Focus v. Flexibility

Published on: June 24th, 2014 by Hank Goldstein

At the recent Council on Foundations meeting in Washington DC I spent my time at the sessions beamed at family philanthropy. Most of the participants were from modest-sized, established family foundations with assets, I’d guess between $10 and $50 million.Thinking about how the learning might apply to the new and emerging family foundations  on which FFM/C mostly concentrates I came away with several sometimes contradictory ideas:

  • There was a lot of emphasis on focus – meaning the foundation’s core mission – assuming family members could agree  on what the focus should be. Generational differences; handing the reins to a new, younger generation; fear of “mission creep” as assets grew; staff changes and  more often than I expected, keeping younger family members engaged – and  more.
  • Concurrently an articulated concern that a fixed focus could interfere with flexibility  – meaning a receptivity to new ideas even within the focus area (I hope that makes sense). Moreover a few of the foundation trustees in attendance thought that for their foundations  it  might be time to re-assess mission, vision and multiyear direction.
  • Most of the foundations I encountered had small staffs – one or one and a half FTE staff, sometimes a family member doing the staff job. There’s  nothing  inherently wrong  in that except perhaps that the constraint may wet down new ideas.
  • It seemed to me that at least a few of the smaller foundations could or would be more efficiently managed as donor advised funds inside a community foundation. There are pluses and minuses to DAFs (meat for another blog) of course. The biggest drawbacks seem to be first the loss of autonomy, real or  implied; and second the lack of personal attention. For the donor with an asset base up to $10 million I would  not necessarily advise setting up a foundation. On the other hand I am now informally talking with someone who put deferred assets in one of the largest  nonprofit  community foundations. He would  like more attention paid than he’s getting. But I don’t think he’s really done the math on setting up a dedicated foundation. We’ll see.

In the end what is clear to me is how important it is to work very closely with the client in trying to discern the deep-down motivations; the ego needs; the family dynamic;

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