Building family bonds through philanthropy

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Whether it’s the love for giving back; the desire to share their wealth; or some other unique driver which fuels the philanthropic desires of family businesses, philanthropy is perhaps one of the strongest threads that hold families together.


It is a bond that is usually based on intergenerational tradition, which overrides personal and inter-family differences that often exist among family members.


Typically, family-owned businesses select a cause that they care deeply about and make a commitment to support such cause. The cause becomes an identifiable family initiative and a legacy for different generations. Over time, family members, including spouses and children, collectively develop a deep personal connection to the cause, enabling them to bond over a common goal.


Very often, the cause selected is linked to the personal experiences of one or more family members. For instance, a family might decide to support cancer research because a family member died of cancer; while other families might be connected in some way to the arts, sports, or some other cause deemed worthy of their support.


The Genesis of a Family Foundation


For Jennifer, the CEO of her family’s chain of retail stores, it is her unique “near death” personal experience that drove her desire to uplift the lives of those who are less fortunate.


As the story is told, when Jennifer was a five-year old kid, she developed a severe case of pneumonia, accompanied by a life-threatening lung infection. Though doctors had all but given up on her, she survived, thanks to donations from a local charity and a family foundation, which together funded an all-expenses trip to a US-based hospital which provided her with highly specialized treatment and care.


Her parents, at that time, could not afford the cost of such treatment. Colin, her father, worked as a store manager, while her mother stayed at home to raise her three brothers and two sisters. They had sufficient money to live a normal life but not to cover exigencies such as Jennifer’s care.


But that was more than 45 years ago. As Jennifer grew up, she felt a dire need to help those who were less fortunate. As a form of payback, she became a volunteer with the charity that helped her, as well as for two different community-based charities. However, uppermost in her mind was the desire to be in a position to give back in a similar way she received help.


Once Jennifer completed university, she leveraged her father’s experience to set up the family’s first retail store. Two years later, the family opened a second store and by the tenth year, it had eleven stores. The thriving business employed Jennifer’s father, her five siblings, seven of her nieces and nephews, as well as several extended family members.


The Birth of a Family Foundation


Following Thanksgiving dinner in 1995, Jennifer proposed the idea of setting up a family foundation with the goal of helping underprivileged families and individuals. She received immediate buy-in from her family members, who were well aware of her rationale for doing so.


As an honor to her father, she named the Foundation after him, and put him in charge of overseeing its operations. Her father, in turn, incorporated her mother, who was never actually involved in the business, to take charge of event planning.


Jennifer’s mandate to the company was that it would make an initial donation of $5 million to the foundation; plus 5% of the total annual profits or 1% of total annual revenues, if a profit was not realized in any given year. It would also provide special funds to the Foundation annually, subject to discretion of its Board of Directors, to fund special projects and events.


Under the supervision of Colin, family members formed a committee which was represented by each community in which the company operated stores. The primary objective of the committee was to determine specific causes that would receive funds from the Foundation; and to consider application for funding from individuals and charities. The aim was to make the greatest impact on the communities which the foundation served. The committee reported to the foundation’s board.


“Everyone was passionate and excited right from the start. They bonded together like players on a hockey team on a mission to win the Stanley Cup,” says Jennifer, “guided by a shared mission and a common goal.”


After 25 years, the Foundation is stronger than ever. Both of Jennifer’s parents have since passed on and a new generation of leadership has taken over. With the growth of company to 23 stores, the foundation has also expanded its activities into 21 communities. So far, it has contributed tens of millions of dollars to helping less fortunate individuals and families and has hospital wings, community centers, and stadiums named after it.


But most of all, the foundation brought joy, satisfaction and sense of pride to Jennifer and her family, including her siblings, nieces, nephews and other members of her extended family.


How family members bonded?



  • Were guided by a common and relatable family goal
  • Were empowered to make decisions on behalf of the foundation
  • Arrived at decisions based on consensus and open collaboration
  • Had a stake in the success of community initiatives
  • Shared and celebrated their successes at quarterly meetings
  • Have unique experiences which they can pass on to the next generation


“I achieved more than I set out to do,” says Jennifer, who is ecstatic about the number of lives she has touched through the foundation. “I wish my mom and dad were alive to see the deepened connection among members of the family and to the community at large. I am proud that my dad’s legacy lives on.”


This story is for illustrative purposes only, based on our professional experience, and does not necessarily reflect the situation of any individual or family.