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Posts from the ‘Family philanthropy’ Category

#350 – From the ICYMI Series: Succession in Family Foundations

September 2nd, 2019

Richard Marker

This post from 2009 still seems to ring true despite all of the attention given to best family foundation practice over the last 10 years.

In my work with family foundations, there are few matters that arise as frequently as the questions of succession. “Who”, “when”, and “if” come up all the time. Sometimes raised by the founder, more often raised by next generations, the all too frequent absence of clarity can be an open or barely hidden source of contention, resentment, and puzzlement which often gets in the way of good and open decision making, and as often taints the well-deserved family legacy of giving.

In the current philanthropy environment, it is crucial to return to core matters such as this. All too often, in the face of books and press which challenge the larger conceptual issues of philanthropy, especially given the economic and political crunch of these times, people are reluctant to raise questions like this. They may feel that their energies should be spent making sure that their philanthropy is effective, or high impact, or transformative, or cutting edge. All of that is valid, but if there is internal disarray or disappointment, it will be hard to get to those other issues in a way that is reinforcing to the family.

No single article can address all of this in depth but from my experience there are a number of issues and bits of advice which can prove helpful.
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287 – Should I Stay or Should I Go? When Family Philanthropy Interests Diverge

August 1st, 2017

Richard Marker

Some of you may remember the song of that title, and its refrain, from the 80’s. [Professor Google tells me that there have been numerous subsequent recordings so some readers may recall later versions.] In it, a couple faces a key moment in their relationship with the choice that will determine their future together.

I was reminded of that title when listening to a panel at last week’s Family Office Forum in Newport discussing behavior challenges within their own families, and the choices they all made.

The convener of the panel invited three speakers from very different families all of whom had confronted pivotally challenging decisions in their family businesses.

Any of us in this or a related field is well familiar with the dilemma. Some may be family therapists, others family business experts and wealth managers, still others are trust and estate lawyers, and some, like me, family philanthropy advisors. Beneath every transitional moment is the underlying question: “should we stay [together as a family] or should we go [our separate ways]?” Some, but by no means all, of these discussions are filled with distrust or accusation or long histories of dysfunction. But even those families with amicable problem-solving skills ask the question, especially when deciding what to do about subsequent generations and family growth and dispersion.

It need not be said that families are complex and relationships, between and within generations, reflect that complexity. Every decision that has to be made is loaded because every one is personal. [In my work, I try very hard to show that every philanthropy issue that some members of a family are convinced reflect character flaws of other family members is in fact a generic one that has a legitimate philanthropic basis. Doing so doesn’t dissipate years of enmity, but it does allow more reasoned decision making about where to put philanthropic dollars.

The challenge, though, is what happens when that decision-making process stalls, or descends into the morass of unresolved family feelings. Outsiders such as we can often wonder why a founder – or, often, his/her attorney – set up such a self-defeating governance or power structure. But, alas, we too often are brought in long after the foundational structure was established, and we have to help make it work. Or not.

Sometimes the choice is quite stark and the question must be asked: Do you want to stay together or go your separate ways? Asked that directly, many families get themselves together, take deep breaths, and affirm their legacy with a commitment to make it work if at all possible. When a family chooses to accept their mutual decision to remain together, often their hard -held and uncompromising positions dissipate, or at least soften. Many families are pleasantly surprised how much they really do care, how cherished their family legacy is, and how committed they are to future generations.

At such times, they are open to considering different decision-making models, broader enfranchisement, modified structures so that they can achieve, as close as possible, a win-win solution. Not everyone is thrilled, of course, because it usually means that someone or some-ones have to yield some power and give up having controlling claim on the family wealth or philanthropy. But they learn to accept it because they have chosen to stay.

Sometimes the opposite is true. When the existential question is asked directly, it becomes evident that all members of the family feel that it is time to split. Indeed, it can be liberating. They can finally make their own financial decisions, or family engagement decisions, or philanthropy decisions – without having to argue for them or justify them to other branches. It can even serve to reduce tensions and enhance relationships. [One philanthropist I met was proud that he had obviated the necessity to break his foundation up: each of his three offspring had discretionary decision making over 1/3 of the foundation. I am not sure what was gained by that other than face saving.]

The real challenge is when the family legacy is built on a long history of dysfunction or jealousy or favoritism or any number of other causes of unhappiness. [The above-mentioned panel even added a case of illegality.] There may be financial entanglements that make a split more complicated and painful than suffering through their current unhappiness. There may be a public face of the foundation in their community that the family members are unwilling to dishonor. There may be legal requirements that mandate that a foundation must stay together. There may be disagreements about what the right answer to the existential question should be and they cannot even come to a consensus on that. What then?

The short answer: that is when those of us who provide services to families really earn our fees.

The longer answer: here are a number of very practical suggestions about how to make the philanthropy questions a little more manageable, and when appropriate, make the family philanthropy work better. I will leave the financial and family systems questions to other colleagues who have more expertise in those areas.

1. Every member of the family foundation board should have a limited discretionary budget. While not everyone in our field concurs, my experience is that discretionary giving serves to remove private interests from the group decision making docket and provides an incentive to take the family foundation seriously. [Some families extend that privilege to all eligible family members, even those not currently on the foundation board.] This typically works only if the total amount of discretionary giving does not exceed 10-15% of total giving.

2. While there is a place for mission/vision statements in a foundation’s planning process, in families it is often more constructive to have the family commit to a family history, or develop an articulation of values for generations not yet at the table or not yet born. Focusing on what they want their own legacy to be beyond current decision making can create a common purpose that transcends all of the other differences. In the case of one family with which I worked, when the third generation told the spatting second generation that they valued the foundation because it brought them all together every year, the second generation refocused their energy to guarantee those annual all-inclusive gatherings and the on-boarding of that generation. It was a lot more gratifying than the dispiriting disagreements that were characterizing their meetings until then.

3. From the beginning, make sure that professional advisors such as trust and estate lawyers and wealth managers understand that they need to set up structures that work beyond the founder. It is tricky because the founder is their client and there are legal and professional obligations to her/him. But what is left after the founder’s passing is a family. Wills and trusts that don’t empower and recognize that family as an entity that needs to function are all too often counterproductive. There are legitimate desiderata that a founder may have but there are also limits in controlling from the grave. Many of us have had to spend too much time working around structures that simply handcuffed, disempowered, or didn’t adequately anticipate the realities of subsequent generations.

One very frequent, and easy, example might be a founder’s long-time commitment to a particular organization. By requiring that the foundation or donor advised fund give a substantial portion of its annual budget to that organization does not engage subsequent generations very effectively. Why even bother to meet if there are no decisions to make? If a funder is truly committed to an organization, provide an endowment independent of the foundation and let the DAF family advisory group or Foundation be empowered to make its own decisions. [Donor intent should be general enough that it can inform decision making but not overly restrict it.]

4. Recognize that not every philanthropy decision need be a precedent for future giving, and that there are valuable learning curves. Especially in the early years, don’t worry too much about making funding decisions that you come to regret and avoid making big bets too early. Learning from experience may well obviate unnecessary tensions at the grants table.

5. As mentioned above, in families, everything is personal, but not every disagreement reflects a personality flaw. In the overwhelming majority of cases, philanthropy disagreements fall within the generic issues that every funder addresses. Disagreements about risk tolerance or recognition or how involved a funder should or shouldn’t be with a grantee are only some of the valid – and generic – conversations that help fine tune all giving strategies.

6. Philanthropy does not and cannot solve unresolved family issues. I have been asked on several occasions to help families implement a foundation that a parent insisted upon with the aspiration that it would get the family to get along. As suggested above, philanthropy can indeed be a vehicle to give a common focus to family resources, but very rarely does a late-in-life foundation solve years of alienation.

7. If the decision, ultimately, is that nothing seems to work, accept that a division is may not ultimately be a failure but an opportunity for different branches of the family to achieve gratification in their giving, expand their philanthropic footprint, and engage in bettering the world in different ways.

And, who know, perhaps future generations will look at each other and say, “let’s get together.” Hey, it happens!

Guest Blog: 5 Ways to Teach Philanthropy to Your Children, by Jane Chua

February 8th, 2015

Richard Marker

We welcome guest blog posts as long as they are content appropriate and are not implicit advertisements for products or services.
reprinted from with permission of

Philanthropy is such a noble act and it is such great ideas to have your kids share your passion with you. Generosity and compassion are charitable values that we would want our children to acquire, but in this fast-paced and social-media driven world, how can we instill these to them?
Here are five steps on how to teach philanthropy to your kids:

1. Talk it out with your partner. A study had been conducted in 2009 and it found out that most couples are seeing eye-to-eye regarding charitable giving, but it would still be good if you and your spouse are on the same page when it comes to this issue. Talk about the nonprofit’s goals and missions and make sure it does not violate any of your own beliefs.

2. Right from the beginning, talk to your kids about your charitable passions, including your favorite causes, as well as what you do to show your support. Once they see you all enthusiastic about it, they would just follow suit. It should not surprise you anymore if they ask starting questions or offering help.

3. Make them a part of the decision-making. Encourage your kids to take part in the decision-making process. Let them adopt their own causes and support the medium they will use to have their advocacies known.

4. Volunteer as a family. Not only is volunteering a good way to improve your kids’ self-esteem, but it is also a great opportunity to acquire new skills, share experiences, spend quality time together, establish traditions.

5. Imbibe financial literacy. As you teach your kids philanthropic values, you also get to teach them about the value of money. You have to teach them how to manage their savings, on top of establishing clear goals on how the money should be spent.

These are just few of the many ideas out there on how to teach philanthropy to your kids. Out of this experience, your kids would learn how it feels to make a difference in the world and contribute to its betterment.

Innovation Funding IS Strategic Grantmaking – Some Responses

June 18th, 2014

Richard Marker

It is always gratifying when one of these posts inspires reactions, challenges, and rebuttals. The post of several weeks ago on innovation funding seems to be one of those. This follow up piece addresses some of the reactions I have received.

Evidence based grantmaking: Some have read my earlier piece as a wholesale dismissal of the value of evidence-based grantmaking. That is not what I meant to imply. There are, indeed, many cases where there is significant documentation that one intervention is more effective than others. In addition, many funders and foundations don’t have the internal resources to do independent research or assessment of complex approaches. They are “mission aligned” with a much larger foundation which has done that work. Why not follow their lead? This can be a very efficient funding approach and can have a legitimate place in a grantmaking portfolio.

Moreover, even though not every evidence-based approach would withstand a longitudinal review, it does not mean that every unproven or untested program or intervention is equally worth funding. It does not exempt a grantee organization from an articulation of what success should look like, what an evaluation could examine, and what they would do if their assumptions prove false. All of us have met organizations – new and not so new – that have tried to dismiss accountability. “We are different” or “we have wonderful anecdotes” or any of a variety of other rebuttals. Those responses are simply not credible. Innovation funding requires openness to uncertainty, high tolerance of failure [see below], and acceptance of early stage indicators rather than clear evidence of success. But innovation funding does not dismiss accountability, knowledge of the field, or acceptance of the legitimacy of the early-stage indicators.

Replication: Another area which only makes sense if there is demonstrated effectiveness is the area commonly referred to as replication. Replication is NOT simply copying something tried in one place and plopping it down somewhere else. That is in itself a recipe for failure. How often have we seen that? But a program, approach, or project which has been tested, and, crucially, there is appropriate documentation about what made it successful, is a good candidate for “replication.” Here is another example where evidence matters.

Finally some words about success and failure. Recently, a lot has been written about failure in our field. It is hard to imagine any funders who are honest with themselves who can look at their portfolio over time and not find some flops. And that is as it should be. After all, virtually all funding is for something that did not yet happen. Nothing in the future is or can be guaranteed.

But failure should never be because a funder got in the way: created undoable conditions, knowingly underfunded, forced an organization to go beyond their reasonable competencies, overlooked organizational weaknesses which needed to be addressed…

I continue to be an unrepentant advocate for the importance of innovation funding. Funding innovation requires a high tolerance of failure. Sometimes a huge tolerance. But that failure should be for the right reasons and not because of funder myopia. And this is where strategy enters: asking the right questions, articulating what change might be possible, being courageous in helping those changes happen, and being responsible in your relationship with those who are implementing those noble efforts. What can be more strategic than that?

This is harder than I thought

April 17th, 2014

Richard Marker

There are two predictable comments or questions I hear from almost every potential new client.

The first: “How much money does one have to have to afford you?” is the easy one. That tells me that they have been talking to other philanthropy advisors and firms, many of whom have a business model based on the asset or giving size. In my case, since I don’t accept management or retainer contracts, I only charge on a project basis – what needs to be done, who has to be involved, how much time will it take. It doesn’t matter how much you have, only how much time we think will be called for. And everyone is billed on the same rate basis. I am happy to discuss what all of this means in another context, but that isn’t the subject of this post.

The second comment is: “this is harder than we thought it would be.” It doesn’t matter whether the client is the founder or the 4th generation, whether they are doing it alone or through a foundation, whether they have articulated priorities or are “feel good” funders, whether their asset base is in the $billions or many fewer zeroes, giving money away is never as easy as it looks from the outside, or at the beginning.

When beginning ones philanthropic journey, at least on the funder side, it seems to be an ideal position to be in: one can make a difference, make people happy, and satisfy one’s charitable interests, all at the same time. But…

Who would have imagined that you suddenly have so many friends – all of whom just happen to have a project which needs funding? Or that so many people would be concerned that you can no longer afford to eat. Otherwise, how to explain all of those offers to buy you breakfast, lunch, coffee, drinks…? And it is so thoughtful for folks to offer to distract you from TV, Netflix, or other home based distractions like your family. Surely you want to attend a dinner/concert/show/lecture/parlor meeting/… every evening.

That may indeed be an adjustment, but you learn how to deal with it. That isn’t the real hard part.

The hard part is coming to grips with having to say no to so many people all the time – or deflecting them to avoid doing so. The hard part is recognizing that there really are lots of worthy and worthwhile projects – even within your areas of interest, so many more than you can or are willing to fund. The hard part is accepting that, since you are always funding the future, nothing is guaranteed. The hard part is deciding what will persuade you that a grant or investment has done enough of what it was supposed to do that you feel gratified with the result. The hard part is deciding how involved you should – or shouldn’t – be with organizations you fund. The hard part is realizing that your spouse, kids, parents, siblings may see all of this very differently than you – and may take those differences personally. The hard part is choosing between being a responsible steward of philanthropic funds you or someone else set aside to do good or with being a change agent to do even better. The hard part is that doing all of this, deciding all of this, balancing all of this, caring about all of this takes a lot more time, energy, and commitment than you imagined. The hard part is accepting how much you care.

The amazing part, though, is that there are ways of figuring all of this out, and when you start getting it right, it is worth all the hard work. And indeed, all of that work on behalf of philanthropic involvement does make a difference – because it really matters.

Why the news on Millenials matters

July 31st, 2013

Richard Marker

Congratulations to our friends and colleagues at 21/64 and at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy for the recently released and much publicized report on the philanthropy patterns of Millenials and GenX.

Their report does not break new ground, as many in our field have pointed out. Many of us have been articulating our impressions of the emerging philanthropic behaviors of younger generations for several years. However, that many of us intuited what the study demonstrated is largely beside the point. What makes this report important at this time is several-fold.

1. They have produced meaningful, if preliminary, research to prove impressions of significant trends. The philanthropy field, and by extension, the non-profit field, is indeed being rethought, and maybe reinvented. As history has shown us, studies like this are quite useful in accepting that reality.

For example, about 15 years ago, when the radical changes in philanthropic behavior began to be noticed by many in the field, there was instinctive and widely articulated resistance to our “impressions” by established organizations and fundraisers. They argued that what we were seeing was simply a delayed maturation of the population, but eventually young folks would behave like their parents and grandparents. Were they ever wrong! But it took a number of crucial independent studies for this to begin to sink in. [Some still don’t get it.] Only when a series of studies comparing regions of the country, or those of differing religious backgrounds, or those from different ethnic backgrounds, etc. all showed that the generational attitudes and behaviors reflected long-term attitudinal and behavioral changes did the dismissive nature of the established institutions begin to erode. The non-profit world still hasn’t quite caught up with philanthropic attitudes and behaviors, but many are now recognizing that they must.

2. As some have said, it is indeed true that many of us have been saying most of what the study shows. But were people listening? And that is the point. To the credit of the Johnson Center and 21/64, they have caught the attention of our field of funders, and out partners in the field, the non-profit sector. Rarely has a study been more re-tweeted, appeared on more Linked-In group discussions, and had a ready place at every conference near and far. As the expression goes, “if a tree falls in the forest…..” This tree didn’t fall in the forest, but rather in the central squares of the philanthropy world. And people are hearing it.

3. The real question is “are they listening?” And there are numerous audiences of listeners

a. There are family foundation boards where younger folk have been judgmental of the philanthropic styles and choices of their seniors, and the seniors have been equally judgmental of their children/grandchildren. The fact that the study reinforces the altruism and charitable instincts of the Millenials and GenX, and those slightly older goes a long way to open the doors to intra-family understanding.

b. There are non-profits whose long-term existence depends on adjusting to the reality implicit in the report. Some really believe that having a Facebook page or rebranding the same old, same old to have a new contemporary look is going to bring people in; they are surely destined for failure – or at the minimum, irrelevance. Those who recognize that there may be new ways of doing things, as challenging to their own status quo as that might be, are at least in the game. And those which are structured around problem-solving more than institution-building are likely to have the best chance to make a difference.

c. But let’s be clear about the depth of the challenges when reinventing a sector: Transiency is the new black. It is true in the work place; it is true with pop-up or virtual communities; it is all too true with contemporary relationships. And for our purposes, it is true in philanthropic involvement. To fully incorporate the transformational approach of Millenials, and GenX requires nothing less than a rethinking of the funding, management, and longevity of those entities which exist for the public good. Is it possible to re-create that sector based on this kind of transiency? At what human cost? And how do we avoid the pitfall of faddishness in philanthropy? And this is where intergenerational experience, wisdom, creativity, collaboration, and resilience will make all the difference.

I, for one, need not be persuaded by the authenticity of the demand for thinking differently about the nature of organizations and solving social problems. The reinvention of philanthropy rings true for me, which is why I spend much of my time listening to and learning from those who are, shall I say, a different generation. The reason this report matters is that it helps us confront the stark transformation we are in the midst of. It will require more than Millenials and GenXers to make the changes, and to make a difference. But the necessary changes in our sector, and the solutions to all too persistent problems in our world, cannot happen without their leadership.

The Seduction of Permanence

May 31st, 2013

Richard Marker

I never thought of myself as a serial entrepreneur. But a friend in a different field from mine who has known me for almost 30 years thought otherwise. So he invited me to address a graduate seminar on the long list of projects which I either started or was involved in – going back over 40 years.

Frankly, I myself was surprised by the length of the list. Of course it led to some introspection on what happened to them all. Which ones have lasted, and which ones didn’t? And why?

After sharing as much of that history as a 2-hour seminar would allow, one of the students asked a question which startled me. How did I feel about all the failures?

Neither the host professor nor I understood my retrospective as a litany of failures; quite the opposite – he invited me because he viewed it as a list of interesting ventures, some of which were years ahead of the curve or game changes, but the student explained why he thought otherwise: “Look how many of those projects don’t exist any longer.”

Interesting perspective. Thinking about this a couple of months later, I am still intrigued by that student’s response. After all, quite a number of the projects on which I reported do still exist. One has lasted 42 years! But even among those that don’t: one lasted about 15 years; another over 25; another is thriving in a different format, integrated into two larger organizations. These were hardly fleeting romantic fancies but had a reasonable life span. I wouldn’t have thought of them as failures. [I could have given a litany of failed experiments as well, but that wasn’t the assignment.]

Why did the presentation come off that way, at least to some of these graduate students?

The bottom line, it appears, was permanence – or its absence. Permanence means success; impermanence failure. A pretty clear metric.

But is that a reasonable metric? Is it a constructive standard? Do we really believe that all good and productive organizations should exist in perpetuity? Do we really want to argue that an organization that chooses to fold or merge or simply feel that its work is done or that someone else can do it better is a failure? What if they feel that the needs have changed and the mission or approach are no longer the contribution they once were.

And while not the subject of this posting, what about the transformative impact of an idea or methodology which transcends its founding entity?

This is a philanthropy blog, and it may be instructive to remember that this was not a philanthropy seminar. I wonder if the reactions would have been the same had it been one for funders. After all, in our field, so many funders talk the talk of impact, time limits for organizations, the arguable validity of endowments – at least as we consider our grants and financial involvement with those soliciting our funds. But I wonder how we would view things retrospectively. Would we view a 40-year review of our grants as a success or failure if half, or one-third or one-quarter of our grantees [or the projects we funded] were no longer around? Would we consider that we had done good, prescient, strategic, impactful grantmaking if our look back showed a history of impermanence? I wonder.

As for me, it would be wonderful if the future allows me the opportunity to have a new roster of involvements in innovative projects as the past has, and has at least as many of those kinds of “failures” It gives me new appreciation of the potential of the innovative entrepreneurs who knock on our doors every day. How could I not? After all, without realizing it, I myself have been one.

I don’t believe in NextGen!

May 24th, 2013

Richard Marker

Long time readers or those who have heard me speak are fully aware of my position on this. But at a couple of recent gatherings, a number of younger funders told me that they had never heard anyone take this position. Time to say it once more.

I don’t believe in NextGen!

Surely, you say, I jest. After all, it is pretty well-known that I work with, advise, mentor, and teach younger funders. Indeed, it is one of the priorities of my professional work and volunteer roles. I have advised many foundations on inter-generational issues, and lecture about the transformational issues which emphasize the centrality of those in their twenties, thirties, and forties.

So, how can it be that I don’t believe in “NextGen”? Let me count the ways:

1. NextGen too easily implies that one is not yet worthy to sit at the grown-up table. In many cases, that is pure nonsense. What it often really means is that the “grown-up” table isn’t ready for younger members to sit with them to make real decisions and engage in constructive deliberation.

After all, many 20’s and 30’s and 40’s! have graduate degrees, have responsible professional positions, are raising families, have started new companies or organizations, and in every other way participate as full-fledged communal or societal members. But in the non-profit realm or at the philanthropy table, someone has decided that they are the NEXT generation – not yet ready.

This was brought home to me very vividly a few years ago when I spoke at the annual meeting of the top leadership of an internationally respected non-profit. Among the distinguished ‘young” leadership they honored at that time were a 50-year-old retiree and a 48-year-old mayor. Seems that they were more than “grown up” in the rest of the world, but still relegated to the kids’ table in this group of superannuated veteran leaders.

2. NextGen too often assumes that one must speak a different language or only with and to those of one’s own age group. That is, to my mind, patronizing.

Now don’t misunderstand: in my work as an advisor to families and foundations, I often advocate that there is a time when it is crucial that generations meet only among themselves. But that is a structural question – not an age question. In today’s families, third and fourth generations can span a lot of decades.

Moreover, as one who is himself a 3rd gen in my later 60’s, I have a lot in common with many who are 30 years younger than I, and a lot in common with their parents. Which room should folks like me be relegated to?

To be sure, there is education, world experience, career aspiration, and age appropriate angst more characteristic for those of each age. But we need to be careful not to assume that age must be the only primary defining category. [See #1 above.]

In addition, why shouldn’t interweaving of ages be a normal and even constructive part of life? Mirele and I regularly invite people of all ages to our home. We are enriched by a normalized conversation among those of differing ages, backgrounds, interests, etc. All too often, others tell us that they only socialize with their contemporaries and are surprised by the diversity of folks whom they meet when they are our guests. Nothing wrong with having friendships with contemporaries, but it is so refreshing to have friendships that are not limited to homogeneity or propinquity [ask your local sociologist!]

3. Too often, NextGen is nothing more than a marketing tool. An organization wants to show that it appeals to or is bringing in the young folks. Using this term is a way to demonstrate that they “get it”, are committed to new modes of expressions [but rarely their models of community], values their participation [but rarely their values], and are bridging the generational divide. Some organizations really do get it and are appropriately re-inventing themselves; far too many others, though, simply confuse branding with substance. Declaring that you are NextGen friendly doesn’t make it so.

4. Most important of all: NextGen really is THIS generation. The world has changed. Our categories have changed. Our daily experiences have changed. How we get information, communicate, create communities, pay bills, educate ourselves is owned and mastered by those who have come of age in the last 15 years. As I said and wrote over a dozen years ago, those of us above a certain age are “guests in this century.” It is we older folks who are on the margins. Much as it hurts me to say it [and I work hard to keep it from being totally true], we are LASTGen. And while my peers may still control much of the money, the daily behaviors and decisions of the generations younger than we really are deciding what the world, including the world of philanthropy, does and will look like.

My issue then, as you can see, is the term NextGen itself. All too often foundations and other non-profits use the term and programs to avoid coming to grips with the real transformations that a changing world should mandate. I suspect that many of those called NextGen say to themselves [to quote a one time Broadway lyric]: “Don’t talk of love; show me – now!”

Has the generation gap in family philanthropy closed?

December 23rd, 2012

Richard Marker

Any of us who help facilitate family retreats and board meetings know that sensitivity to what different members bring to the table is essential. Words, experiences, and expectations can mean such different things to those sitting around the table. And, let’s face it, in families, those differences can be quite personal.

We often find ourselves in the role of “translator”, educator, and even peacemaker as well as facilitator in such settings. Often simply demonstrating that the differing perspectives are in fact quite generic issues which underlie all philanthropic decisions can assuage and de-fuse. My colleagues and I may utilize different methods to get there, but the goals are the same: good decision-making, amicable family interactions, shared vision, common legacy.

Not that many years ago, it was almost de rigueur to have to interpret profound cultural changes which defined and informed the attitudes of younger and older members of a family. Older members believed in loyalty to established organizations, long-term commitments, the value of intermediaries, inter alia. Younger folk believed in more direct and transitory involvements, the need to know that philanthropic gifts are going directly to the causes they believe in, the ability to network and make their own informed decisions. Ironically, the underlying values between generations may be quite aligned, but how they manifest their philanthropic choices may be profoundly different.

10 and even 5 years ago, it was rare indeed when there wasn’t an a-ha moment when all of this was explained. A retreat or meeting which didn’t structure time for these insights was a lost opportunity. Explaining and translating had results: opinions may or may not have been changed but attitudes almost always did.

Today, however, it is less necessary. Not only do we find that many, if not most, families have worked through their differing world views, but more crucially, it is quite common to find that the generation divide simply isn’t there. What has changed? One thing for sure: As the baby boomers become the senior members of their families, they often find themselves more aligned with the younger generations than the elder. Most came of age post-Watergate [or – pick your historic disillusioning moment], with less assumed conviction that larger institutions will have the best interests of individuals or society at large. [Need I give contemporaneous examples?] Many lived through the 60’s and were forever influenced by its cultural optimism and political pessimism. When younger cohorts question the structures, efficiencies, outcomes, and impact of traditional philanthropic entities, these Boomers get it – even when it isn’t exactly the way they might approach their own philanthropic commitments.

It is also true that the philanthropy environment itself has changed. Major foundations and philanthropists have publicly committed themselves to some form of spend-down. The sector itself is a part of the public debate on budgets, taxes, and the communal weal. Major articles about philanthropy, sometimes laudatory, sometimes scandalous, are everywhere. Social networking has become prevalent across generations. Philanthropy networks have proliferated – for better or worse. And every wealth management firm has publicized its philanthropy advisory “expertise.”

All of these changes have led to significant changes in the character of many family retreats and meetings. They may or may not fully understand what they are demanding, but metrics, accountability, impact, alternative investments are terms which arise with surprising frequency. The conversations, even if not the ultimate decisions, start from a very different place than they did a decade ago.

Now, we all know that inter-generational and intra-family dynamics will always provide an interesting, ofttimes challenging, backdrop to any family meeting. Those complex relationships transcend questions of philanthropy. There is little likelihood that experts in family systems will soon be at a loss for business. And indeed, we all know that long-term unresolved family tensions can never be solved through philanthropy.

But what does seem to have changed is the inter-generational philanthropy divide. It hasn’t disappeared, of course, but it is a gap so narrowed that it is no longer the predictable center in family philanthropy discussions.

Why has philanthropy become so “fiercely competitive”

October 23rd, 2012

Richard Marker

At a session of the week-long course for advanced funders of the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education last July, a well-respected and influential leader in our field gave a very productive and insightful presentation to our participants. “Students” typically come from several countries and numerous States, and included philanthropists and grantmaking staff at some influential foundations.

The presenter had recently retired after a distinguished career in the foundation field. He chose to conclude his comments with some reflections on the state of the field. His strongest criticisms were directed toward his/our colleagues and the many organizations which represent funders. He decried the increasing competition on our side of the philanthropy table.

At the recent national meeting of the Association of Small Foundations [a wonderful group and fine conference at which I had the honor of being a presenter once again], a nationally known and experienced expert in our field made a very similar observation. He said that our field had become “fiercely competitive.”

At a luncheon two days later, the head of one of the most creative initiatives in the grantmaking field shared the same sentiments.

Something is going on, and, I fear, it is not so good.

I was particularly sensitive to these comments because of two unrelated recent experiences which already had me scratching my head. Both represented what can only be called trespass on the work of the NYU Academy. In one case, a long-term partner suddenly declared that the NYU program was a competitor and thus they could no longer even announce its offerings to its membership. [To this moment, I cannot understand their logic – but that is not for this posting. The other example would too readily identify the “trespasser” and thus also not for this posting.]

There is something exceedingly ironic about these developments. About a year ago, I offered a workbook for funders on Linked-In on how to develop effective partnerships, collaborations, and mergers. For 10 weeks, barely a day went by without a request for a copy. And in presentations in courses or at conferences, this has been one of the most requested topics. Now it is true that many funders discovered why they have had some less than satisfying experiences, but we all know that it is a prevalent enough trend that it is discussed at every level of the grantmaking field. Partnerships would seem to be the antithesis of competition, yet at the very time that partnerships and collaborations are on the table, the very opposite is as well.

Of course, competition among funders is not so strange or new:

– Most people who establish foundations have made their money in competitive environments. And they were the winners. It shouldn’t surprise us that some of that culture seeps into the foundations they founded.

– Most, but not all, funders want their philanthropy to be distinctive and “impactful”. They want their gifts to “make the difference.” Many funders want to be the recognized funder, or when they collaborate, to be the lead funder. Indeed, many highly influential groups and philanthropy advisors teach exactly that approach. [There is nothing wrong with this kind of funding if thoughtfully done.]

– Good grantmaking usually requires that one keeps ones ego in check: those who do the work we fund should be the ones who take the bow. In most cases, we are the enablers, not the implementers. By carving out a space where the funder is acknowledged for his or her insight, courage, risk taking, vision…. provides ego space – and reflects an implicit competitiveness.

– And, of course, anyone who is an advisor to funders and philanthropists is, by definition, a competitor to all others of us who provide these services. I would hope that every one of us who does this kind of advising observes professional ethics and is clear about one’s approach, business model, expertise, experience, specialty, etc. This kind of clarification should demonstrate what kind of alignments, collaborations, and niche roles each of us may play. For a funder seeking advice and choosing among us, we are indeed competitors.

These are normal, predictable, and when done ethically and without excess wielding of power, legitimate.

That is not the fierce competition which my colleagues and I are concerned about. My colleagues decried the increased – and often not so gracious – competitiveness among the organizations which coordinate or convene or represent funders and foundations. I myself have been befuddled by these developments but my colleagues proffered several explanations: Perhaps it is because so many organizations and affinity groups want to be “full service” and not simply niche players. Perhaps it is because there has been an explosion of such groups, with many overlapping agendas – and therefore each feels the need to make just a little bit more noise to be heard. Perhaps it is because foundations are becoming ever more judicious about how many groups or associations they join or which conferences they attend – if any – thereby making groups more assertive/aggressive in staking out their distinctiveness and importance. Perhaps it is because several foundations which had been lead players in enabling philanthropy education and affinity groups are pulling back. Perhaps it is inevitable as the philanthropy sector becomes more center stage in the public policy issues of our time.

My own experience has been mixed. I continue to have wonderful experiences where I or we [depending which hat I am wearing] have enjoyed established and cherished collaborations, and some very fruitful new and emerging ones are on the horizon. But the two I referred to above are fairly egregious examples where competition spilled over into inappropriate behaviors. And since other colleagues whom I admire and respect seem to see the same, I can only wonder aloud if there isn’t something amiss.