Last week, the National Center for Family Philanthropy held its annual board retreat. We returned to The Pocantico Center of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in Tarrytown, New York for the first time since our first board retreat more than 15 years ago. We spent most of our first retreat developing our values statement and refining our mission and program agenda, so it was a fitting location for the work we had to do: Re-visit issues of identity, value, communication, while making tough choices among so many wonderful opportunities. After seven months of working with a pro bono Taproot Foundation team on these very issues, the advisory group was ready to present concepts, language, and a decision-making framework to the full Board. Because I think there is value in some of our work for family giving programs, I want to share a little of the process and lessons learned.

The National Center for Family Philanthropy is in a good place to be doing this work. Thanks to an engaged Board of Directors, great volunteers and funders, and a talented staff, we made it through the tough economic times stronger than ever. There is more high quality programming for donor families and their advisors and greater sustainability to ensure we do this work responsibly. If possible, there seems to be even greater dedication to advocating for effective family participation in philanthropy and the value of doing this work well. We’ve built a trusted organization that can do much more in the decade ahead. If anything is daunting, it’s appreciating all the work that needs to be done and determining how a nimble nonprofit makes great choices.

Before we could talk about those choices, we had to go back to basic precepts. We had to renew our shared values and better understand not only the implications of those values but the value of our work on your behalf. We had to consider the language we use to communicate values and value and, frankly, realized we haven’t always done that very consistently. That’s a concern because we want you to know when and how to turn to us for expertise and encouragement. We also want more (all!) philanthropic families, staff, and advisors to understand that we are here for them too. Expect to see more thoughtful and deliberate language in the months ahead!

NCFP Board Chair Carrie Avery and board member Kathleen Odne at the National Center’s spring 2013 board retreat at the Pocantico Conference Center.

We also worked on our shared vision for NCFP, re-committing to new research and programs – always emphasizing the high touch, high quality you deserve. Finally, we reinforced the value of including assessments, user surveys, and course corrections as a way to ensure not only relevance but vitality.

While we had postponed some major (read “expensive”) technology upgrades, we agreed the time is now. (Actually, the time was probably a year or so ago, but that’s another story!) Our board enthusiastically supported moving that to the top of the priority list and paved the way – programmatically and financially – for getting it going right away. We are proud to offer you terrific monthly webinars and the largest, most sophisticated Knowledge Center on family philanthropy in the world – an online center available to more than 100,000 users. We’re thrilled our monthly e-newsletter, Family Giving News, reaches more than 11,000 readers and offers so many new features. I look forward to introducing you to a technology platform for all that work that has the look and ease of use it – and you – deserve.

Finally, we thought about what kind of organization we were and wanted to be. We recognized that – going back to our founding and our steadfast, enthusiastic support for family philanthropy – we wanted to make bold choices. We knew that a small nonprofit doesn’t mean small ideas and often means taking on more than we ever thought we could on behalf of giving families and all those touched by their work. Our magical retreat reaffirmed that we wanted to take on the challenges that truly had the power to inspire and transform.

Often, when I speak with a donor family, I realize how easy it is to get discouraged or bogged down by worrying that you are too small to make big things happen or that there are too many differences among board members and others in the family. What a liberating and inspiring exercise it is to think about how much you can do and how you are alike! I marvel at the responses when I ask what the family legacy includes and how it inspires participation – responses that are so much more similar than the board would guess. Even more inspiring is the conversation around the values you share. You might live in different places, vote for different candidates, volunteer at very different organizations, and practice many faiths or none at all, but I haven’t met a family yet that couldn’t speak eloquently about the values they can agree on.

Spring at Kykuit

While it can be more complex, the next opportunity is to agree on a shared vision. Whatever your assets or grants budget, they are precious and rare assets dedicated to the public good and that makes them special and mighty indeed! What do your values say about the way you give, how you work with one another and with others, and even your grantmaking priorities? Can you craft a vision for the good you can do together; recognizing that likely means some individual passions will have to be pursued individually? Taking things off the table that prompt excessive disagreement can be a freeing activity. So much vitality comes from finding the shared space and working toward common goals.

Board retreats are a great way to renew, refresh, and revitalize. I’ve been delighted to observe how these retreats are so much more commonplace now than they were when I first started in this work. Taking some time for issues other than the normal board agenda items gives you all a chance to remember why you do this work, what you are trying to accomplish, and where you are ready to adjust course or recommit. Maybe you, like NCFP, can look at the language you use to describe yourself and your giving and make sure it communicates all you want and need it to.

It’s that time of year when we celebrate volunteers. I hope you take some time to celebrate the volunteers in your grantmaking – whether it’s those who guide and manage your giving or the volunteers who make it possible for the nonprofits you support to do marvelous things. I am so very grateful for all the volunteers who support the National Center for Family Philanthropy as I am grateful for all of you who devote time, energy, and resources to the values, vision, and vitality of family philanthropy and our society. If you need any help in pursuing your family’s philanthropic goals, we are ready to help you in any way we can.


Ginny Esposito

President, National Center for Family Philanthropy