Fundraising Q/A: What has your experience been with family philanthropy?

I can talk about that from both sides of the equation: the giving and the getting.

Especially when it comes to a significant gift, a spouse and/or other family member often is involved. If there’s a family foundation, its staff will come into play as well. The fundraiser needs to determine who the real decision makers are, and be especially aware of who has veto power. You try to figure out the dynamics, and players and competing priorities up front, but you can still get blind-sided.

One HBS alum was quite clear that he was not interested in my solicitation, adding “don’t come back.” I can take a hint, and left him alone. Some years later, he mentioned to the Dean that he hadn’t heard from me, and asked if I was mad at him.  I took that hint, too, and called him. I’m pretty sure that the change of heart was the result of a change of spouses; his first wife was not a fan of HBS.

From the giving side, wealth management professionals often promote family philanthropy as a way to keep a family together. I take quite a different perspective. My wife and I have seven kids in all, with philosophies ranging from Mother Teresa to Attila the Hun. Trying to herd everyone together to agree on what we care about seems fruitless – if not dangerous – to me.

What I do want to foster is an appreciation of how fortunate we are, and a sense of obligation to give back to the community… however they choose, and to whatever cause they choose. It’s not just about wealth, either. Giving back is something you can do at all stages of your life and career. Time, talent and networks are as important as treasure.

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