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 his or her 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.
Once the kids have left the nest for school, work, starting their own families or other endeavors, there is 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 has 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 is 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.
Based upon our experience in working with dozens of multi-generational families, we’ve learned that three steps are essential to its success.
The first step is to jointly establish new ground rules. It is 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.