When it comes to working in the philanthropic sector, it can be easy to be so overwhelmed by all the challenges that you miss celebrating the little wins much less your overall progress toward mission. There is too little time and too little money. There are too many good ideas and an uncertain path to finding the great ones. We can be reinforced by the ability to be of some service and yet wonder if we’re genuinely advancing our cause.

This can be particularly true in family philanthropy. If I ask a group to tell me about the aspects of family participation that influence their giving together, I am very likely going to hear about the difficult dynamics. When prompted, I hear about the family’s commitment to their giving, their passion for their causes and grantees, their willingness to volunteer countless hours working together on behalf of something greater than themselves. And those are just a few of the things family participation adds to philanthropy! It seems it is just more instinctive to remember that your brother never lets you finish a sentence.

The ability to take stock and celebrate was particularly evident at the recent Board of Directors retreat for the National Center for Family Philanthropy. Given a number of new Board members and the need to do some work on our business model, we spent the first part of the day thinking about the Center’s history and accomplishments. Much of the attention focused on the challenges to raising awareness about the field of family philanthropy and the importance of serving and sustaining it. We recalled years of difficulty in getting research commissioned much less accomplished. There have been so many who haven’t been able to see how donor families fit into the world of grantmaker education and advocacy – or, at least, the world as they had known it. We recalled the challenges of building a collaborative organization and a sustainable business model. Happily, we also celebrated how much had been done in a dozen or so years.

Later that same evening, the theme of great accomplishments from great challenge became visually, stunningly clear. Thanks to Sarah Jane Cavanaugh, our Board member from the Russell Family Foundation, and her husband, Tim, our Board was treated to an evening at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass. As a part of this magical evening, every Board and staff member got to stand in “Jane’s Hot Shop” (touchingly named for Sarah’s late mother) and blow glass. After creating my “masterpiece” – or, rather, extensively relying on my artist/coach – I sat in the gallery and watched each Board member go through the process.

The process begins with choosing the colors and patterns you want to see in your work of art. You really have to imagine how choices of varying chemicals will contribute to realizing that vision. I watched each person stand in front of a blazing hot oven and make a “gather” – the heat was ferocious on both face and hands. Once a solid gather is made, each person puts the gather into their choice of chemicals to create color and pattern. As my board chair, Mary Mountcastle, encouraged me upon completing her ball, “you can’t be tentative!” Delicately placing the gather in the chemicals would get you nothing; you had to do it like you really meant it. Several more firings ensured the chemicals melted and the colors blended. While oppressively hot, it wasn’t always possible to duck behind the small heat shield. There were moments it felt as if the blowpipe were too heavy to bear much less turn gently and evenly. Next came the actual glass blowing. I sat for hours in utter fascination watching each person breathe life into the gather and experience the ball expand and take shape. Next, the artist demonstrated the strength of the still-hot glass by sharply rapping the ball with a heavy metal tool. The sound was shocking, an unexpected realization of strength in what had been – just moments before – a molten blob.

As the ball was separated from the blowpipe another loud crack echoed in the hot shop. The ball was sealed and put into an annealing oven to cool (if you cool it too quickly, the glass will shatter). Even at that point, the final colors of the piece could not be discerned. We have to wait for that process to occur (not to mention shipping home!) to know what our efforts ultimately realized.

Later, I could not help reflecting on how that process mirrored our conversation about the National Center’s development and, indeed, the development of the field of family philanthropy. Like the glass blowing, I have been enormously privileged to have watched the development of both. There has to be a vision, optimism, boldness (“you can’t be tentative!), a lot of heat, creativity, more heat, commitment to withstanding the heat for the privilege of breathing life into your work, and, finally, faith that what you have labored over will be strong, beautiful, worthwhile, and a source of inspiration and pride.

Not a bad vision for anyone who works on behalf of something valuable.

With great encouragement for your own valuable works of art,

Ginny Esposito
President, National Center