By nature, family philanthropy is a deeply meaningful and evolving endeavor. Families are notoriously unique in their approaches to giving together, yet there are common stages and transitions that all family foundations experience. The foundation life cycle is a useful lens for understanding these stages, for seeking outside expertise, and for setting the stage for successful transitions.

Every family foundation has its own history, challenges, and sources of pride. Foundation leaders may describe their organizations using indicators such as asset size, budget, the number of staff, and years of existence. While these common indicators point to organizational capacity and may inform some decision making, they do not describe the organization’s stage of development or readiness to achieve its mission or create social change.

The life cycle is one way to gauge that readiness.

As consultants to family foundations, we looked into how the life-cycle concept could help guide foundation leadership in anticipating change and in engaging outside expertise to navigate transitions. We surveyed foundation leadership, consulted with researchers, and compiled their stories and our combined recommendations in the Foundation Review article, The Family Foundation Life Cycle and the Role of Consultants.

We encourage boards and donors to consider their outlook on giving and readiness for the future. Build a shared vocabulary using the life-cycle framework, knowing that no giving program cycles through stages in a linear way. The simple framework is a tool for deep conversation.

These three factors underlie this recommended process for preparing to engage outside expertise to help navigate your foundation’s anticipated transitions:

  1. Know Your Life-Cycle Stage.
  2. Agree upon the foundation’s needs.
  3. Find the right “fit” based on skills, experience, and personality.
  4. Establish clear goals for the project and for the future.

Read the full article about family philanthropy cycles from GMA Foundations at the National Center for Family Philanthropy.