Navigating family dynamics and supporting legacy continuity
Before his passing, Mike, the patriarch of the Sumner* family, and his wife Laura, who were the President and Director of the family’s foundation, had been discussing how to get their three children involved in the family’s charitable giving. Unfortunately, Mike passed before he could see that vision through. However, Laura and their daughter Amanda, who became Director in place of her father, were still committed to getting the other two siblings on board.
“Knowing that the younger siblings were very busy with young children of their own and demanding jobs, the trustees didn’t want to put undue pressure on them to take a more active role. So they asked me to speak with them to gauge their level of interest and availability,” says Channing L. Grigsby, vice president of Philanthropic Services for Whittier Trust. “They wanted to make sure that those who were not involved currently had an opportunity to speak candidly. Having an open conversation with an unbiased professional, who will be free from preconceived notions and the pressures of family relationship dynamics, can help alleviate any pressure the stakeholders might feel to engage.”
Promoting Family Cohesion
Often, having a project—such as family-driven philanthropic endeavors—can draw a family together. In some cases, having a third party involved can offer an objective perspective and help ensure that everyone’s voices are heard without bias. Grigsby had gotten to know her clients, Mike and Laura, well over the years, so she understood that the goal was always to bring the whole family together through their charitable giving. The Sumner family is naturally tight-knit. In fact, two of the Sumner children moved closer to home when their dad fell ill.
To get to know everyone’s unique perspectives, Grigsby set up separate calls with the two other grown Sumner children, Marcus and Michael. On the calls, she discussed their life situations, other time commitments, goals, as well as the level of involvement, if any, that they wanted to have in their family’s charitable organization. By speaking with them individually, she helped them feel heard and know that they had their own advocate on the team.
“The Philanthropic Services team at Whittier Trust promotes family cohesion and creates opportunities for family members to show up, feel empowered and take on a role if that’s their wish,” she says.
As it turned out, both siblings wanted to be more involved in the family’s philanthropic giving foundation by taking officer roles. “Both Michael and Marcus wanted to take on a role and felt that their deceased father would have wanted that, too. They also felt it was important for the Foundation to promote family unity,” Grigsby says. “This was a great outcome and the President and Director [mom Laura and sister Amanda] were thrilled about it.”
Facilitating a Smooth Transition
Once their intentions were established, Grigsby coordinated a call with all family members. Marcus became the secretary and Michael became the treasurer, which were roles Whittier had assumed, as part of their private philanthropic services, prior to Mike’s passing. The Whittier team discussed what responsibilities the positions came with to make sure all parties were in the know and on the same page. They also spoke about what Whittier Trust’s function would be in supporting the family moving forward.
“In our role as administrator, we are here to help make things run smoothly and alleviate the day-to-day tasks so the family can focus on the giving and the foundation’s goals. For example, during the meeting, I took the notes and then went over them with Marcus,” Grigsby explains. “This gave him a chance to learn the strategy and process for minute-taking so he would have a better understanding of his role as secretary. Then I offered to review his draft minutes and share comments before they were finalized for signature. He is now a pro!
Gribsby and the team at Whittier have watched as the Sumner siblings have settled into the foundation, knowing that Mike would be proud of his children and pleased with how the family is working together and supporting each other. “It was wonderful to see both siblings wanting to be involved and stepping into their new roles nicely,” says Grigsby. “At Whittier, we always have our clients’ best interests at heart. It’s great that it worked out for this entire family to be involved in their charitable trust. If they hadn’t, though, we would have stepped in to fill any holes as needed.”
*Names have been changed for the privacy of our clients.