Succession a challenge for foundations

A job seeker (R) shakes hands with a recruiter for the Fremont Unified School District during a job fair at the Alameda County Office of Education on April 24, 2013 in Hayward, Calif.

KAI RYSSDAL: Charity, the saying goes, begins at home. Which is fine when you're talking about what most of us do. When it comes to more substantial charity, the kind you need a foundation for, the home part gets more difficult. Over the past couple of decades more and more wealthy American families have set up their own charitable foundations. And for many of them succession is proving to be a sticky issue. Alex Schmidt reports.


Alex Schmidt: For 20 years, Sydney and Audrey Irmas put millions of dollars into charities they cared about. Sydney died 11 years ago. Since then, his two sons and daughter, Deborah, have become involved in the family foundation, along with Audrey. Now four people have a say in where the money goes, rather than two.

Deborah Irmas says the family is finding it hard to agree on which causes to support. That means double the opinions and, Deborah Irmas says, double the disagreements.

DEBORAH IRMAS: I mean, we're in the process of dealing with succession. And it's a very tough question. There's a lot of pain involved with it, and I'm sure there are many other foundations that are going through the same thing.

There are. Ninety-five percent of the 70,000 foundations in the United States are small, unstaffed family operations. Tim Walter is CEO of the Association for Small Foundations. He says wealthy Americans became philanthropists in huge numbers in the 1980s. Now many of them are passing away or bringing the next generation onboard to help. And sparks are flying.

TIM WALTER: With this sort of new characteristic of having lots of living donors still involved with their foundations, you end up with sometimes a clash that may look like sort of a bad family vacation.

Who's going to drive the van on the family road trip isn't the only issue in succession planning. It's also deciding where to go and how to get there. Deborah Irmas is proud that her family's money has supported so many worthy causes over the years, from the arts to homelessness. But now she wants to be sure her family's foundation has clearly-defined goals. And that the money is being put to good use.

IRMAS: I can't really speak to anyone else's priorities. I mean, maybe you should ask them. I think water is a very important issue. That's an issue for me. As well as women's issues. ... I don't think that I could create board consensus in particular issues and having initiatives. I don't think I have that capability.

We did ask the other members of the Irmas family to talk, but they declined.

Foundations in their position often call on facilitators for help. The Irmas family hasn't done that yet. But as the number of foundations with succession issues has increased, business for philanthropic consultancies has boomed. The National Center for Family Philanthropy says almost every financial institution in the country now has an in-house adviser catering to foundations. And hundreds of independent consultancies have sprung up across America.

Lee Draper is president of Draper Consulting Group.

LEE DRAPER: A philanthropic consultant can help the family move as quickly as possible through learning to communicate and finding common ground so they can get to the good stuff. And what is the good stuff? That's really making an impact in issues that are important and to creating the family's philanthropy and long-term legacy.

Drape says the first step is to get the family together for a frank discussion. And, as Deborah Irmas knows, that one act is often the most difficult of all.

IRMAS: The only thing that I would say is that I'm told that this is a very common thing with family foundations, and that the best thing that you could do is talk. And I would just hope that my family could learn to talk.

In Los Angeles, I'm Alex Schmidt for Marketplace.

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