and learning from what we did.  The mistakes are every bit as valuable as the successes.  Celebrate them both and focus on what you learned.  Celebrating mistakes sends a powerful message that you value learning more than perfection.

If this is all sounding a bit idealistic, I’ll grant you this: it’s a lot easier said than done.  Old behaviors and ways of interacting can get in the way of listening.  But for families who like the idea, are dedicated to working on it, and able to create an environment where everyone recognizes and values the opportunity to work together and learn from each other, it’s a great way to create new family dynamics and do great things in the process.

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  1. Tally Forbes

    Great article. Yes, a challenge but so great to work towards. Imagine the family dynamics working towards a philanthropic goal, sharing ideas and learning from each other what matters to each of them.

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