The John Templeton Foundation gave almost $115 million in 2018, and since its inception has granted $1.5 billion. It is known for investing in questions at the intersection of spiritual life and science. The foundation’s interest in big questions also extends to philanthropy. Its leaders have given extensive thought to issues of donor intent, how an institution should honor its founding principles, and the best ways of guiding a family foundation from generation to generation. Philanthropy discussed these important topics with sisters Heather Templeton Dill and Jennifer Templeton Simpson. Granddaughters of the late Sir John Templeton, Dill is currently president of the foundation he established, while Simpson chairs the board of trustees.
Philanthropy: You oversee three entities founded by Sir John Templeton: the John Templeton Foundation, the Templeton Religion Trust, and the Templeton World Charity Foundation. What do they do?
Dill: Our grandfather was known in his investing career for advocating diversification. He did the same thing with his philanthropy. He set up three different entities to diversify governance structure, location, size, and jurisdiction. But they all have the same mission.
The central funding area for all three organizations is what we call Science and the Big Questions. We fund researchers who are using scientific methods to better understand things like generosity, forgiveness, or even love. Can we improve the human condition if we know how to cultivate some of these virtues?
Our other funding areas include character development, individual freedom, and free markets. And we also administer the annual Templeton Prize, which honors someone who has made an exceptional contribution to spiritual life.
Philanthropy: What was your perception of the family’s charitable work as you were growing up?
Dill: As a child, I really didn’t grasp my grandfather’s primary mission. I could understand character development, because I could relate to that on a personal basis. I could also make sense of individual freedom and free markets, because our dad instilled a deep appreciation for the free-market system and individual freedom.
We were raised in an orthodox Christian home, with a real commitment to creeds and tradition. But our grandfather had a very expansive notion of God, and he saw truth and value in all religious traditions. It wasn’t until he had passed away, when I finally read all of his books, that I began to appreciate his vision.
Simpson: As a young person, my biggest perception about my grandfather, a man who had amassed great wealth through skill and diligence, was that he had decided to take his success and use it to benefit other people. The message of philanthropy was getting through to me at a young age loud and clear. I felt a real sense of pride and identity around that, about what it meant to be part of a family that took joy in giving money away.
Philanthropy: How did your parents talk to you about managing wealth?
Simpson: Our parents communicated most effectively by serving as role models. They both decided to become doctors in a teaching hospital, where we watched them sacrifice a lot of things, like sleep and leisure and sometimes their own health, in order to serve others.
Thrift was also a big thing in our family. Dad was an ardent coupon-clipper. Sometimes he would send me to the store with 20 items to buy but only $5 to buy them with. Material possessions were never something we used to identify ourselves as a family. It was understood that the way you would find your identity is through having good character and helping other people.
Philanthropy: What practical things can a family member do to prepare for involvement in philanthropy?
Dill: I took an accounting class in college and loved it. I wish I could have taken more to help in my role on the board of our family foundation. An MBA or law degree would also have been useful.
Simpson: Build healthy relationships with the family members you’ll do business with. Heather and I don’t often disagree, but one example of when we did was on a project related to the Templeton Prize. We took time to listen to one another with the desire to find consensus. Once we felt like we had heard each other fairly, it was much more comfortable to bring others into the conversation, because we were both ready to lose our argument. Have a governing body you can consult with, which we did. We are blessed with an outstanding board.
Philanthropy: Respectful interactions like that don’t happen at every family foundation.
Dill: Our grandfather was a student of family philanthropy, so he created a number of mechanisms to try to prevent some of the pitfalls he observed. He didn’t want the foundation to go astray from the donors’ intent. And he didn’t want family members to get into conflict.
Simpson: Before I took on this role, I wasn’t aware of the cautionary tales. I’ve since heard the many stories about families ripped apart in the process of running a big philanthropic entity like ours. The strength of our relationship is one of the ways that we’ve been able to be successful. I view that as part of our charitable mission, devoting ourselves to causes bigger than our individual interests. A good philanthropist needs to be humble.
Philanthropy: How did you come to appreciate the importance of donor intent?
Dill: I find a great sense of freedom in having our donor intent so clearly spelled out. The guardrails help us move a lot faster. After our grandfather passed away in 2008, Dad began to focus all of our attention on what grandfather would have funded. One of my father’s mantras was “Not mine, not ours, his.” He was beginning to hear people say, “We’re going to do this,” or, “With the money we have …” or “This is our idea.” He wanted to focus our thoughts on “What would John Templeton have wanted?” He institutionalized this, for instance by requiring a donor-intent statement for every proposal we fund.
Dad modeled stewardship. He always wanted to engage, and we would have vigorous discussions back and forth, quoting our grandfather, thinking of examples. That became an effective model for how to work with family members as we tried to carry out John Templeton’s mission.
Simpson: Our grandfather had a very detailed way of describing donor intent, with long governing documents. For some people, this can seem constricting, but I actually find a great sense of freedom in having our donor intent so clearly spelled out. I’m very different from my grandfather in my own philanthropic interests and the way I live my life, and the guardrails he put up help us move a lot faster, because we don’t waste time going sideways.
Dill: Mechanisms are very helpful. But it does come down to individuals working their hardest to make sure there is a commitment to the donor’s intent over the long term. Dad did that. And we’re trying our best to be that for future generations.