Coming to the Work as Equals

By Paul Serini, The Helen J. Serini Foundation

When my wife and I set up our family foundation in 2012, we engaged my three children (then in their late teens and early 20s) in deciding whether a foundation was something we wanted to do as a family. We pressed the kids long and hard, even handed out questionnaires, wanting it to be a collective decision, a shared responsibility.

All three stepped to the plate. They made clear that they understood the responsibility and accepted the challenges. From there, we developed everything about the foundation in cooperation: the size and number of grants, voting rules, areas of focus. We designed our grantmaking approach to give back as much as possible, meaning we look for ways to partner beyond dollars. We think very carefully about strengthening the organizations we work with.

In time, say 10–15 years, I want to step back and have my children run the foundation. That means being conscious about ceding control and viewing all foundation members—regardless of age—as equals.

Sharing Control Peer to Peer

The biggest challenge we’ve encountered—and I have to believe this is the biggest challenge of any young organization—is sharing control as peers. On a small board composed of three kids, two parents, and a bunch of other 65-year-old adults, it’s something that requires a conscious effort in all interactions. But it’s worth it.

Language is really important in setting the tone for this kind of peer-to-peer interaction. I try hard not to refer to my children as my “kids” in any kind of formal meeting (while still recognizing that, at the end of the day, they are of course my kids). It’s tempting to fall back into old patterns of treating our kids (or grandkids) respectfully, but still as our kids, and that’s not necessarily affording everyone an equal voice as a peer or an equal in conversation.

It’s especially important to treat the “kids” as equals in meetings with other organizations: site visits, conferences, even the board room. Because my eldest daughter works for the foundation as program officer, she coordinates most of our site visits. I’m very often joining her meeting with someone else who happens to be of my generation, and when that person speaks to me, not her, it doesn’t play well with either of us.

This same mentality holds true with my children who are not staff; when they join a meeting on behalf of the foundation, they are there because of the insight, knowledge, and passion they bring to the work—not to follow in my footsteps or merely “see how it’s done.”

What I try to emphasize with others—and I don’t do a perfect job, but I try hard—is this: Everyone brings something of value. Just because I’m x years older doesn’t mean, in this forum, that my children don’t have ideas and thoughts and beliefs that they’re passionate about and that deserve a voice.

When it comes down to implementation, it’s something we need to be ever-conscious of. And it comes down to small things: For example, when we’re voting or talking about something, I put my youngest daughter first. Sometimes she’ll pass, but she always has the opportunity to go first. Little things like that are small steps toward giving up control and inviting voices into the conversation that might otherwise be sidelined, and my hope is that over time they build up into a transfer of ownership.

One of hardest things has been to share control over investments—socially responsible investments, impact investments. My generation struggled mightily with the concept of impact investing, but we were outvoted by the “kids.” Our votes don’t carry more weight just because of our age.

In the end, as we expected, a family foundation is easy to set up but hard to execute well. Ours is the glue that holds together our family’s efforts to give back, and we’re grateful for the opportunity to work together—even when it’s hard work—in ways we otherwise wouldn’t have.

The Helen J. Serini Foundation, based in Maryland, strives to rectify economic and social inequalities by providing financial support, advice, time, and resources to qualified charitable organizations that are focused on social outreach programs, education, health, and family & children’s issues. Wherever possible, the foundation aims to combine one or more of these areas for the benefit of its target population.

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