More Than Money
Issue #16

Family Foundations

Table of Contents

“Family Issues”

Excerpted with permission from Family Issues (Washington, DC: Council of Foundations, 1997).

For all of the wonderful opportunities family foundations offer, they also present potential difficulties. Given the particular nature of family foundations--a blending of the family and the foundation--the boundaries between the two can never be entirely separate. The reason for this is clear. When family members become trustees, they don't stop being family members. The strong emotional ties and shared histories that provide comfort, love and a sense of belonging also dredge up old resentments and rivalries. Seeking the love and approval of family members does not stop in childhood or at the board room door; for most it is a lifelong pursuit. As a consequence, family dynamics--ingrained family behavior patterns--are often acted out in the board room just as they are at home.

Further complicating family trustees' relationships is the fact that the lives of wealthy family members are often interconnected through a web of business holdings. The more enterprises family members manage and interact in, the greater the opportunities for conflict. Consequently, when emotions erupt, they are seldom confined to a specific incident. A family member pouting at a board meeting may not be reacting to anything that occurred in the family business or at the family office. Once entangled, rational and irrational thoughts and ideas, appropriate and inappropriate emotions, and real and perceived experiences are hard to pull apart.

Yet, family foundations can and do change because individuals have the capacity and often the will to change. Foundations once run by strong-minded donors have been transformed by succeeding generations into democratic organizations with clear missions and guidelines. Others in danger of being sunk by internal squabbling have been saved when board members confronted behavior patterns that had bedeviled the family for generations. Of course, not all foundations improve with age; but enough do to justify optimism about the future of family philanthropy.

- anonymous author


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