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Bridging the Generations in Family Foundation Leadership

“Great leaders demonstrate a deep belief in service. It is something our founders, my grandparents, valued deeply. After three decades it continues to guide our work, and we are pleased to announce a new executive director who embodies those beliefs.”

These words are from the Walton Family Foundation, an organization which just hired a new third-generation executive director for 2020. Change is inevitable, and leadership transitions happen all the time in philanthropic organizations. In many family foundations, these transitions are often kept private. Let’s learn a bit more about family foundation leadership transitions.

Family Foundation Leadership Succession Planning and Transitions

Succession Planning

One of the biggest mistakes a family foundation can make is to ignore planning for when the founder is no longer around. Succession planning is tough, and even tougher within a family, because you are literally planning around the passing of a beloved family member. However, it must be done. Even outside of unexpected accidents or illness, an eventual transition is inevitable. It is crucial to not leave family foundation leadership unprepared for this eventuality.

Ensure that younger generations of family members understand the mission of your family foundation. Take the time to engage and educate younger family members to become effective philanthropists. Teach them about the family philanthropic responsibility that inspired the foundation. Use the experience of older generations to educate younger ones and provide them with a knowledge base.

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Additionally, inviting multiple generations of family members to reconnect can result in the outcome of reigniting the family passion for the mission.

Here are a few ideas for introducing family members to the foundation’s work:

  • Pick a holiday to volunteer at your foundation or another nonprofit. Establish a tradition of service.
  • Ask interested family members to volunteer their expertise in marketing, accounting, photography, event planning, building projects, or any other small area they can contribute.
  • Invite the appropriate family members to join the board well before any transition in family foundation leadership. Activelty groom them for succession.
  • Share stories with the family in a yearly newsletter. Tell about some of projects the foundation has helped fund.

Change Is Good, Even in Family Foundation Leadership

There are many ways to fulfill your organization’s mission. Let the next generation have input and listen to their ideas regarding charitable impact. Remember, it is possible to be innovative while at the same time fulfilling the core mission.

Here is an innovative idea. Set up a junior board of directors of younger family members and let them create grant-making recommendations to present to the board. This is a great active learning experience in which they will gain very valuable hands-on experience. They will be prepared for eventual board service with this practice. This approach has so many benefits. Just a few of the concepts they will learn are: grant-making, understanding investment principles, and helping younger members find their own philanthropic interests

Be Flexible with Succession Planning

On the other hand, don’t force participation of family members who have no interest in the family foundation. Instead, it might make more sense to bring in a third party to run the family foundation. This is what the Walton Family Foundation did, and it will likely work very well.

Use these tips to prepare for your family’s next generation succession and empower your younger members to carry your mission forward. Embracing change is a difficult undertaking. However, change also has a very beneficial side in that it creates opportunities to connect with old core values in new and exciting ways.


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