Not your Father’s Foundation

Ellen Remmer
Strategic Philanthropy
Friday, October 15, 2010

Same old… Same old… That’s what I figured I’d see at ASF’s conference this week.  Sure, there would be those perennial and thorny issues faced by highly engaged family foundations from all the years I’ve been doing this work (and undoubtedly a zillion more):  family dynamics getting in the way of good and fulfilling giving; the tension of balancing individual interests with the imperative of focus; older generations who can’t figure out why they can’t engage the younger generations; the holy grail of quantifiable measurement.  Good stuff, important to all the very earnest and serious donors and staff attending, but oh my how I feel like I’ve heard them all over and over and over again.  Am I getting jaded?

But wait, there was something different

going on.  At first I thought it was because I was picking up conversations with people who are alone at tables or in the halls and so these are the “different” ones.  But the new threads continued in the sessions I attended and the 3 hour learning lab “At the Board Table” that I led.  This was getting intriguing.  New models of philanthropic engagement and new types of donors are bubbling up and this is very cool.

Thread #1 - Philanthropy embedded into business embedded into philanthropy – Lunch:, I met a young man who runs a hedge fund for his family and a few other wealthy families.  A percentage of all transaction fees goes into a philanthropic fund.  Grants are made to the endowments of nominated nonprofits who in turn generate fees that are returned to the fund.  Cool.  Dinner reception: a woman whose real estate company “taxes” all sales with a 2% fee that goes into a philanthropic fund to improve the quality of life in the surrounding area.  It's been a tough year or two for growing the fund so now they are focusing on innovative programming.  Cool.

Thread #2 –There really is a young philanthropists movement - Maybe it’s because I’m getting older so my definition of young philanthropist is expanding, but it sure looks to me like there really is a smart and ambitious movement afoot of young people who are out to invent better models of philanthropy.  They sat at every table.  They were on most of the programs.  They totally get the importance of building change in community from within; they know money helps, but believe that engagement and sharing their skills is even more important; they are often drawn to international issues; they think philanthropy – defined in a broader sense – is a career path, not something reserved for gray haired years.

Thread #3 – Not your father’s foundation – Sure, the prevailing source of foundation assets still comes from the sale of Dad and/or Mom’s business or their deaths, but I met a number of new “donors” who don’t fit this picture. Daughter #5 of 7 children made some surplus in the tech boom and started a foundation.  She recently invited Mom and Dad to join the board and is about to launch a “family project” to encourage siblings, nephews and nieces to join and learn about responsible, engaged philanthropy.  And there was the 25 year old G3 member who – along with all her cousins - tithes annually to the family foundation started by her grandparents and so she is a donor herself.  This is not your father’s foundation, this is our foundation and our commitment to invest in a better world.  Cool.

I truly believe there’s not a lot new under the sun, but that committed, smart idealists can put the Lego pieces together in creative new ways that matter.  Fresh perspectives are critical and I was delighted to see so many new philanthropists joining the game.