Lessons Learned from Two Decades in Philanthropy

Today I am celebrating my 20th anniversary working at Hemenway & Barnes. Twenty years is a long time. Technology has changed our world in so many ways – email, Windows, and the Internet were all relatively new business tools in 1999. I got my first cell phone that year, when the iPhone was merely a glimmer in Steve Jobs’s eye. The physical landscape of Boston has changed dramatically too – the Big Dig, the creation of the Greenway, downtown and neighborhood development, an activated waterfront, significant historic preservation, a clean(er) Charles River, and so much more. The diversity of voices at the philanthropic table, from age, race, and ethnicity to geographic and socio-economic status, have grown as well, with so much more ground to cover.

The field of philanthropy, too, has evolved. Charitable giving has grown exponentially in the last 20 years. The past two decades saw the dramatic expansion of a wide variety of charitable giving vehicles, giving rise to the expansion of community foundations, giving circles, donor advised funds, social enterprises, and so much more. The broad fields of socially responsible investing grew exponentially during this time period as well, with foundations in particular examining how to mobilize their endowments for social good. I won’t try to recreate a comprehensive look back (for that visit the SSIR blogs by Lucy Bernholz at https://ssir.org/articles/entry/ten_for_ten_philanthropy_from_2010-2020#

I’ve had the unique opportunity to oversee thousands of acts of generosity on behalf of our clients – individuals, families, foundations, charitable trusts – gifts of every shape and size, focused on a host of issues near and dear to them. These were not always charitable gifts, as many donors use the full set of tools available to them, including political giving, starting a business, or investing in companies or products which match and align to their values and philanthropic interests. Professional networks have grown and flourished, promoting research into trends and best practices in the sector, issues of importance in our communities, along with books, blogs, TedTalks, Twitter – all tools to help donors be the best givers they can be. Many of you reading this remember when you kept hard copies of annual reports in your files, before Guidestar’s dramatic expansion and wide use (now a day doesn’t go by that I don’t look something up on Guidestar).

But don’t worry, this blog isn’t going to be a lament of a bygone era. Instead, I wanted to share some of the top lessons I have learned as a philanthropic advisor and program officer for various philanthropies.

  1. Donor intent matters – starting with what you want to accomplish, what good you want to see in the world, matters just as much as it did 20 years ago. Nonprofits use this as their starting point – in fact the IRS won’t approve your application to become a nonprofit unless you can prove your “charitable purpose.” Every donor should start their giving from that launching point.
  2. The best philanthropic partnerships are those of equals, where donors and nonprofits listen to one another, bring complementary skills to the table, and work together to achieve shared goals. Donor intent without a willing and able nonprofit partner has no outlet. While the power between donors and the organizations they seek to fund can sometimes become imbalanced good partnerships acknowledge the goals, strengths, and limitations of each partner involved. Collaboration, both between donors and nonprofits and among donors, often helps all parties come together with complementary skills and strengths.
  3. Partners in the donor/nonprofit relationship need to be honest brokers, not sales people. I start almost every meeting with a potential grantee with “Tell me what you are working on” and end most meetings with “Is there anything you wanted to discuss that I haven’t thought to ask?” Similarly, when I work with donors, I ask about the issues that matter to them, but I also encourage them to be open minded and willing to entertain a plan that is not necessarily the one with which they began their giving. We are not buying and selling widgets, we are working together to improve our communities and those in it. Don’t treat the relationship like a sales pitch or a transaction.
  4. Above all, humility matters. No one of us has all the answers, and if these were easy problems to solve, our work here would be done. Approach every interaction mindful of what you can learn, and from whom you can learn it. Sometimes this involves listening more than talking or jumping to a quick-fix.

Having done the look back, I believe the horizon is bright on the road ahead. Philanthropy and giving are expanding in new and exciting ways, acknowledging the flaws of the past, working as a sector to make itself stronger, more accountable, and more inclusive of diverse voices that will matter long into the decades to come. We are ready to face the challenges ahead.

Additional Resources

Philanthropic Advisory Services
The Rosalie Thorne McKenna Foundation Case Study

About the Author

Gioia PeruginiGioia Perugini is Associate Director, Family Office and Philanthropy Services at Hemenway & Barnes. She works with individuals, families, advisors, charitable trusts and foundations to provide a range of philanthropic and client services. Read Gioia’s full biography.

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Antiquities, Lasagna, and Preserving a Family Legacy

I spend much of my professional life working directly with families to preserve the past, yet build on top of it. While it sounds lofty, it really involves listening to families about what was important in their shared history, helping them translate that to what it means for their values today, and putting in place plans to transmit that history and those values to subsequent generations. It’s a process that, if done well, repeats itself. The next generation then takes what they can from their ancestors and makes it their own. And so on.

I had a chance to see this in full force during a family vacation to Italy this summer. The purpose of the trip was two-fold: to explore the country’s cultural and Philanthropy Blog Antiquities, lasagna, and preserving a family legacyarchitectural delights, and to trace some of my own family history. My long-ago art history studies meant that our museum visits read like an Art History 101 textbook: the Palazzo Publico in Siena to see the 14th Century Ambrogio Lorenzetti murals and Simon Martini frescoes; the Vatican Museums to see the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms; the Coliseum and the Roman Forum; the Borghese Gallery to see the magnificent Baroque Bernini sculptures. As is sometimes the case during these excursions, I had several “ah-hah” moments along the way that I can bring back to my daily work.

The first came thanks to an amazing Roman tour guide at the Forum. She described what she called the “lasagna” of preservation efforts in Italy. Archeologists in the 19th and early 20th century who worked on the excavation of the Forum chose to preserve the medieval churches that were built on top of Roman ruins. Rather than just tear down one or the other, they kept both in place, so that modern visitors can see exactly how the site was used over time, how the needs of the community evolved, and how the prevailing political and cultural values dictated the use of public spaces. Preserving the past, and building on top of it.

Philanthropy Blog Antiquities, lasagna, and preserving a family legacy 2The second ah-hah moment came when I visited the town where my grandfather was born. He left there in 1922, part of a massive wave of early to mid-20th century immigration. I found a town nestled in the hills of the northeast Campania region that likely looked much as it did 600 years ago when the town was founded. Its buildings have stood the test of time and its residents are proud of its heritage. The central piazza came alive at night with a multi-generational mix of residents making use of its public spaces. Many of those same values came with the wave of immigrants who left for my hometown in the US, which is now its sister city. I met the current generation of the town’s leadership, who are working to make a strong community for its residents and also attract tourism and cultural vibrancy. The evening of our stay, the local youth group hosted a Battle of the Bands of sorts, with food and music emanating from the town square all night long. They are preserving the past, and building on top of it.

Your Family Recipe

So what does this mean for families and family foundations? Incorporating these ingredients can help you to make your own family “lasagna.”

  • Sometimes you have to go back to your roots so you can understand your past. This helps ground you in what’s important, and what is lasting from past generations.
  • Then you can decide what to pull forward, what you leave in place for future generations to understand and learn from, and what is ok to leave behind.
  • Once you have a blend of your past and present, you can apply it to your current goals and passions. Sometimes the layers of the “lasagna” matter, and seeing them laid out in front of you can inspire you to create new things from the foundations of the past.

We hope your summer travels have given you time with family and loved ones, a bit of time for reflection, and inspiration to launch into the fall and year-end giving season.

Additional Resources

About the Author

Gioia PeruginiGioia Perugini is Associate Director, Family Office and Philanthropy Services at Hemenway & Barnes. She works with individuals, families, advisors, charitable trusts and foundations to provide a range of philanthropic and client services. Read Gioia’s full biography.


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The Smithsonian, Ralph Lauren and a Lesson in Philanthropy

This past weekend, I traveled to Washington, DC for a family event. We had a half-day free before we flew back to Boston, and decided to do some sightseeing along the National Mall. At my daughter’s request, we went to the National Museum of American History. I explained in the car ride downtown that the Smithsonian Museums were all free, in part due to government support because of their role as a repository of our nation’s historical and cultural treasures. Given what I do, I also went into a detailed explanation about the role of private philanthropy – from “Friends” groups to individual, foundation, and corporate sponsorships – in subsidizing the insufficient (and some might argue inadequate) government funding for the exhibition, interpretation, and conservation of our nation’s cultural treasures. (My family is used to these monologues).

The Smithsonian was founded through the bequest of a British scientist who died in 1829. His will stipulated that, should his nephew and heir die without heirs, his estate would go to the United States to found “at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” In 1836, Congress accepted the gift, then the equivalent of $515,169, and established the Smithsonian in 1846. The total number of objects in the collection is estimated at nearly 155 million, and its museums hosted nearly 29 million visitors in 2018. Yet its federal funding is only 62% of its annual $1 billion budget. (source si.edu)

On the flight down, I had just finished reading Phil Buchanan’s Giving Done Right. Walking into the Museum of American History, there could not have been a more fitting example of his central thesis: that philanthropy, however flawed and challenged, is a critical component of our nation’s social, cultural, and educational fabric. Phil writes “In the United States, giving has done more good than even many givers realize, and though many challenges remain, it has contributed to much of what makes this a great country….Giving has made a huge difference in all of our lives.”

Our first stop inside the Museum was the gallery housing the original “Star Spangled Banner.” It is one of the most treasured artifacts in the Stars and StripesSmithsonian’s collection. It owes its conservation and restoration to a generous public/private partnership, with lead gifts from the Ralph Lauren/Polo Corporation, coupled with the dozens of donors listed on the plaque on the way out of the exhibit. The Star Spangled Banner was literally playing in the background as I read the plaque that explained what that funding was able to do for this important piece of American history. Without private funding, would they only have conserved 9 of the 15 stars on the flag? Or only been able to stop 62% of the deterioration?

As we walked through the galleries displaying countless American artifacts (from native communities, immigrant neighborhoods, and every day people) that explain our complex American history, I couldn’t help but think of the archivists, historians, preservationists, and educators whose work allowed us to breeze in and out of exhibits and reinforce what my 6th and 9th graders learn in their American history classes. Private philanthropy from generous individual, corporate, and foundation donors has enabled detailed analysis, interpretation, and preservation efforts, at the Smithsonian and in thousands of institutions nationally. The public viewing those exhibits – from all parts of the country and the world, based on the voices I heard – likely wasn’t reflecting on the complexities of private foundations, donor advised funds, or charitable trusts. Yet charitable gifts are as much a part of the American legacy as the artifacts on display, and allow us to connect to our past and chart a course for our future in tremendously important ways.

Additional Resources:

About the Author:

Gioia PeruginiGioia Perugini is Associate Director, Family Office and Philanthropy Services at Hemenway & Barnes. She works with individuals, families, advisors, charitable trusts and foundations to provide a range of philanthropic and client services. Read Gioia’s full biography.

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