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Is Family Philanthropy Worth the Effort?

I have a confession. I’m an unrepentant proselytizer – for family philanthropy. I caught the bug when my own family discovered the joys of working together on our family foundation, and it became a calling in life. I’ve spent more than thirty years at TPI working with families who are about to embark on a journey into family philanthropy, as well as those already deep into it, helping them become more fulfilled in that journey, craft and realize big ambitions, and become strategic, effective givers. I’ve shown our clients that it’s possible to both act boldly and give wisely. And more than that, to use the experience to bring family together.

The problem is that it’s not easy. For me, maybe like you, it’s hard enough running a house together with a spouse or planning holidays with siblings. Why would you or I take on the additional work of forming a family philanthropy enterprise? It would be a lot easier to just write checks to the organizations each of us cares about separately – and alone.

But I have seen the rewards discovered by families working toward shared philanthropic goals time and time again. I’m energized by the dreams of families who want to learn to communicate more effectively and to build a legacy of impact. For those who approach family philanthropy with enthusiasm and, of course, solid strategies, I promise you, it is worth every second of the work.

Family philanthropy strengthens family bonds.

I’ve seen families develop a more powerful sense of connectedness and cohesion through working together in philanthropy. I’m not saying it will fix a damaged family – it won’t – but it can surely strengthen bonds and compensate for the distancing that comes when the family lifecycle sends kids off on their own, across the globe. It can provide a highly meaningful focus point, something additive to the bonds of grandchildren and holidays. It can be something that the family works on together – a noble and higher purpose.

Family philanthropy creates a family legacy.

Family philanthropy also offers the opportunity to shape a family legacy. It helps a family answer and define some deep, essential questions across generations. “What does our family stand for?” “What did my parents and my grandparents stand for?” “What are the values and purpose that we hope will transcend generations and instill a sense of pride and tradition?” It may be, simply, that we gave back to society. It may be that we built this wing for a hospital. The notion is that there is a shared understanding, a sense of family pride and cohesion on an issue of common concern, and we all know that this contributes to healthy human development.

Family philanthropy connects and educates a family about the larger world.

For its participants, family philanthropy can deliver a powerful sense of connectedness to the broader society. It does this in part by giving more meaning to wealth and making sense of wealth disparity. Philanthropy broadens horizons; it takes us out of our cocoons and narrow geographic orbits and connects us to the crazy, messy world out there. Paul Schervish, one of the premier researchers and philosophers on philanthropy, calls this “enlarging one’s community of care.” The typical community of care usually begins at home, expands to extended family, to friends, perhaps to a neighborhood. Philanthropy can enlarge it to all neighborhoods – it can expand your empathy. And when you experience this phenomenon in the company of your family, it is, well, wonderful.

Family philanthropy makes a difference in your community and the world.

Lastly, as I make my case for family philanthropy, I’d like to talk about the benefits for society. Imagine if every family, rich or poor, wanted to do something together for their communities – monetarily or with their time and service. If that’s how we all raised our families (and I realize that many people do) wouldn’t the world be a far better place? Wouldn’t we have healthier children and stronger families everywhere and, cumulatively, an amazing society?

By now you’ve got to be asking the obvious question: Should all families link arms to do philanthropy together? While I once thought every family could figure out a way to collaborate on philanthropy, I’ve gotten a little wiser over the years; certainly enough to know it’s not the right solution for everyone. Done poorly and in the wrong family culture, time, or context, philanthropy can cause harm. But if you belong to a family with a solid enough footing – and this can mean many different things – I cannot overstate the deep satisfaction and connection with family and with community you will reap by gifting your resources to others.

If you or your loved ones want to read a little more on the subject, TPI has a primer built on our work with many different families, Giving Together: A Primer for Family Philanthropy. Or if you’re ready to dive in – or already started – but need help bridging divides among family members, check out this blog post on finding common ground amidst differences. And of course, if TPI can be of any assistance in answering questions and getting you started on that journey, please feel free to contact us here.