Staying the Course across Generations

How donor intent became family intent

More than half a century ago, my great-grandparents, John J. and Helena S. Raskob, established the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities. In so doing, they made clear two intentions: The foundation would exist to aid the Catholic church and its activities worldwide, and their children and descendants would be the stewards of the foundation’s resources.

Now in its 54th year, the foundation remains very much a family affair, with members of the fourth generation in leadership positions. The foundation currently comprises over a hundred “members”—all direct descendants of the founders—serving as trustees as well as in other positions. The foundation last year approved over $6 million in funding for 350 applicants worldwide.

The foundation has an administrative staff, but family members are responsible for reviewing every application, for conducting site visits and telephone interviews, and for determining which applications are most deserving of support. There are grant cycles each spring and fall, and members meet three to five times a year to determine funding priorities, set policies, and approve the final allocation of resources. The family members engaged in this work span three generations, range in age from 18 to 89, and reside in 26 states across the country and abroad. Family members volunteer their time without financial compensation.

Nearly half of the foundation’s members are of my generation, the fourth. As young adults, we are actively engaged in the work of the foundation, despite in many cases raising small children and managing careers. Although the work is demanding on our time, we understand this opportunity of service to be a privilege.

Getting Engaged

To be sure, the Raskob Foundation has its challenges, some of which, should you ask any of my cousins, are perennial. One thing that is not a problem is engaging the interest of the next generation. Ironically, our problem is how to manage the exponential explosion of membership—sheer eligibility looms as a future structural and administrative challenge. The founders began with 13 children, one of whom (my grandmother) had 14 children. Historically, the foundation has done an exceptionally good job of engaging and maintaining the interest of large numbers of each succeeding generation, all the while remaining faithful to the original charter and purpose of the founders.

There are at least five reasons why the transition from generation to generation has gone as smoothly as it has for the Raskob Foundation, chief among them the formal invitation each descendant of the founders receives to become a member of the foundation upon his or her 18th birthday. Many accept the invitation when first issued, but those who don’t are given the option of signing up later on, or taking a less active role in the foundation. Switching back to active membership is easily done when the member has more time to commit to the work such membership requires.

Second, there is a formal training process for new members. It consists of a three-year apprenticeship with a gradual increase in responsibility. The apprentice member is paired with an older cousin or parent, and the two are assigned applications to review jointly. Apprentices rely on their mentors to answer their questions and guide them through the responsibilities and obligations of membership. Additionally, all new members are required to attend a weekend-long training program during which a complete overview of the foundation’s operations is provided. Trainers make use of comprehensive handbooks designed by senior members of the foundation.

Third, members of older generations encourage younger members to assume positions of leadership at an early age. By the time I was 30, I had already had the opportunity to serve as a trustee of the foundation for six years. Trustees are elected from and by the membership-at-large, and younger members are encouraged to chair committees, participate in policy discussions, and initiate new programs. Younger members are also invited to represent the foundation at conferences such as those of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (better known by its acronym, FADICA).

Fourth, we try to strike a balance between attending to the foundation’s internal administrative structure and fostering an outward focus—on mission and applicants—to ensure that the experience is rewarding. My generation has benefited inordinately from the time and attention my father’s generation gave to fine-tuning the process of reviewing and allocating grants. The foundation is also fortunate to have an extraordinary administrative staff, which manages the flow of documents and organizes meetings with uncommon skill. My generation is thus left to employ the process wisely and to focus our time and energy outward—on our mission, on the needs facing the Church, and on our potential to make a difference in the lives of others.

Getting to Know Your Great-Grandparents

Generational transition is challenging in all family enterprises, and an added concern in the case of philanthropy is the preservation of donor intent. The expressed wish of the founders was to limit grantmaking to the activities of the Catholic church, realizing that within that world almost limitless choices are available in the realms of education, health care, social service, disaster relief, peace and justice, community and economic development, culture, the arts, and research, as well as explicitly religious activities. Indeed the Catholic church is the largest nonprofit provider of health, education, and welfare services in the United States. It doesn’t take long for a member of the Raskob Foundation to appreciate this fact and its vast implications for our giving.

How has this loyalty to donor intent been preserved through the generations of the Raskob family, especially when one considers the age at which members typically join the foundation? I think the answer lies precisely in the fact that membership starts in early adulthood. The exposure to both the world of philanthropy and to the Catholic church, locally, nationally, and internationally, is captivating. It broadens a young adult’s horizons. It exposes a young adult to worlds unimagined and challenges preconceptions.

The privilege of membership, quickly appreciated by younger family members, lies in the opportunity to be of service to others as a family. Involvement in the foundation’s work affords an intimacy between extended relatives; I have become very close to my second cousins. It also sustains a family legacy; the family is united in a form of service that is imbued with Catholic spirituality. Membership also passes down a knowledge of one’s forebears; my great-grandparents were not alive when I was born, yet I know a good deal about them. And finally, service through the foundation provides a comprehensive education in the nonprofit sector, where many of us (myself included) have made careers.

Hands off Those Bylaws

Several years ago while participating in a fellowship program at Yale University’s Program on Nonprofit Organizations (known as PONPO), I conducted a series of interviews involving members of the Raskob Foundation. One of the questions I asked participants was: “Would you be in favor of changing the bylaws to permit the funding of non-Catholic organizations?” The unanimous answer was to leave the bylaws as they stood and continue to restrict funding to Catholic organizations.

Probing the motivation behind this response, I found two shared beliefs. It was extremely important to the members of the foundation that the family remain faithful to the founders’ wishes. There was a common belief that the purpose was important and valuable and, in the opinion of some, already quite broad enough. Also, during the course of the interviews, many members went so far as to volunteer that they would likely have a much poorer faith life without their exposure to the Catholic church through the foundation. Some suggested that they would have had little or no relationship with the Catholic church at all were it not for the conversion-like experience of being of service to the Church, as a family, through the instrument of the foundation.

Being an active member of the foundation necessarily brings one into direct contact with the inspiring work and spiritual witness of the applicants, whose lives, in most cases, are well lived and generously devoted to the good of others in loving and faith-filled ways. It is deeply compelling to observe such holy people and to contribute in some modest way to the advancement of their work. This evangelization of family members—especially the younger ones—is perhaps the most startling byproduct of the family’s involvement in the work of the foundation.

All is not sweetness and light. It never is. Our internal deliberations are witness to disagreements, misunderstandings, and differences of opinion and interpretation. We make mistakes. But there are also moments of exquisite clarity, when together we recognize how blessed our family is. One abiding tension is whether to make decisions by consensus, which is inefficient and time-consuming but inclusive, or by majority vote, which is efficient and quick, but potentially divisive. For the sake of family unity we opt for consensus, but only when possible, realizing that the needs of the applicants must be served ahead of our own.

Through the prescience and generosity of John and Helena Raskob, we, their descendants, enjoy the privilege of philanthropic service, an experience that has strengthened us both as individuals and as a family. Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t precisely what my great-grandparents had hoped for all along.

Kerry A. Robinson has served for six years as a trustee of the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities in Wilmington, Delaware. She is currently director of development for Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel & Center at Yale University.

This article was the cover story in the September / October 1999 issue of Philanthropy magazine.

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