by Jamie Forbes | posted in: Family Culture, Well-being, Family Legacy, family philanthropy, Family Strategy, Family Wealth Transition, Generational Transitions, Generational Transitions, Philanthropy, philanthropy management, Succession Planning for Families |

In our first post we defined the importance of nurturing your family culture and underscored that paying attention to human connection has a longer, more sustainable impact on families than focusing solely on passing down financial resources to the next generation. For those who are thinking about ways to sustain an existing family legacy, or for those who aspire to create a family legacy, we hope this blog series provides some key takeaways and inspires a commitment to nurturing family culture.

Over the next few posts, we will continue to break down what we call the “Family Culture Cycle,” a fluid, living and ongoing process that helps strengthen family connectedness and cohesion. By building a process that invites participation, families create a sense of ownership and identity. This connection results in a deep commitment to shared family values and support systems. If taken for granted, these critical values and support systems will fray at the edges and disconnect the family over time: that’s an outcome most want to avoid.

As a reminder, we outlined 4 essential elements of building and sustaining a family legacy in our first post. Those four steps are:

  1. Identification and Clarification
  2. Organization — Governance
  3. Fortification
  4. Revisitation and Affirmation

Let’s begin with a deeper look at the first stage: Identification and Clarification.


There are a few key areas to start as you identify the culture of your family. At the center of this effort is a unified understanding of the family’s core values. Core values directly inform how culture is expressed and how to nurture it.

We will illustrate this step in the context of the family foundation.

Consider: What are some of your family’s core values and where did they come from? Are there stories you grew up with or have recently created that reinforce these values? Have these values been woven into the fabric of the foundation and how it operates?

Kelly’s family foundation, Surdna, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Much has been examined about this philanthropic legacy and its founder. As a member of the fifth generation in her family, Kelly never met her great, great grandfather, but she has nevertheless spent hours learning about this man, where he came from, what he cared about and how he “showed up” in the world.

Kelly reflects:

“What is fascinating is that many of my great, great grandfather’s core values have been present over the 100 years of his philanthropic legacy. Take humility, for example. Our founder, John Andrus, was born into very modest means on a rural farm in New York. From a very young age, he found entrepreneurial ways to earn money for his family and understood the true meaning of hard work and thrift. When he amassed his fortune later in life, he remained humble, understanding where he had come from and how difficult it was to change his family’s economic path. This humility is evident when he established the family foundation in 1917 and reversed the name Andrus to Surdna. He wanted the foundation’s focus and reputation to be on the work rather than on the family name.

Humility has been a core value of the institution for 100 years and shows up in how staff and board approach the work. This is reflected in approaching the Foundation’s work. Both staff and board consider Surdna to be a “learning organization.” While we have accomplished a lot and learned much from our work, we also recognize that we don’t have all the answers. We are committed to listening and nurturing deep partnerships in the communities we serve. We attempt to diffuse power dynamics both internally between board and staff, and externally with our nonprofit partners, which has resulted in more transparent conversations around failure and the ability to be nimble in our approach to grantmaking. By identifying humility as a core value, we seek to be intentional about embedding this value into the culture of the institution.”

Naming the core values of your family and/or family foundation enables you to look at how they come to life in day-to-day interactions. As an example, physical space can either support or conflict with values such as collaboration. Look around your family foundation office. How is it laid out? Are there open spaces for collaboration or are there more doors and walls for privacy? The physical environment has a lot to do with how culture plays out. If a core value of your family is collaboration, then having office space that hinders this may need to be re-imagined. If the physical space has limits in terms of what can be changed, then think of other ways to nurture culture and connection in your environment. Making time for gatherings, regular communications, creating a photo wall, finding space outside to reflect or take a break…these and other efforts can begin to “break down” the physical walls that may counter efforts to create a healthy culture in the organization.

Leadership is another area where core values play out. In the context of a family foundation, consider who is leading the institution and who are the other key leaders on staff. You may have a family member in charge, or have hired an outside staff person. How does she set the tone for a healthy culture that embraces the core values of the family and its founder? Does she make herself accessible and empower others to lead? Does this person embrace the family values and take the time needed to embed these in the organization?

If nurturing culture in your foundation is important, then hiring leaders who make time for this is critical. It’s not easy to make time with the day-to-day pace and workload, however, ignoring this may have negative results. Some leaders don’t possess the skills to tend to culture so look at professional development opportunities and even other leaders in the family who may provide ideas and inspiration.


Physical space and leadership are just two aspects of an organization that either reinforce values and support family culture or in some cases, work against it. Taking time to assess these details with humility and self-awareness enables families to minimize where there may be conflict between values as they are stated and values as they are expressed. The Clarification process can help in minimizing these areas of potential conflict and ultimately strengthen family culture.

Clarification helps identify and confirm who is part of your family’s culture and ensure their voices are heard as you further shape and nurture it. Just because a few key people have identified core values and aspects of the family culture, doesn’t mean that there will be universal alignment. It is critical to consider everyone’s lived experience in an effort to bring in multi-generational views. Surveys and one-on-one conversations can be efficient ways to include different perspectives as you clarify culture because the perception of the family values are often different between generations. Yet, what often happens from gathering these stories and insights is a real sense of clarity about what unifies people.

You will likely discover the common threads over generations that may have been inspired by the founder. Going through an open, transparent and equitable process around gathering these insights can ground families in who they are and how they connect. It can inspire new connections that weren’t apparent and even open people’s minds to shifts that may be needed. Remember to ask each person how they define a “healthy culture” and what ideas they might have to create an environment that embraces this. It’s not only about reflection, but about vision and innovation.

Being intentional about identifying and clarifying your family’s culture before you begin to build structures and rituals is a key phase in the “Family Culture Cycle” that should not be assumed or overlooked. You might even find that this process alone can begin to surface or reinforce connections among family and staff that lends itself well to future efforts.

Kelly Nowlin is the co-author of this Family Culture series. Kelly is a fifth generation family trustee of the Surdna Foundation — a 100-year-old family foundation — and is also the Founder and Principal of KDN Philanthropy Consulting, helping family foundations mark milestones, engage the next generation and realize both legacy and impact in their work. Click here for more info on Kelly.


Originally published at on June 14, 2017.

Originally published at