Milestone birthday celebrations are momentous events in all families. For many, this tradition carries over directly to the philanthropic institutions they create.

A growing number of families celebrating their 40th, 50th or 60th anniversaries have found ways to honor the giving legacy of the donor and subsequent generations, while also celebrating the importance and potential of their nonprofit partners. In some cases, families are seeking to inspire others in the community to give back as well.

“We used our celebrations as a chance to reflect on where we have been, and to ask for input from those whose work we support, so that we could learn about where we should go in the future,” explains Molly Stranahan, former board member of The Needmor Fund, based in Toledo, Ohio. “We used our 50th anniversary as an excuse to collect and share stories about our evolution, values, practices, and funding community organizing. I hope it has helped to serve the field, and encourage others to experiment with some of our practices.”

There are a variety of ways to accomplish the twin goals of honoring family legacy and inspiring family philanthropy, and a number of family foundations around the country have developed creative strategies for celebrating significant milestones and anniversaries in their giving. This special issue of Family Giving News showcases options available for families thinking about this approach and features comments and suggestions from a number of families who have recently celebrated giving milestones.

Has your family celebrated a milestone anniversary? Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments section below!

How do you decide what type of celebration is right for you?

There are at least two basic questions to consider before proceeding with plans for your celebration:

  • What is your main goal of the celebration: is it primarily for your family, for your grantees, or for your community at large? Or is it for a combination of these audiences?
  • Do you plan to allocate a small budget for this celebration, or would you prefer to integrate activities associated with the celebration within your existing budget and programs?

Many foundations assign a small ad hoc committee to explore options for how best to mark the occasion. These committees may include only board members or family members who do not currently serve on the board, or they may also include staff or even trusted grantee partners. In some cases, separate sub-committees are assigned for different aspects of the celebration. Regardless, to ensure accountability and progress, be sure to assign one or two individuals at most to be the primary point person for each activity you choose.

What are your options?

Families interviewed for this issue of FGN described a variety of activities used to celebrate important milestones. Examples of some of these activities include:

  • Create a special grants program: This is a popular choice for family foundations seeking to highlight the important work of their grantees. For its 50th anniversary celebration, The Dyson Foundation in Millbrook, NY committed $28 million dollars of capital grants to several institutions that had long been supported by the Dyson family. For its 20th anniversary, The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation in Seattle developed a special one-time grants program known as the “Founders Awards.” According to William Vesneski, director of evaluation, planning, and research at the foundation, this award is to “recognize change agents who created organizations that delivered high impact programs for local communities.”
  • Create a special report or history: The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in Tulsa, Oklahoma prepared a 20th anniversary report in 2007 titled, “Celebrating 20 Years of Values in Action,” which grouped Schusterman grantees by various “Values in Action,” such as service, caring, learning, and Jewish identity, among others. “Our board and staff believed it was important to illustrate the breadth and depth of our work by listing all grantees supported during that time period in our report,” says Alana Hughes, director of administration at the foundation. “The report was primarily a celebration of the people and organizations we consider our partners in advancing change, not a financial report on the foundation, although we did include an overview of funding totals by value area.”
  • Create a video: A growing number of family foundations are choosing to create short video histories commemorating the founder, or the history of the family and foundation. While not always conducted as part of a milestone celebration, these videos can be a terrific way of celebrating an important anniversary. Examples of some of our favorites include Everybody’s Uncle Sam about the founder of the Sam L. Cohen Foundation, An Introduction to Our Work from Senior Members of the Lumpkin Family Foundation, and the Zeist Foundation’s tragic yet inspiring video about founders Mrs. Jean and Dr. George Brumley and their family.
  • Host a celebratory event for your grantees/community: “Our board was always clear that any celebration would be a celebration of our grantees and community, not a celebration of the foundation itself,” says Durfee Foundation President Carrie Avery in describing the impetus for the foundation’s We Love LA! event to mark the foundation’s 50th anniversary. Described as “An Urban Retreat for LA’s Passionate Leaders,” the two-day event, attended by about 300 grantees, was held in October 2010 at the Center for Healthy Communities, a meeting space in downtown Los Angeles with a main conference hall, breakout rooms, and an outdoor patio. Avery greeted the guests and shared the story of the Durfee Foundation’s history. “The event kicked off with a fantastic and inspirational talk by Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries and a Durfee sabbatical awardee, on ‘A Life of Service,’ “ explains Avery. “After that, we broke into sessions that had been designed by our grantees. Some focused on professional issues: Succession Planning, Generational Approaches to Leadership, Public/Private Partnerships. Others were different: Self-Care, Afro-Brazilian Dance, Writing from your Life. We also offered several site visits hosted by Durfee Fellows: a tour of Skid Row, Exploring Food Deserts, Public Spaces in Downtown LA. Attendees flowed easily from session to session over the two days. The event closed with a performance by Luis Alfaro, a tribute to nonprofit workers.”
  • Host a reunion or other celebratory event for your family: In 2005, the General Service Foundation celebrated the foundation’s 60th anniversary. “We felt it was an important milestone,” explains Zoe Lloyd Foxley, vice-chair of the foundation, “and we brought the board, extended family members, and past board members as well as guest speakers together for a weekend to commemorate the occasion. We created an interactive timeline of the past 60 years, with historical events as well as the history of the foundation. We included board members terms and quotes from old dockets, and how the program areas changed and evolved over time, sometimes in response to what was happening at the time. We took time to revisit the founder’s letter and meditate on and connect with his intentions with the foundation, and how they are alive with the foundation today.”
  • Include a special message in annual report or website: One of the simplest – and least time consuming – approaches to celebration is to include a special message from the current chair or founders (if they are still alive) in a foundation’s annual report or website. The Lawson Foundation took this concept a step further and completely rebranded its website and printed materials to reflect its 50th anniversary message, and to highlight the work of grantees honored with their Lawson Foundation Achievement Awards. “Our 50th anniversary grant recipients were thrilled with the unexpected recognition and grant award,” says Lawson Executive Director Angie Killoran. “And we are refreshing our branding to recognize 55 years of philanthropy in 2011-12.”
  • Additional suggestions: Provide staff with small discretionary grants, redesign your letterhead or website, add a tagline to email and print communications, create a family tree or visual timeline of the foundation, family, world history and grantmaking accomplishments. The Dyson Foundation had special 50th Anniversary letterhead designed, and developed a tag line for it’s publications of ‘Fifty Years of Giving Back and Looking Forward.’ “We liked the tagline so much,” notes Gurieva, “that we ended up changing it to ‘Over Fifty Years of Giving Back and Looking Forward” and still use it!”

Charting Past and Future Paths:
The Needmor Fund’s 1996 Family Retreat

“We wanted to remember the paths we had traveled, the ways we have changed over the years, and to get advice from trusted fellow-journeyers about how we might adapt into the future. There was an inclusive process to incorporate ideas from various family members – one had been active doing quilting projects for schools, and she volunteered to bring materials so we could create squares to be put into a commemorative quilt. We also had time for our guests to speak to us from their perspectives, time for storytelling, dancing, and playtime for the kids.”

– Molly Stranahan, former board member, The Needmor Fund

Looking forward

Many of the families we talked with have already begun plans for their next milestone celebration. While some predict that future celebrations may be more modest due to changing finances, others say that they may actually expand their celebration at subsequent milestones. “We made a decision not to have an event of any kind – we did not want to seem self-serving or self-congratulatory,” says Gurieva. “But in hindsight I think we should have done that. It would have been another opportunity to highlight our work, and many elected officials and community leaders were disappointed to not have opportunities to present resolutions thanking the foundation for its support.”

But not everyone is eager to host another celebration in the coming years. Stranahan notes that, “After the fiftieth, it seems like it will be a long time before there is another worthy event.”

Avery agrees: “After all of the work and expense that this celebration took, our response when people ask if we are going to do this again is: ‘Every 50 years!’ “

Editor’s note: An expanded version of this article, featuring additional advice, lessons learned and unexpected benefits of milestone celebrations, will be available later this summer.