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Posts tagged ‘family philanthropy’

Disruption…Can “change” happen without it?

January 22nd, 2013

Richard Marker

It is much more fun to be Mr. Nice Guy, to get all those ego strokes when, at the end of a speech, consultation, meeting [pick one or more], everyone tells you how great you were. Everyone goes away smiling and satisfied. – especially you.

It is much more challenging when, to do your job well, you know that those strokes are not going to be easy to come by: – when the group, the foundation, the organization, the individuals needs to change…. when the circumstance is such that continuing doing what they have been doing is simply not the best option.

Lots of people talk the “change” talk; very few want to walk the “change” walk. It is hard, humbling, disconcerting, uncomfortable – and that is just the beginning. Yet there are times when, to do the job we are asked or paid to do, no other approach is authentic, honest, or effective.

It happened again last week. A few months ago, I was asked to shake up the senior staff and entire board of a very well respected, sufficiently funded, and admirably led non-profit organization. All of this had been going on for so long that a very self-satisfied ethos pervaded. And deservedly so. The CEO had a reputation that most could only envy. The organization was strong and its pockets were deep enough that, during these difficult financial times, they comfortably absorbed numerous more fragile ones in their field.

Yet quietly there was a growing recognition that the organization had not addressed succession, it had not adjusted its board make-up or function to its new larger and more complex size; it had sidestepped planning for a changing financial model necessitated by government cutbacks. On the one hand the ceo and the organization’s top volunteer leadership acknowledged these things – but on the other, no one wanted to disrupt or challenge or publicly question the success of what got them there.

I was brought in to do exactly that. To facilitate a retreat and to shake things up. It was choreographed in great detail, but, truth be told, the ceo kept changing his mind – even during the retreat itself, a reliably good sign of his own ambivalence.

The day went largely as planned, but predictably not everyone was thrilled. My post retreat reviews were not the effusive ego building type. And the organization kept telling me that they hadn’t had much of a chance to process what had happened. Oh, well. I thought – what can one do? Chalk it up. Not every gig is a winner.

Last week, though, I found myself at a conference and someone whom I vaguely recognized came up to me. She told me that she had recently been appointed to a new coo position at that organization as part of a succession plan; that the senior professional staff was being given new portfolios, that the role of the long time ceo was redefined, and that the board structure was being revised. More pointedly [from my perspective], this person pointed to that retreat as awakening the need to ask the really hard questions which led to these changes.

Hmm – I guess I did what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to disrupt the status quo in such a way to lead to positive change. I doubt, though, these many months later, there will be a subsequent review telling me how effective I was. But there you have it.

I could tell similar stories – for example, about another very well-known organization which exists today only because I was willing to disrupt its own self-identity and self perception – something that a progression of other outside consultants were never able or willing to do. Its board was comprised of some bold-faced names, its ceo was stridently wedded to the past, its programs were as dated as the ceo’s perspectives. It wasn’t easy and required all the finesse that years of experience provided. I did my job. My role is relegated to a footnote in history – but this organization clearly would not exist today were it not for that disruptive intervention.

You may ask: since my work is restricted to funders and foundations, why was I working directly on the strategies of non-profit organizations such as these? The answer is because philanthropist clients had asked me to do so. They had experienced how I had helped their family foundations deal with very difficult transitions. And since they saw similar problems in organization they were funding, they asked me to do the same for their grantees. [It happens quite a lot.]

If effecting change within non-profit organizations is sometimes hard, family foundations are often the hardest assignments. Especially in families, feelings are close to the surface, legacy is personal, ownership is surely not a management concept, and empowerment comes from the last name, not an executive decision. Even when contracted to bring about constructive change, doing so in such settings can make the previous two examples little more than child’s play. In the hardest such cases, I have walked away knowing that not everyone liked what I had to do. But when told, months or even years later that my work led to permanent constructive changes, I was sure that my disruptions were the right – indeed the only – way to go.

I like to think that I am good at what I do, but I am certainly not the only one who is. What these anecdotes illustrate is that sometimes, perhaps more than we acknowledge, the only way to bring about changes which matter is to be disruptive. And those who are willing to risk annoyance, anger, push back, and resistance are likely to be the ones who do it best.

In recent years, we hear the term “disruptive philanthropy” quite a lot. [I don’t know who first coined the phrase – not surprisingly, there are several who make that claim.] The idea is: If what we were doing or funding was working, then our social welfare or education problems would be solved. If we keep doing and funding what we have been doing and funding, we shouldn’t be surprised when the same results ensue. Only by being disruptive of the status quo can change – of approach and results – actually happen. The best philanthropy, therefore, is the kind that funds real change and not the status quo.

Disruption, though, has a cost. There are feelings, there are risks, there are careers, there is funding, there is history or legacy, there is reputation. Not every person, foundation, organization [or business] is willing to take those risks. And not every advisor, consultant, or executive is willing to put his or her own income and popularity on the line.

A very successful consultant I know of gets more business than anyone. In many years of consulting, I have never seen any of his reports challenge the status quo. The organizations which hire him, I suspect, don’t really want to change. They do want a report that makes them feel vindicated in their leadership, their approach and their program. Oh, a few modest adaptations here and there for good measure, but the essence of what they will do in the future will not be very different from what they have done in the past. I will leave to others to decide if they were well served. Surely there was no disruption, and no meaningful change. Perhaps that was indeed the right way to go. Perhaps not. [By the way, I am not critical of the consultant; he does exactly what his clients pay him to do.]

Another example: In the current environment: Many organizations do recognize that something has to change. They know that the world has changed, that younger people relate to needs and organizations differently, that funding streams are not reliable, and that they are perceived to be yesterday’s news.

Too many, though, assume that it is only a question of their marketing and branding. Most funders are getting a bit tired of the plaint: “If only people really knew what we do, they would of course support us. We are the best kept secret….” They assume that their brand – that is their public persona, is the problem. Nothing that cannot be fixed with twitter followers, a facebook page, perhaps a blog. This would make an otherwise established and stodgy organization hip. But most of us on the funder side know that rebranding is not “change”. Change, meaningful change, is not a new logo or a new aggressive on-line presence; meaningful change means that something deeper has changed – the old way of doing things or seeing things or directing things or funding things has been disrupted.

Which brings us back to our theme – disruption. Not everything that exists or which deserves funding needs to be changed. But for those who believe in social change, who recognize that some organizations or societal problems – or some foundations – should simply not be doing business as usual should embrace “disruption” as an indispensable tool in the arsenal of change.

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.

Confessions of a 60-something Next-Gen Family Funder -Re-post with postscript

September 24th, 2012

Richard Marker

About 12 years ago, a prominent philanthropist and community leader, then in his mid-60’s, confessed something to me. His father, the one who made the money and was an even more prominent philanthropist and community leader, had recently died. This scion confessed to me that until his father died, he had never deposited a check, paid a bill, or reviewed a tax return. His own children were grown and establishing themselves, yet he, for the first time in his life, felt that he was entering adulthood.

That story isn’t mine, but could easily have been my mother’s. The daughter of a wealthy financier, she was an only surviving child, and spoiled and coddled in a way from which she never recovered. We learned, after my father’s passing, that my mother had a similar narrative to the previous one. Despite having earned two degrees from an Ivy League university, she simply was never willing to pay a moment’s attention to money – or any of the responsibilities surrounding it, including philanthropy. The narrative of how her father’s charitable generosity interfered with her childhood life was an all too frequently told story. This continued to her death since, after my father died, I then managed all of those “nuisance” details such as bills, deposits, banks, taxes, etc, until she too passed away. The difference between the gentleman mentioned above and my mother is that she was never able to deal with those vicissitudes of adulthood.

As you can gather, I am thus a 3rd generation philanthropy person – one who has seen and been a part of the great gratification that philanthropy gave my grandfather, and the less benign feelings of my mother. As one who now advises and teaches many family funders, I have become aware that, give or take some details, my third-generation story is not so out of line with many others. But, what makes it worthy of comment is that, while it is not unique, it is also not very typical for people of my generation. In fact, it is a more common story among the large number of 20-40 year old next-gen’s [a phrase I really dislike!]. Probably it is not so surprising how many of these younger folk confide in me, seek my advice, or take our courses. And, when helping to mediate inter-generational misunderstanding, or helping to determine if and how succession should take place within a family foundation, I often find myself with more empathy with those a generation younger, perhaps because I experienced much of what many of them do now.

The more one is involved in family philanthropy, the more frequently one is reminded that family relationships transcend the characteristics and limits of workplace and board room dynamics. In a family, on a very primal level, every decision is personal – on both the positive and negative level. Every decision is informed by a lifetime of connections, experiences, expectations. How and when does one agree or disagree with parents, grandparents, siblings, offspring, uncles, aunts, cousins? How does one know when the reactions to a grant request are to the proposal or to the proposer? Do family courtesies mandate that one “go-along” with the founder’s preferences even when you disagree, or do family relations lead to hostile reactions to projects which really are not that far apart? What claim should legacy have when everyone has literally and figuratively moved away?

As some of you may recall from a previous posting, several years ago, I facilitated a workshop on family philanthropy for a substantial number of philanthropists from around the world. Much to their surprise, they found that the dynamics they experienced with their own families were quite consistent no matter where in the world they were from. Perhaps nothing is as consistent in philanthropy as family dynamics.

In my work and in my teaching, there are distinct challenges to establish credibility with families, and even greater ones to have long-lasting impact on the way they work. In doing so, I have certain advantages, but it took me a lot of years to fully understand them. In my youth, I personally experienced how not to do this – how money can distort and disrupt and how philanthropy can come to symbolize that dysfunction. It took me many years to know what wisdom to take away from all that. Fortunately, I have also worked with and observed many who have done this much better. And increasingly, I am seeing lots of family funders who are asking the right questions earlier so that children and grandchildren will be acculturated in healthy and productive ways and also how the founders’ themselves can behave in ways to enable thee productive transitions.

Philanthropy is going through many rapid, even cataclysmic changes these days. Some of them are changing the very landscape in profound ways; others, I am sure, will prove to be nothing more than fads. What will never change, though, is the significance that “family” does and will play in the philanthropy environment. If being a 3rd generation type has taught me anything, it is how important a role that plays. And when done well, it can be one of the greatest experiences a family can share.


As if on cue, no sooner did I post this yesterday morning when I had two conversations which illustrated these complexities. Professional discretion and ethics won’t allow me to give many details but the coincidental timing of the two within just a couple of hours was noteworthy.

Convo #1: A family member of a family foundation board told me that there is a suit involving siblings because of death-bed changes regarding the control of the family foundation. The now favored son of the founder is left with virtually full control of the foundation and has “hired” himself to be its well compensated executive director. We will withhold comments and leave this one to the attorneys for now.

Convo #2: A founder is thrilled with the commitment of his children and grandchildren to the foundation he created and, to his immense credit, wants to make sure that this commitment can be honored, the impact of the foundation maximized, and the foundation is structured to adapt over time to new and changing conditions. I have had only one brief conversation with this gentleman, but if further discussions show that the remainder of the family tells the same story [to be sure, not always a slam-dunk!], we should explore the newest cloning techniques!

The Importance of Family Philanthropy

August 30th, 2012

Richard Marker

Preparing for a series of international presentations, I recently updated [and de-Americanized] a number of my most popular case studies. To my mind, there is no doubt that the process of philanthropy decision-making is cross-cultural and generic, but the context for making those decisions is heavily influenced by local laws and regional culture. A challenge for those of us who work and speak internationally is to help our clients and audiences understand which is which.

But what struck me in taking this fresh look at these well-worn and proven cases was how frequently I used family examples to illustrate the points to be made. Why?

Of course, the most obvious answer is the numbers. Of the approx 80,000 private foundations in the USA, the overwhelming number are fully run and governed by family members. If one wishes to find the most generic examples, “family funders” is the place to start. Independent and corporate private foundations play a very important role, but are a small fraction of the total cohort.

It is hardly surprising that smaller to midsize family foundations would full reflect the name, personality, and priorities of the founding family. Yet, in recent months I have had occasion to teach and advise a number of very large and well-known foundations. These are foundations with large numbers of professional staff, most of whom have a highly specialized expertise. They were hired to bring a level of knowledge to the grantmaking process which the families didn’t have. Interestingly, in virtually every case, no matter the size, it didn’t take long for the name, personality, and priorities of the family funders to enter the discussion at these places as well.

All of this underscores the centrality of family philanthropy in setting the style, agenda, and landscape of the private philanthropy world. It doesn’t matter whether the vehicle is a checkbook, a donor advised fund, or a private foundation. Indeed, often there is simply a technical line between a family funder and a foundation which bears his/her name. In other cases, the family foundation may be professionally run, in a second, third, or fourth generation and have outside-non family trustees. Sometimes, family giving is sophisticated and strategic; other times, it is idiosyncratic and socially driven. In every case, it matters.

It matters because family philanthropy fosters a family’s expression of altruism and socially responsible behavior. It is often a way in which core values are transmitted from generation to generation. Writ large, it is the way in which society manifests its commitment to cultural values, compassion, and identity. And, because thoughtful philanthropy alerts a giver to the larger environment of social need, interest, and solutions, family philanthropy is a frequent influence on public policy.

Long time readers may recall that several years ago I was invited to conduct a workshop on inter-generational philanthropy for 100 leading philanthropists from around the world. No one from the USA [except me] was invited, and I was explicitly told to avoid American examples. the moderator of the day was a prominent philanthropist from South Africa. At the end of the day, in his concluding remarks, he expressed his surprise at the generic nature of the issues. “What this fellow [referring to me] talked about was exactly what is happening in my family!” I suspect he found it liberating to know that his was not unique.

Similarly, when I speak at conferences for family funders or work directly with family foundations, I try hard to help them see that, in most cases, what they may have perceived as unique family personality constructs, or inter-generational obstructions are more typically generic issues which most families face. [True, some do it better than others, and sometimes there really are challenging family issues – but in most cases, families are dealing with very representative issues.] Here too I have found that discovering this is liberating for most families: it de-personalizes differing opinions of style and priority, and can provide an openness to learn from each other and other families how matters which may seem stubbornly intractable can be resolved.

From a macro perspective, family philanthropists are the freest to take risks, to experiment, to think and act outside the box. Our field not only needs to honor and defend that kind of freedom, it requires it. This historic vision of the risk capital role of private philanthropy still applies. Today that manifests itself in funding innovation, start-ups, politically sensitive initiatives, as well as more traditional new projects of established organizations. Family funders may be willing to explore new kinds of philanthropic investments, program and socially responsible investments, hybrid funding models even while they are in their infancy. [Frankly, most of us know that not all of these ideas will succeed, but none of us really knows which ones might.]

Those of us who teach and advise funders have an important role in helping families learn how to do what they want to do better, more effectively, and in a more satisfying way. But we also have to be careful not to, en passant, straitjacket those very foundations and funders from testing limits and reaching beyond their grasp. All of us, in the families, in our field, and in our communities, all of us need to have a commitment to do no less. It matters.

Forbes, 9 March 2012

March 11th, 2012

Richard Marker


Rahim Kanani, Contributor
3/09/2012 @ 4:03PM

Philanthropy Expert Richard Marker on What Every Donor Needs to Know

In a recent interview with Richard Marker of NYU’s Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education, we discussed lessons that every funder must internalize, challenges and opportunities facing today’s donor community, and much more.

Richard Marker is co-principal of Wise Philanthropy™, a firm that includes: Marker Goldsmith Philanthropy AdvisorsThe Wise Philanthropy Institute, and Green Strides Consulting.

Richard Marker, an internationally known expert on philanthropy is the Founder of NYU’s Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education. The Academy is the oldest and most comprehensive university program teaching funders and philanthropists in the United States. In February 2007, he was recognized with the NYU Excellence in Teaching Award.

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Donor Motivation and Donor Intent

February 19th, 2012

Richard Marker

It happened again.

On the flight back from last week’s Council on Foundations Family Foundations conference in Miami Beach, I found myself sitting next to a financially successful real estate person. When he found out what I do, he lost no time in indulging 2 predictable topics familiar to those of us on the giving side of the philanthropy table: first, and not the topic for this posting, he solicited me for a pet charity. At least twice.

Second, he expressed his cynicism that people really ever give for altruistic reasons. He told me the story of a recent solicitation for a well known public charity which totally turned him off. [Admittedly, there was a generational disconnect which explained the story but that was more evident to me than to him, and also not the subject of this post] He then launched into a challenge about why, really, do people give to charity. Ego, taxes, public recognition were high on his list; doing good was pretty low.

What I find is that those who ask that question are rarely active or generous funders themselves. They, at least many, indulge that line of reasoning, i suspect, to create a self justifying smokescreen for their own reluctance to give. Or they are finance related folks who measure success by the bottom line of what one has, not by what one gives.

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Welcome to our newly revised site

February 11th, 2012

Richard Marker

Welcome to our newly revised website. You will notice that our blog is now fully integrated into the site along with other useful information, making it possible for our readers and clients to see our ideas and our services at a glance. We will also be posting periodic video clips on topics of interest.  We will look forward to your responses and thoughts, and thank you for all of the wonderful feedback we have received over the last 10 years.

Is your business impacted by the economic roller coaster?

August 24th, 2011

Richard Marker

Not since 2008 have we heard this question so often. Sometimes it is asked out of simple curiosity, sometimes out of presumed sympathy for what some assume must be a difficult time, and sometimes it is asked as a way to anticipate what the funder community might be thinking. Is our business, the business of advising foundations, funders, and families on their philanthropy strategies, impacted at this time?

The short answer is no. But since the question is asked so frequently, it clearly deserves a longer answer.
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NYU mini-intensive for newer funders

December 22nd, 2010

Richard Marker

Reminder to all of those who follow the blog to pass the word: there are still spaces for this January’s edition of the mini-intensive for new funders at NYU’s Academy for Funder Education, Jan 10-14 in NYC. Considered the premier university based program teaching philanthropists and foundation professionals, this January will mark the 8th edition. Typically this week long seminar attracts people from throughout the USA and elsewhere in the world.

Originally conceived in consultation with the Council on Foundations, the ASF, the NCFP, and the regional associations, the course has consistently drawn rave evaluations. It utilizes a variety of teaching methods, including case studies, and provides hands-on problem solving in an intimate and confidential setting. While it is open to all, and over the years has attracted numerous very seasoned funders, it is primarily targeted to those in their first 3 years as funders.

Please be in touch with any questions or feel free to register at

NOTE: that the 9th edition will be held in July 2011.

Ask the Philanthropy Professor – Funders on other Funders’ Boards

May 31st, 2010

Richard Marker

Sometimes even the philanthropy professor is in a quandary. By coincidence, I recently received 2 almost identical inquiries – about the propriety of one funder sitting on the board of another foundation.

Most of us have an understanding of and even policies about the potential conflicts of interest when a funder sits on the board of a potential recipient organization or if a leader of a potential recipient organization sits on the board of a foundation. While the field is far from unanimous about these questions, there are some useful parameters to frame foundation policies. [I deal with this question in some depth in my NYU courses, and if there is interest, I would be happy to share some thoughts on this question in a future posting.]

However, the question at hand is if there is any conflict of interest issue if a board member or staff of one foundation sits on the board of another foundation. I am aware of a few examples of this, but it is far from the norm. And I have never seen any conflict of interest policy which addresses this question [although, of course, there may be some.] Read more