6 Motivations Driving Family Philanthropy

family philanthropy

Why does a family work together to give together? Despite the challenges of just being family, something else drives them toward a philanthropic vision and provides motivation to fuel their giving efforts.

Sitting with a family while they sift through formal giving requests or year-end appeal letters provides a glimpse into all that is right about a family and often what gets in their way of being family. I sat across the table from the first generation of a family foundation while she looked across the table at the third-generation member beside me and made it perfectly clear “we don’t do it that way.”

Years later I sat at the table with the same family and watched while a third-generation family member explained why an organization’s request was important. The third gen shared the challenges her own friends experience and why funding this grant request would make a difference. And everyone listened.

What had changed? Sure, everyone was a little older but it was something deeper than that. As they came together several times a year to discuss and, occasionally, seriously argue over a decision, they began to understand what motivated each person more clearly and to work toward shared giving goals.

Virginia Esposito of the National Center for Family Philanthropy has identified six motivations for family philanthropy based on hundreds of stories from family foundations – large and small – founders and board members, and occasionally staff.

The 6 Motivations for Family Philanthropy

  1. Faith and Spirituality. Every religious or faith tradition includes some tenet urging concern for others. Many of today’s donors openly articulate the spiritual link between faith and their giving.
  2. Traditions. Many founders talk about family traditions that shape their charitable conscience.
  3. Mentors. Most of us can point to people who had a profound impact on our lives.
  4. Personal Interests and Experiences. Many founders note that they became engaged in philanthropy because of a special, personally-important issue or event.
  5. Community Involvement and Volunteering. Entrepreneurs who go on to become generous philanthropists often were active in their communities long before they had the wealth to make significant financial gifts.
  6. Business Skills and Experiences.One of the great opportunities of philanthropy is giving successful businesspeople a chance to use their professional skills and experiences for a very different bottom line.

The preceding was excerpted from Splendid Legacy 2: Your Guide to Creating and Re-creating a Family Foundation — a must-have resource for all giving families.

Were it not for motivation driving a family toward shared giving goals there would be far less giving across this country. To put family giving into perspective, look beyond the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, Lilly Endowment or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, all in the top 10 of foundations in the country and together with assets of more than $70 billion. 

In 2015 there were more than 42,000 family foundations with a combined giving of $25.9 billion. To add to the picture sixty percent of family foundations have assets of less than one million dollars.

Let me repeat the combined giving number – $25.9 billion per year. That is a tangible measure of their giving motivations. That’s a tangible measure of the support of social services and ministries across this country.

Those numbers don’t include giving families who work together to make giving decisions outside of a formal foundation structure.

Families that give together are like great works of art with depth and nuance, brush strokes and pen and ink lines across mediums of all kinds. The motivations that drive the work of family are their own kind of creative artwork. 

Important Work for Giving Families and Family Foundations

  • Explore what motivates each family member.
  • Identify the motivations that unite everyone across the table or the different generations.
  • Identify the motivations that separate everyone or the different generations.
  • Explore what makes your foundation unique.
  • Identify the motivations you want to be a driving force for the next five to ten years.

If you want to learn more about what makes your giving family or family foundation special find an outside consultant who can help you through a few thoughtful exercises. Your legacy is important. Please don’t underestimate the importance of your family’s philanthropic vision and your ability to make your community, even the world, a better place to live.

Call me If I can help you think about your family’s legacy.


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Do you have questions or ideas you’d like to discuss? To connect with Dawn directly click here.

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