Charitable Giving As a Family Project

The Laird Norton Company, one of the oldest family businesses in the country, was founded by two brothers and a cousin. This team approach also informs the Laird Norton Family Foundation, now involving the fifth- and sixth-generation family members to follow the original 1855 business partners.

Your family can also use philanthropy as a way to strengthen your connections, find shared activities, and engage younger generations. Perhaps you have a sibling or a cousin who shares a concern with you. Maybe there's an illness that affects family members, or maybe you have affection for a particular conservation area near a family summer home. Separately, you may both be doing the work of finding high-performing nonprofits that address the issue, volunteering, and making individual donations to them. Imagine how much easier and more fun it would be if you joined together in that endeavor. And consider the greater difference you could make with larger combined donations and volunteer hours.

Source: Flickr user sagriffin305.

As the Laird Norton family does, you might also engage older and younger generations to join you. This could be parents, aunts and uncles, children, and nieces and nephews -- people of all ages. This approach not only maximizes your charitable giving potential, but it also ties the family together. For instance, as part of their process, the Laird Nortons gathered family history stories and put them into a play, a video, and even a coloring book.

The Laird Norton family has considerable wealth and a large group of members, so it's appropriate that there are regular family meetings, a clear understanding of how decisions are made (known in this context as family governance), and ways to empower young people as they reach adulthood. Regardless of the size of your family, or the size of your financial portfolio, you, too, can still engage in some family philanthropy at your own scale.

Start with a simple conversation at your next family gathering -- ask people what social or environmental challenges they care about. Be open and willing to ask questions about the topics, even if they're different from your areas of concern. Once you have your interests out in the open, you can ask if they're volunteering or making donations in those areas. This process is the start of finding common causes, or at least ways to give together. Besides, as Bruce DeBoskey, the philanthropy strategist, says, charitable giving is a "safe zone" for the discussion of money and values, which is sometimes a significant communication challenge in families.

Once you have a sense of the momentum in the family for this kind of activity, you can work with a philanthropy advisor to help your family create plans, a structure, and ways to share donations. Your plans might include something as modest as a shared bank account, or something more ambitious like a donor advised fund or a family foundation. Depending on the scale of your strategies, you may also want to talk to an accountant or lawyer about setting up a fund or foundation. Before you do that, do some exploring with your family and find some common purposes.

If you want your family to grow and be connected five or six generations from now, like the Laird Nortons, family philanthropy might just be the glue that holds it together.

(Thanks to The Laird Norton Family for sharing its story on the National Center for Family Philanthropy website.)

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