13 December 2021

Connection, interaction, and engagement with the Family Foundations Roundtable

The first Family Foundations Roundtable centred on the themes of connection, interaction, and engagement. This session was co-hosted by the EFC and MAVA Foundation and saw Delphine Moralis, Chief Executive Officer, EFC, facilitate discussions and Lynda Mansson, Director General, MAVA Foundation, share her experiences with family foundation networks in the US and her thoughts on why such a group is necessary in Europe.

The discussion was opened with a speed networking activity, which allowed the participants to familiarise themselves with each other in a novel way. This was then followed by breakout group discussions, where learning questions and challenges but also good practices and inspiring examples were mapped out by the participants. These were then fed back to plenary before the final words were given by Delphine and Lynda.

The discussion in the webinar highlighted aspects which are unique to family foundations. Firstly, there are resources and programmes which are distinctive of a family foundation. Naturally, the fact that a family is actively engaged in the foundation adds to the uniqueness of the structure. Often, this assists the organisation in its ability to respond to situations but also so that it remains nimble. Having multiple generations of a family involved in the foundation can energise its work and contribute to its mission. Additionally, the original donors’ intent can be contrasted with the newer generations’ aims and this leads to a unique strategic planning process. Finally, family foundations can have a strong bond with specific communities and places. These geographic entities can play an important role in the work and history of a family foundation.

In the breakout rooms, participants from the various family foundations had the opportunity to discuss the various challenges that their organisations are facing or, will indeed, face in the future. As various members of the family are often working for the foundation, one of the challenges mentioned was how to include and engage the younger generations of families in the work of the foundation. Related to involving the next generation, a question arose on considering which age to get them involved. In addition to this, there can often be different sets of children from different marriages, and this can often serve as a barrier. The issue of workload can also contribute to the struggle to get the next generation of a family involved.

Another challenge refers to the social contract that the family foundation has with wider society. In terms of the relationship that the organisation has with society at large, often there is the challenge with regards to how it is perceived and how to maintain the relevance of family foundations. Adding to this, it can be worthwhile for a family foundation to go back to its roots and analyse the founding values of the organisation. In connection with maintaining relevance, the issue of diversity within organisations was also bought up.

A question also arises when considering the relationship between the family of the foundation itself and the professional staff; especially when looking at the trust that either side have for each other. In particular, this can be apparent when either side wishes to take the organisation in a different direction. Therefore, the question arises on how to build bridges between the two sides so that trust can be fostered. Linked to this, the question was mentioned as to how to navigate between the engagement of the family but also the public figures on the boards of these companies. This feeds back to transparency and how to make sure that all of these different pieces of the family philanthropy puzzle come across as such.

Hence the roundtable identified a set of issues and challenges facing family foundations which require further attention. In the next sessions, we will be concentrating on one issue at time and will discuss the following learning questions as suggested by participants:

  • DEI-diversity/equity/inclusion
  • – How can family foundations be supported to engage more with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – particularly in relation to their own governance? 
  • – How can we involve the young people as an inspiration?
  • Next generation engagement
  • – How do you involve the next generation?
  • – What do you do when younger family members whose interests do not necessarily align with their parents/the older generation(s) and/or who do not necessarily want to work directly with their parents on foundation matters?
  • – How do you manage the difference in their life experience in comparison to the life experiences of the people the foundation might be trying to assist through its funding? 
  • Interest versus impact
  • – How do you manage the situation of some family members/trustees becoming entrenched in issues and not wanting the foundation to move on to supporting other issues/priorities/organisations – whereas other family members/trustees want the foundation to have a more dynamic approach? 
  • – Family foundations are uniquely placed to be able to take some very interesting risks.  But some trustees (not necessarily family members) can be more conservative and more risk aversive than others. How can family foundations be supported to take more risks?
  • Relationship between trustees and professional staff
  • – How do you manage potential tensions between trustee involvement and the role of professional staff – especially where staff have a role in identifying funding opportunities and have ideas for furthering the work/strategy of the foundation – but trustees have the ultimate power?
  • – How can trust be built between trustees and professional staff – particularly where trustees/the family are not directly involved in the running of the foundation?

This roundtable, the first of many, was part of a series of informal discussions on the strategies and processes that lead to effective, impactful, and engaged giving and achievement of philanthropic objectives. As this was an invitation-only event, it was open to senior executives of foundations where at least one family member serves as an officer, a board member/trustee or as the donor. Each roundtable in this series will be led by a member organisation and will address the challenges and opportunities relevant to family foundations.

For more information contact Daniel Spiers.