by Bhaj Townsend
For families who want to increase their intergenerational unity and harmony, philanthropy can be a rewarding way to enrich family experiences. For some families, philanthropy brings generations together as members create teams that work together for a common philanthropic purpose. For other families, philanthropy provides an opportunity to teach organizational and financial skills to younger members. For still other families, it provides a way for the family to connect with the community in a meaningful and impactful manner. Let me share the story of a family who used philanthropy to regain trust and a unified purpose among its members.
The Appels are a three-generation family who found themselves at a crossroads. The founding generation (G1) was worried that succeeding generations would not be able to agree on the purpose of the family money as members made increasing demands on money they believed they were entitled to. Because not all their adult children were involved in the family business, the founding generation was seeing cracks forming within the third generation: demands for lifestyle money by those uninvolved in the business versus demands for business growth by those involved in the family business had become a contentious issue. G1 were experiencing the start of “us” versus “them in fights over the family money. The second generation was ensconced in running the family business and beginning to argue with the third generation about the future of the business. As this tension was playing out, the family was gathering less and less. Only the obligatory events like birthdays, memorial services, and one big holiday event brought them together these days.
G1 found that business decisions affecting the entire family were becoming harder to make. Third generation members were talking about selling their portion of the family business and claiming their portion of the family fortune in cash. The value of family ties was in question.
G1 was desperate and wanted to know what could be done to bring unity back to their family before it was too late. They had tried family meetings and even some family therapy but a crack of dissension and distrust remained.
Upon the recommendation of a trusted and respected advisor, G1 decided to bring in a family legacy coach to determine what they could try, one last time, to bring the family together. As this professional told them: “Philanthropy, when used as a group initiative, can unite family members in a way that is removed from the tension surrounding business concerns.”
Begrudgingly, the three generations decided to get together. On one hand they were thinking this meeting would be a waste of their efforts, but on the other hand, they were willing to try one last time to establish the family harmony they still desired.
The legacy coach suggested making philanthropy the focus of the meeting in order to divert attention from their business and to build a platform where their shared values and vision could bring them together. And it worked.
The family members, one by one, talked about what they appreciated about the family, what they appreciated about the impact the family business had in its community, and what it meant for them to impact their community as a cohesive family unit. As they shared in this way, they found themselves more interested in each other’s perspectives, and began to discover common views regarding the impact they wanted to make on issues important to them.
They shared how philanthropy impacted their own lives, with their stories as volunteers, committee members and board members in various civic, religious and educational institutions. They talked about what it meant for them to personally be involved in the community and how it would enhance the community if they could bring their efforts together, as a family. As they went through this process, they gained a more empathetic understanding of each other and their unique perspectives. What started as a last resort, turned into a powerful meeting. Their complacency turned to enthusiasm as they realized that they could impact their own passions through their common mission.
After four sessions together, the Appel family formed an intergenerational philanthropic council they called “The Trough.” “The Trough” became the platform from which they talked about, determined, and allocated their common time, money and talents to the areas they wanted to impact together. Here, working together became not only possible, but respectful and rewarding.
Today, five years later, the Appels recognize how fortunate they were that this “last ditch effort” to keep them connected became a recipe for their success. The Appels found, to the great relief to G1, that adding philanthropy as a team initiative, provided a framework for cohesiveness, something that had been eluding them for years. Working together with “The Trough” provided a less stressful environment than their business demanded, where they could learn to work together appreciatively. They learned techniques and gained tools for team-work, communication, and leadership that they then added to their business environment.
The Appel family found that while philanthropy may begin as a task but it stays with purpose. Philanthropy is a powerful tool when it brings multi generations together, lets everyone have a voice, and where everyone is working towards the same agreed upon outcome. In addition, it is a rewarding platform where members can research, discover and learn together.