Steps to jumpstart these important discussions about legacy
Wealth and values play a starring role in family philanthropy, whether through a private foundation or a Donor Advised Fund. However, wealth and values conversations can be daunting to undertake for some families. “For fear of being divisive or difficult, many families avoid the conversation completely,” says Ashley Fontanetta, vice president of Philanthropy Services at Whittier Trust. “Even those who are willing to go there often simply don’t know where to begin.”
Communicating is the only way to move forward with furthering the legacy of a private family foundation, though. “The first step is to take a step—any step—to start the conversation,” says Fontanetta. She outlines some helpful steps for families to begin or advance their talks about wealth and values.
1. Select the right place and time.
Important dialogues like these need time and space to develop and aren’t a one-and-done type deal. When the goal is to open up and share heartfelt values and beliefs, talking face-to-face can feel intimidating. Instead, consider opening up the conversation by speaking side-by-side while on a walk or during a car ride, which can dramatically decrease the feeling of being an interviewee on the hot seat.
From there, you might consider holding a distraction-free weekend retreat for legacy planning or simply setting aside an hour or two during a holiday gathering, such as Thanksgiving, to further the discussion. These invaluable moments will add to the depth of family bonding and create a more collaborative forum for defining the tenets of legacy, particularly as it applies to charitable giving.
2. Give everyone the opportunity to be heard.
When setting the stage for communicating about legacy, it’s important for younger generations to feel their voice is valued. This is a time to put aside family hierarchy and give everyone an opportunity to share their viewpoints. Without wholeheartedly inviting all family members to share equally in the conversation, one can’t expect involvement or buy-in from the younger generations.
3. Break the ice with a set of thought-provoking questions.
Arriving at a place of thoughtful reflection will bring out the right mindset and temperament for going deeper into family values. Start out the discussion with open-ended questions that allow each individual to share their own thoughts and feelings, such as:
- What’s your greatest accomplishment?
- What opportunity would you want others to have?
- What was the most significant event of your childhood?
- What was the world like when and where you grew up?
- What does “wealth” mean to you? What are the challenges, opportunities and responsibilities it brings?
Despite familial closeness, everyone might be surprised at each other’s answers.
4. Work with an expert.
You don’t need to go at it alone. If you’re having difficulty with the steps above, Whittier Trust can help facilitate the conversation about legacy as a neutral third party. Working with a private philanthropy services expert to provide a framework or bring the dialogue to life can move families past the first obstacle of getting started. In the long run, following an organized plan or engaging a facilitator to guide these key discussions around family philanthropy and family foundations can pay off.
Remember that most breakthroughs don’t happen overnight but rather are the culmination of many small steps forward. At a minimum, family members should agree to participate in these discussions and strive for a mutual understanding that considers the perspective of each generation and allows room to adapt to future realities. Whichever way you choose to begin this wealth management journey, breaking the taboo of talking about money and values will enrich the legacy of a family.