Simply put, we all want to be heard. Unfortunately, we don’t always know the best ways to communicate. During a discussion on the art of effective communication, which was part of the session, Next Generation Retreat for Family Members, it became clear that the Next Gen, though seated at the proverbial table, are struggling to be heard.
Next Gen Retreat participants shared stories of philanthropic challenge and triumph. In some cases, explosive conversations suppressed Next Gen involvement for several years. In others, the Next Gen was able to move important resolutions forward. In cases of communication-gone-wrong, there seemed to be no common thread. Perhaps these young trustees were working with a particularly difficult family member? Maybe they had not presented their case well? Maybe this work is, well, just difficult?
But even when I turned my sights toward the more successful conversations, I could hardly tease a common theme. I must be missing something, I thought. The answer did not come to me until later that evening.
In COF’s opening plenary, during a particularly endearing moment, Dr. Woodrow Myers Jr. expressed his desire to see his daughter, who is treasurer of the family foundation, as the competent adult she is and not as the exuberant six-year-old he so fondly remembers. Myers’s comment illuminated what Next Gen family members are up against. Even though most young trustees sit shoulder to shoulder with their parents or grandparents as thoughtful young adults during foundation meetings, it is difficult to shift their parents’ mind set to the present and replace nostalgic memories of childhood with the seriousness and urgency of the now.
Leaving the opening plenary, I began to wonder if training only the Next Gen in effective communication was enough. A missing piece to the communication puzzle, it seems to me, is untangling our familial relationships in order to help parents and grandparents alter the ways they view their children and their children’s participation in the family’s philanthropy. Perhaps the neutral eye of an outside party could to the trick. Good facilitators have a knack for serving as interpreters, and a good interpreter can do wonders to move meetings forward, diffuse tense moments, and preserve important family relationships. Might this be the bridge we need?
I wonder: Is good communication contingent upon great facilitation? How might the conversation shift when an outside party enters the picture? Or should families be able to conduct business and communicate effectively without outside help? Through my work with Resource Generation’s Creating Change Through Family Philanthropy Program, I am excited to get to the bottom of the communication quagmire.
Nicole Lewis is the national organizer for Resource Generation