by Bruce DeBoskey, The DeBoskey Group

Many of us grew up sitting at the family dinner table. Often, it was rectangular, with the family’s primary bread winner(s) sitting at their end of the table. Regardless of the shape, the rest of the family sat at designated seats, night after night, year after year. Sometimes, long after the kids had grown and left the household, when they returned for a family meal, they automatically assumed their childhood seats at the family table.

In most families, that dinner table had built-in power dynamics, family customs and sets of expectations and rules. Sometimes they were subtle and unspoken; other times they were much more apparent and pronounced.

Setting the Table

Once the kids have left the nest for school, work, starting their own families or other endeavors, there’s a unique opportunity to set a new table so that all family members are invited to sit, share, develop and act on common values and goals around money, philanthropy and making a difference. Think of this new table as a round one (actually or figuratively), where every family member is invited to sit as equals and encouraged to share their views, voices and votes on the world and how the family can evolve its philanthropic impact and legacy.

Most philanthropic capital is actually no longer owned by the family and represents a relatively small percentage of a family’s overall assets. Instead, it’s been irrevocably donated to a family foundation or donor-advised fund and no longer even appears on the family’s balance sheet. Because philanthropically committed capital usually sits apart from the rest of a family’s assets, it’s easier to discuss and distribute and less likely to cause personal feelings of inequality or unfairness.

Most families aspire to preserve wealth, values and legacy over the generations. Research demonstrates that a number of factors influence a family’s ability to reach that goal. Almost always near the top of the list is a family’s shared commitment to community, service and philanthropy.

Three Steps

Based on our experience in working with dozens of multigenerational families, we’ve learned that three steps are essential to its success.

Step 1: Jointly establish new ground rules. It’s clear that rising-generation members will actively participate in a mutigenerational philanthropic family endeavor only if they have meaningful seats at the table. Ask each other, “How would you like all family members to show up at the new philanthropy table?” This is often the hardest step for members of the wealth-creating generation, who are accustomed to ruling the roost. Good ground rules emanate naturally from family members—they are not imposed by elders or outside facilitators.

Here are just a few examples of the many ground rules established by families with whom we’ve worked:

  • All family members have an equal voice; all are encouraged to actively participate.
  • Decisions won’t be made unilaterally; collective decision-making is the objective.
  • No “eye rolls” or “sighs” permitted; rather, show respect for all points of view.
  • No interrupting.
  • Accept conflict and its resolution as a necessary catalyst for learning and change.

Step 2: Articulate a common purpose for the family’s philanthropic endeavor. Ask each other, “What do you want to get out of this experience?” Some answers we’ve seen include:

  • Learn more about effective, strategic philanthropy.
  • Learn more about each other, especially across the rising generations of geographically dispersed siblings and cousins, as well as their spouses.
  • Establish new ways of communicating and supporting each other in the family.
  • Help the family continue to thrive across the generations.
  • “Pay it forward” out of gratitude for the family’s good fortune.
  • Make an impact in their communities, country or world.

Step 3: Create a good mission statement. Family members can ask each other these questions:

  • What’s our focus?
  • What do we want to preserve or change — specifically?
  • Do we want to focus on a geographic area?
  • Over what period of time will we give?
  • Do we want to collaborate with other funders – or go it alone?
  • How will we measure success?

Encouraging your clients to follow these steps makes it much more likely that the family’s philanthropic efforts will succeed and that the family itself will thrive — by learning to communicate better, work together and support each other across generations, distances and time.

Bruce DeBoskey, J.D., is a philanthropic strategist working across the U.S. with The DeBoskey Group to help families, businesses and foundations design and implement thoughtful philanthropic strategies and actionable plans. He is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist of “On Philanthropy” and a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and workshops on charitable giving. The DeBoskey Group is part of AEF’s Philanthropic Advisory Firm Referral Program.