In April, Centre Foundation brought in Tom Rogerson to keynote their Campbell Society luncheon. Tom is a family philanthropy adviser at Wilmington Trust, and a compelling speaker. I wasn’t there, but a friend recorded the talk for me and I sat down to listen to it recently.

Over the past two years I’ve helped kickstart four Centre Foundation funds: Nittany Valley Renaissance Fund, Novak Fellowship Fund, John Raynar Penn State Media Leadership Fund, and Shakely Family Conservation Fund. The first two are The Nittany Valley Society’s endowments, and the latter two are DAFs, or Donor Advised Funds.

I’m a fan of Centre Foundation, and am interested in learning about intentional approaches to family life, which is what Tom Rogerson addressed in his talk from the angle of governance and philanthropy.

A few things I took from his talk. First, on family culture. Specifically the idea that stronger families learn how to make decisions as a group. This can include lots of things, including a united family approach for decisions involving schooling, higher education, career, etc.

What Tom proposed a means to strengthen that sort of family culture involves family meetings, that could be paired with Thanksgiving or other annual events but that were distinct, involved decorum and were focused on leaving everyone having learned something or at least started on chewing something for further conversation. It can also involve family team building exercises, family philanthropy, and even a family literary program to teach family members over time about their own history and lessons from successes and failures over time. All of this is connected by the idea of fostering family resiliency and nurturing talent within the family.

Second, on family governance. Specifically the idea of defining success for the family as a whole. An example was one family’s definition: a healthy and united family, where individuals had high self esteem, built trust and communication through their relationships and through meaningful experiences.

When it came to family philanthropy as one facet of this, that involved a vision for what they wanted the family to look like down the road, and ultimately led to a committee within the family to engage in family philanthropy with a goal of group governance and transparent decision making that could avoid divided approaches that used limited charitable resources inefficiently or wastefully and at the same time could help avoid an unhealthy and divided family culture.

Third, on family philanthropy. Specifically by harnessing healthy family culture and governance to further strengthen relationships and decision making concerning charitable resources, no matter what size.

Tom cited DAFs as a way to approach family philanthropy using his own approach as an example that achieves not only the philanthropy component, but also the culture and governance component. DAFs are a way for families to determine and communicate their priorities as a group. He sets aside $5,000/year for his DAF, which is split so that each of his four kids gets to award $1,000 to a beneficiary. All four have to agree on a beneficiary for the final $1,000. This can be done with $5,000 or $500 or whatever. But he cites the “together piece” as the most valuable.

This is taken a step further, where he sets aside another $500 year that his brother matches. Then both their kids get together and as cousins agree where that $1,000 will go, contributing to communication, decision making, trust, and seeing results over time as a group. And because it’s done through the DAF vehicle, beneficiaries see the names of the children as donors rather than the parents.

It was a great talk, and leaves me with a lot to chew on. I think the connecting theme was family resiliency, and if each of us can figure out how to contribute to that, we’ll be building a much better society.