Families and the Transformative Power of Philanthropy Part II: Starting the Conversation

Families and the Transformative Power of Philanthropy Part II: Starting the Conversation

Series Mission: To Bring Awareness to Professionals and Families about the Transformational Effect of Philanthropy on the Family Unit
Article posted in Values-Based on 5 October 2011| comments
audience: National Publication, Two Hawks Consulting, LLC | last updated: 7 March 2014


In this second of a series of articles, Gary Shunk of Family Wealth Dynamics and Randy Fox of Two Hawks Consulting, LLC continue their exploration of the potential of employing philanthropy to bring about positive change in families of wealth by discussing how to initiate the conversation regarding family philanthropy, facilitating such discussions between family members, and how philanthropy can be used to maintain family continuity following major life planning changes.

By Gary Shunk and Randy Fox

In our first article, we stated that when families incorporate the practice of philanthropy into their lives, the potential for transformation is set into motion.  How, then, do advisors help families “start the conversation?”

Several years ago we worked with a multi-family office (“MFO”) that focused primarily on working with individual members of the families they served on a one-to-one basis. They would meet periodically with the patriarch and matriarch of the family; however, that was rare.

After working with their advisors and relationship managers for a short time we began to teach them “systems theory,” and in particular, “family systems.”

Family systems emerge from a broad range of theories on systems thinking. Murray Bowen is one such theorist whose work developed a systems theory for the family. His contributions are primarily to the field of family therapy. As we have come to understand his thinking and its value in working with families, we know that emotions of an individual family member play on the emotions of other family members as well, creating “family dynamics.” Working with family dynamics takes years of experience. However, being aware of family systems and facilitating high level family meeting dialogues is possible to any advisor with good active listening skills and empathy.

After some basics in family systems and family dynamics, the MFO that hired us asked us to organize and facilitate a large multi-generational family meeting. This family had sold their business a year prior and shared in a substantial liquidity event that was very emotional. The patriarch and matriarch (parents and grandparents) of this large family were concerned about how this wealth would impact the family now that the operating business was no longer part of the family’s day-to-day lives. Further, they were concerned how they would stay close as a family, as the business had been so centric in their lives. We encouraged the relationship manager of this family to propose engaging in philanthropy and to discuss the potential of the family creating a foundation as a means to organize the family now that the business was part of their past.

This two-day meeting was held at a lovely resort on the Atlantic coast and progressed well as the MFO’s staff presented the state of the family’s financial affairs. When it was time to present the philanthropic component of the meeting, we ran a PowerPoint presentation of photos provided by the family from as far back as we could go.  Ultimately, we told the family its own story as they had told us in the interviews we conducted to prepare for the meeting. From the interviews, we listened for values and concerns that individual members had and shared as a family system. These details, coupled with the family’s photos and the emerging story, created a deeply emotional experience in the room.  At the conclusion of our presentation we could see the tender tears and could hear a pin drop with the exception of the sniffles.

We invited them individually to tell us what they “felt” about what they just saw.  After a few minutes, gratitude, joy and family exuberance began to fill the room. We then invited the patriarch and matriarch (as we had rehearsed) to initiate a discussion about the family would “stick together” without the business. The various members proposed the notion of charitable giving together as a family. From the interviews and discovery of shared values in the family, we compiled a list of causes. From this point forward, we as facilitators had the easy job of capturing the family’s ideas on paper and plastering the walls with the potential opportunities. By the end of the second day, we had proposed the family create a “family council,” to perform the due diligence of investigating the causes, values, and actions necessary to organize their philanthropic desires.

The family later reported this element of the meeting was a moment of “new beginnings” for many of them, especially the patriarch and matriarch. While these steps may seem complex, they actually evolve quite naturally if properly stimulated and facilitated. Sometimes families are able to do this task themselves but, often, because of existing family dynamics they are unable to. Further, many people lack the training as facilitators that is often necessary to keep the direction of this type of meeting on track.

While philanthropy isn’t a “solution” we believe it can be the focal point of a family. And, while it is not a panacea for resolving old family wounds and repairing damaged relationships, it may be a way of keeping the family together so those other issues have a chance to be resolved.

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