Creating Change through Family Philanthropy (2006)

Book Review
Reviewed by:
Publishing information: 
Alison Goldberg, Karen Pittelman & Resource Generation Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, (2006). 168pp, paperback. ISBN 978-1-933368-09-2. $24.95

Philanthropy might seem like an excellent way for families to come together around a shared passion, but Creating Change through Family Philanthropy is refreshingly honest about the fraught internal reality of family foundations. As this book explores, typical family dynamics include sibling rivalries, hierarchy, gender dynamics, allegiances, conflicts and power struggles. And that’s before you add in the money.

Using insights gained over decades advising and working within family foundations, the authors chart a way through the relationship maze involved in such organisations. An elegant blend of trustee testimonials and toolkit, the book covers many angles through step-by-step advice ranging from ‘protocols for dealing with conflict’ and ‘reviewing financial investments’, to running successful meetings which includes tips like ‘feed people… food makes people feel taken care of and helps them focus.’

Frank accounts of ethical dilemmas faced by inheritors make for compelling reading: a Rockefeller family member battles to reconcile his pride in his family’s environmental funding with its investments in an oil company which funds research disputing global warming. Another philanthropist who inherited his fortune after his father died in a plane crash struggles with his desire to unite his disparate family around giving, with his fear of falling out over politics. Behind much of this soul searching lies a paradox familiar to all left-leaning or ‘progressive’ philanthropists: how to create a more equitable system through foundations whose power structures and endowments are often the fruit of the very inequality they are addressing.

In some ways family foundations can be the perfect vehicles for radical social change activism. Less accountable than staffed foundations that have to report to an individual or corporate funder, family foundations have a unique freedom to take risks and push boundaries. Activists like the Hunt sisters who were instrumental players in the women’s movement in the US are evidence of what family philanthropy can achieve. And foundations like the Needmor Fund, whose board includes both activists and family members, are bold experiments in broadening the decision-making base. But though the model may have the power to shift agendas, the statistics cited in the book’s introduction are stark reminders of how little of the $209 billion controlled by US family philanthropy is actually pushing towards a more equitable society or working in support of marginalised or low-income communities. In 2004 only 7.6% of all large US foundation grant dollars went to communities of colour, and immigrant and refugee organisations received only 0.9% of the funding. Comparable figures don’t exist for the UK, but there are few indications that the picture would be more encouraging.

Quietly determined to help foundations redress this imbalance, Creating Change offers a roadmap for how to move beyond internal disputes towards addressing the urgent issues facing society. The book includes detailed draft agendas for group discussions and bullet-pointed questions for reflections on ‘family feelings about giving’.

The advice is widely applicable but in some respects the authors are defeated by their own modesty. Careful to locate their reflections and advice in the context of progressive American philanthropy, they too readily forget that they are part of an older and far wider international movement.

‘Social change philanthropy’ did not, as the authors assert, have its roots in the injustices of 1960s North America. A new group of hugely important foundations did indeed emerge at that time, centred around peace, racial justice and women’s rights. But these were part of an older and far larger tradition. In the UK alone, 19th century social change philanthropy rescued children from chimneys and mines (leading to the creation of the NSPCC), reformed prisons, helped abolish slavery and took the first steps towards giving women the vote. These great, historical achievements sprang from the same ideals of democracy, enlightenment and egalitarianism that inspired the philanthropists and philanthropy described in this book.

This matters, because precise observations of human interactions and a sensible analysis of family power dynamics make this book’s message of listening, sharing and focusing universally applicable to foundations around the world. A broader and more expansive vision of philanthropy past and future would have helped family foundations everywhere put this call to work towards a more equitable society within a deep tradition of social giving. That’s the forgotten family history, if you like, of the world explored in “Creating Change”.

Coco Ferguson

Coco Ferguson is Director for Programmes, Institute for Philanthropy.

This book review is tagged under:

  • Family philanthropy
  • Strategy advice