This manner of operation worked well until a confluence of events in the 1990s. First, its assets increased rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s. What had been a manageable grantmaking process no longer worked when the funds doubled and tripled. Second, the third generation became involved, questioning the status quo and challenging trustees to think about ways to use the resources more creatively and effectively. Both of these factors caused the trustees of the Overbrook Foundation to step back and think about their philanthropy, and what they hoped to accomplish as both a foundation and a family.

Today, the Overbrook Foundation has two grantmaking programs, one focused on the environment and the other on human and civil rights. Its primary strategy is policy development and advocacy, and it has an active board of 12, including 11 family members. According to former trustee Emily Altschul-Miller, “It’s been a huge success. It’s a different world than it was in the 1990s... We’re much more
strategic and having much more of an impact. We’ve identified those interests that overlap and established those areas as the focus, so that the Foundation can really achieve something. Trustees take the responsibility very seriously.”

The question of how and why family foundations go through that strategic transformation is the focus of this Passages. Like the Overbrook Foundation, many family foundations start out giving to causes based on trustees’ personal interests. As they grow, more family members with more interests become involved, making the giving more diffuse. Many assume that a scattered approach is the cost of involving family members—that in order to establish and maintain participation, family members must be allowed to support their own personal interests. However, the experience of a number of family foundations demonstrates how being more strategic in their giving not only made them more effective foundations, but also enhanced family engagement.

Read the full article about maximizing family engagement and social impact by Ashley Snowdon Blanchard at the National Center for Family Philanthropy.