Fredda Herz Brown and Katharine Gratwick Baker
in a family that gives together, you naturally want the process
to go smoothly and harmoniously. But how do you achieve that?
Does it mean that everyone goes along with the family leader
in order to keep harmony? Does it mean not rocking the boat
and not proposing new ideas? Does it mean deferring to someone
outside the family in order to keep the peace?
In our experience as consultants, we have
found a musicical metaphor to be a useful image for thinking
about harmony. In a classical string quartet or a jazz combo,
all the musicians play their own instruments and parts.
They also play in tune with each other, in the same key,
and at the same tempo, creating a beautiful interweaving
of individual solos and group synchronicity that fulfills
their common intention for the music. In terms of family
philanthropy, we might say that decision- making members
of the family play their own "instruments" and "parts,"
knowing clearly what they think and where they stand on
gift-giving-but they join with other family members in a
common intention or with a common set of values when making
philanthropic decisions. This is the art of giving harmoniously.
How does a family develop this kind of harmony? Typically,
families have recurrent patterns that affect the way they
work together. These patterns have evolved over time through
generations. Most operate under the surface and people are
not usually aware of them, yet they can have a powerful impact
on family relationships and decision-making. The following
patterns occur frequently in families, and knowledge of them,
along with a willingness to adjust them as needed, can help
develop more harmonious family-giving processes.
1: The Balance of Separateness-Connectedness
We all want connection, but some want it more than others.
Over generations, families develop expectations about the
degree to which their members will stay involved with one
another. In some families, people have a strong sense of
being separate individuals. They maintain contact with one
another while expecting individuality in their thoughts,
opinions, and feelings. In other families, being involved
with each other is highly valued, and people tend to "go
along" with others so they won't rock the boat or because
they think they are keeping the peace. Sometimes individual
differences around separateness and connectedness within
families show up only when a family member deliberately
rebels against the usually unspoken norm.
family seems to have a "place" on the continuum, balancing
the amount of connectedness or separateness it can tolerate.
Where a family falls on that continuum will affect how family
members work together.
Sarah's family is about to have its end-of-the-year meeting
to decide where the family foundation's funds will go. The
meeting has been scheduled for months, but now two of her
four young adult children say they can't come because they
will be skiing in Colorado that week. They will send in
their opinions by email, but prefer not to get together
with the family.
and Possible Solutions:
two young people may simply have less of a desire for
connection than the family norm, or they may be using
separateness and distance as a way to handle differences
of opinion in the family. They may or may not want to
be involved with family philanthropy at all. If not, they
may be hesitant to say so directly, given the family's
expectations of connectedness. One approach is to have
a neutral consultant meet with them to find out what is
really going on.
differences of opinion in the family are an issue, they
might be resolved by agreeing to allocate some resources
to individual projects and some to shared projects, thereby
honoring the value of both. This approach, used by many
families, helps keep family meetings from turning into
a battleground, which, in turn, makes participation in
family decision-making more attractive to everyone.
2: Family Roles
Traditional vs. Non-traditional Roles
All family members have roles or functions they play in
the family unit. These are often influenced by birth order
and gender, and they tend to set up patterns that define
who leads and who follows when families make decisions together.
In traditional families, leadership roles tend to be held
by men and/or eldest siblings. The followers tend to be
women and younger siblings. Things seem to work out well
if everyone trusts the leader and if the leader is calm,
thoughtful, and perhaps neutral, keeping the best interests
of all the family members in mind. However, if someone questions
the leader or his intent, the discomfort often goes underground,
expressing itself in other areas of the family's life.
John's two granddaughters are dissatisfied with the choices
the family foundation has made about its grants this year.
Money, as usual, is going to the family church, the United
Way, John's college endowment fund, and the local hospital.
John is the chair of the board, as his father and grandfather
were before him, and no one has ever questioned his authority
before. He doesn't have much confidence in his granddaughters'
judgment, since they have only recently joined the board.
He most certainly will not go along with his granddaughters'
idea of contributing to a local rape crisis center, even
though their mother also seems to support that idea. But
now the granddaughters are threatening to resign from the
board unless they can have more input.
and Possible Solutions:
and young people are asking for more inclusion than ever
before, and they need to be prepared to assume leadership
roles when the older generations are no longer around.
One approach is to involve the granddaughters in reviewing
grant applications, making site visits, and talking with
the directors of local nonprofits, so they can learn more
about how to make careful decisions.
approach is for John to talk with his granddaughters with
the idea of learning about their values and interests,
including their interest in funding the crisis center.
This process may be hard for someone who has always been
in charge, but a little flexibility and an open mind could
keep the granddaughters on the board and help prepare
them to be responsible leaders.
and Under-functioning Roles
Usually in families, some individuals (sometimes called
"overfunctioners") will take on more responsibility than
others. Often, this is the oldest sibling. Others (called
"under-functioners") take on less. Over-functioners may
enjoy their position; they may also tire of it, feel it
to be a burden, and/or get burned out. The under-functioners
may love feeling free of responsibility, but over time,
they may grow less competent and become excessively dependent
on others. If these positions rigidify, they can affect
the way people participate in family decisions, with some
family members speaking more and taking a more active role
in decisions while others are less involved.
Emily is the oldest sibling in her family and has been the
overfunctioner for years. She started out as Mom's helper
in childhood, and went on "helping" her two younger brothers
throughout their lives, often making decisions with them
(and for them!) about their inheritances, and taking the
lead in family gift-giving. She has recently begun her own
family and her brothers are afraid she cannot continue to
take care of everyone in the family in the same way as before.
and Possible Solutions:
Usually, the over-functioner has to be willing to give up
some of her extra-responsible behavior before the under-functioners
will step up and take on new responsibilities. This is not
easy and Emily is probably doubtful that her brothers can
do all the things she thinks need to be done. Someone, however,
has to take the initiative in getting the family out of
this over-functioner/under-functioner pattern, and it will
probably have to be Emily. In the long run, everyone will
benefit from having more people in the family involved in
Some behavioral scientists use the concept of triangles
to understand relationship challenges in families, and think
of relationships as forming in patterns of three rather
than two. For instance, when two people are very close,
there is often an outsider who would like to join their
closeness. The closeness of the twosome then tends to get
defined in terms of their closeness and/or distance from
kind of triangle occurs when two people are in conflict.
They seek to decrease the tension between them by appealing
to others who are willing to listen to their story and/or
become allies on one side or the other.
families, several subjects typically increase tension between
family members: children, sex, money, in-laws, and a few
issues specific only to that family. When these subjects
are raised, family members tend to take positions, often
in direct opposition to someone else's. Thus, two-against-one-or
twoagainst- all-are common configurations in families, especially
when there are differences of opinion in decision-making.
situations get very polarized, the issue usually has deep
Fredda Herz Brown and Katharine Gratwick Baker roots in
unresolved relationships from the past, and multiple family
members often become involved in the conflict. Although
triangles may relieve tension temporarily, they do not resolve
conflict in the long-term. In fact, they tend to add another
layer of conflict and complicate resolution of the original
Steve and Mary have always disagreed about how to commit
their annual charitable giving. In recent years, the disagreements
have become more intense, and they have begun to try to
draw their two adult children into taking sides. The son
has been willing to take his mother's view, but the daughter
has been talking with her father's sister about how difficult
her parents are. This creates an "interlocking triangle"
with the larger extended family, as the aunt eagerly spreads
the word. Now everyone is taking sides and the whole family
and Possible Solutions:
When triangles have formed, they need to be either dismantled
or managed. The following guiding principles for managing
triangles may be applied by any member of the family.
recognize that when there is a conflict, there is probably
a triangle somewhere. Try to figure out the part you are
playing in it, because resolving the conflict will be
easier if you begin with yourself.
never talk to a third person about a problem you are having
with someone else, unless you are seeking assistance for
how to manage yourself in the situation.
deal directly with the person with whom you are having
the problem. Describe your position using "I" statements
rather than attacking the other. (For example, "This is
how I see it." rather than, "You just don't get it.")
not all of Steve and Mary's disagreements will go away just
because they have applied these principles, but conflicts
will be more likely to stay between the two people involved,
and that's a lot easier on the family.
and your family are making decisions together about charitable
giving, the first step toward greater harmony is to notice
and acknowledge family patterns. The next step is to figure
out what your own part may be in them, since changing group
dynamics is more effective when you start with yourself. By
recognizing patterns and devising solutions, you may help
move your family in the direction of more harmonious decisionmaking.
If the patterns continue, a neutral outside consultant can
usually help you move beyond inharmonious cacophony.
Fredda Herz Brown and Katharine Gratwick
Baker are senior consultants for the Metropolitan Group,
a firm specializing in consultation to family businesses
and family foundations, with a focus on relationship issues.
Fredda Herz Brown is the founder and managing partner.
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