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In a recent blog post I wrote about the desirability of developing a family vision and mission statement.  Such a statement helps families to come to grips with who they are and where they want to be.  They help instill the most important beliefs and values in each generation of the family in a way that is at once collaborative and not coercive, supporting and not demanding.

Regardless of whether your family actually develops a written statement, we know that thinking about and instilling these beliefs and values in family members is absolutely crucial to character development, educational and career success and, yes, especially the development of a philanthropic mindset.

A student of mine recently shared the following story with me:  “My family has been fortunate enough to be able to fund a small family foundation, and my sister and I are allocated an amount of money to donate annually to ours (and our spouse’s) favored causes. It’s not a large amount of money, but my wife and I take it seriously. It’s a good way to help the next generation understand how important charitable giving is and how important it is to put thought behind it…” 

What a wonderful idea!  How fortunate my student is to have this gift to use in a way that is meaningful to his generation and perhaps even his children’s generation.  His family may not have consciously engaged in the following “top 10” practices, but they sure as heck reaped the kind of results that these practices envision.

So, in the spirit of philanthropic advisor Charles W. Collier and his book Wealth in Families (Second Edition), here are the “top 10” best practices of successful families, those like my student’s, who take pains to pass on more than just the family name and jewels:

  1. Successful families focus on the human, intellectual, and social capital of the family.  What does each family member have to offer both for him/herself and for the family (human/intellectual capital)?  What type of investment does the family make to cultivate this capital?  Where does the family see itself fitting into the greater society (social capital)?
  2. They stress the priority of each family member’s individual pursuit of happiness – NOT Mom & Dad’s definition of what that should be for the kids and grandkids but those of each individual family member.
  3. They work on enhancing intrafamily communication.
  4. Their time frame for determining success is long-term.
  5. They tell and retell the family’s most important stories.  Every family has a history and this history is what makes the family.  Telling and retelling the stories creates a sense of pride and a reason to continue to pull together as a family.
  6. They create mentor-like relationships with establishing family trusts.  While we tend to think of trusts as purely financial instruments, in fact, the trustee/beneficiary relationship formed as a result of the formation of a trust can be used as a tool to guide the beneficiary using someone other than the parent as that guide.
  7. They have collaboratively defined a family vision statement (the Shared Dream).  This is particularly important when engaging in family philanthropy.
  8. They teach children and grandchildren the competencies and responsibilities that come with financial wealth.
  9. They work at getting to really know each family member.
  10. They give their younger family members as much responsibility as they can manage as soon as possible.

 

It’s never too late…

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The stories behind our client families are sometimes tragic, often inspiring, and always interesting.  And of course, over time, we have noticed that certain patterns repeat themselves, particularly in family businesses.  The complaints are so similar – the patriarch/matriarch founder of the business operates autocratically, demanding perfection without ever ceding control; the heir-apparent works 100 hours per week while the dilettante sibling does nothing; the inevitable generational clash of philanthropic interests in the family foundation.  The common thread is that far too much assuming goes on between family members and, because of that, resentments tend to fester and sometimes explode.  Without proper management, this dynamic can be lethal, driving family members apart and destroying not only the family unit itself… but perhaps even the business or the family foundation.

You know the old saying: “From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”  Sometimes it’s a wonder that family fortunes last even that long.

So what is a family to do? 

Successful business and not-for-profit leaders have long known that the establishment of a formal and communicated mission and vision statement within their organizations goes a long way toward organizational self definition and the creation of a positive image in the marketplace.  Formally stating these points enables management, staff, volunteers, donors, and the public to align their values with those of the organization.  A well-defined and mission-driven organization has a much better chance at achieving success, however defined, than a vaguely defined one.  Couldn’t the same be said for families?  What about a family mission and vision statement?

Before you write this off as some hippy-dippy claptrap, consider the source of some of this thinking.  Based on his experience in working with some of the nation’s wealthiest families, Charles W. Collier, the former Senior Philanthropic Advisor at Harvard University, writes about confronting these issues in his excellent monograph Wealth in Families (Second Edition):

“I define a successful family as one that knows who it is, what it stands for, and where it is going.  Successful families manage themselves deliberately.  There is much at stake for your individual family members, for your family as a whole, and for society at large.  If you and your family can define “what’s important” before deciding “what to do,” then your children will thrive, your family will flourish, and society will benefit”. (Collier, p. 5)

This might be easier for the family with a business or foundation at stake.  Other families without the formality of a business unit or private foundation to bind them may find it a bit harder to do, but either way, the results can be well worth it.  Contemplating the big questions of family philosophy, beliefs and values will force you to define:

  • What is truly important to our family?
  • What are our family’s true assets?
  • What can/should we do to guide and support the life journey of each family member over time?
  • How wealthy do we want our children to be?
  • Do we have a responsibility to society?

Touchy-feely?  Perhaps.  Might you as a successful entrepreneur or business person become impatient with such an “Age of Aquarius” approach?  Entirely possible.  But if you check your impatience at the door and involve all your family members where appropriate, you just might find that your family unit is strengthened and better able to function and thrive over the long term, to truly travel from “success to significance.” 

Next Up:  The 10 Best Practices of Successful Families

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