Family dynamics in foundations

Mark PetersenFamily Systems

In my research on succession in family foundations, I came across an excellent resource by Kelin Gersick called Generations of Giving: Leadership and Continuity in Family Foundations. This 2006 work was commissioned by the National Center for Family Philanthropy as the first-ever social science study of the organizational life and development of family foundations. The study focused on thirty family foundations in the US and Canada which had existed for at least two generations; over 300 individuals were personally interviewed.

The author reveals that learning healthy family dynamics is one of the critical cornerstones leading to success or failure with foundations. In fact, this theme emerged in every interview that was conducted (Gersick, 198). He states,

In the most impressive family enterprises, you can feel the bonds of affection and mutual nurturing that connect the participants in all of their collaborative actions. At the same time, all that emotion also means that vulnerabilities are high and the potential is always present for anger, hurt feelings, and pain. The deep emotional connections that are the strength of family foundations can also be their weaknesses (Gersick, 191).

One of the fascinating discoveries Gersick made was not that family conflict was disruptive to philanthropy. Instead, he was astonished with how the impact of philanthropic giving could be negatively impacted through deep-seated patterns of avoiding conflict by family members.

The preoccupation with family harmony at any cost is the single most dangerous impact of family dynamics on these organizations. It has seriously hampered and impaired more than half of them, and threatens most of the others (Gersick, 198).

Multigenerational families with foundations can avoid this false harmony. They can learn ways to communicate more openly, address differences between generations and various branches of the family, and avoid the temptation of papering over divergent opinions. Stronger Philanthropy has created tools, simple systems, retreats, and coaching to come to consensus or determine other healthy models. Let us know how we can help.