In our work with family foundations, we’ve observed a tendency among some family boards to avoid difficult conversations in order to keep the family peace. However, in many cases, engaging in the difficult conversation and managing the conflict can support a foundation’s long-term health, while avoiding it can lead to disengagement and even permanent breakdowns.
In my family, in advance of holiday reunions and gatherings, my mother often makes calls a day or two before we get together to drop not-so-subtle hints about the things we should not bring up in dinner conversations. With family members whose beliefs fall at opposite ends of the political spectrum and also span the range of religious beliefs from agnostic to fundamentalist, her strategy to avoid any conflict is to make certain topics taboo during the days we are all together.
Most families have a list of taboo topics that they know will heat up conversations, surface tensions, and create conflict. In family philanthropy, the latent tensions that exist in every family can be exacerbated by the significant sums of money in play. Because family board meetings are often connected to and coordinated with other family activities (reunions, vacations, etc.), it is not surprising that family foundation boards often seek to avoid conflict as well.
Avoiding conflicts can be a smart strategy to keep family boards moving forward when the issues are minor or petty. However, we have witnessed cases where avoiding conflict (often at all costs) has disrupted families’ philanthropy and led to governance breakdowns that have paralyzed foundations. This can happen, for example, in conversations about succession and next generation leadership. Often, different family members have different interests at stake (for example, some may have children, others may not; the ages of next gen children may vary widely; and so on). Discussing succession is particularly challenging because it also raises questions about the intended life-span of the foundation, and about control.
What’s clear is that avoiding these difficult conversations does not make the issues go away, and can give them more destructive power over time than they otherwise might have. They fester and rear their heads during conversations about tangential topics—for example, the annual budget—putting the board in a position of repeatedly tamping down eruptions to keep the peace. Each tamped-down eruption leaves a fissure in the board’s functioning, leading to board member disengagement over time. In the case of succession planning, not having the conversation year after year often leads to an implicit, and sometimes unintended decision to split the foundation’s assets between family branches as governance gets complex across generations and geographies and no future generations have been engaged and included in the foundation’s work.
We believe that a better solution is to spend some time as a board identifying your taboo topics and the ways they affect your family foundation’s effectiveness. Then, take action:
You don’t have to tackle all of the challenging topics at once—the point is to get ahead of the curve and be proactive instead of reactive. You might be (pleasantly) surprised by your board’s ability to move through these conversations and make decisions that inspire you all.
Stephanie Fuerstner Gillis leads Arabella’s Foundation Management line of business. She has an extensive background in evaluation, program strategy, and program design, and substantive expertise in the areas of youth development, arts education, organizational capacity building, family foundations, and philanthropy, among other areas.