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Leadership House Call

Leading a Dysfunctional Family Foundation

The Question:

I'm a newly appointed executive director for a medium-sized family foundation, and I am having a hard time making meaningful changes to the foundation's antiquated programs. The family is content doing things the way they have always been done, but I know the non-profit sector is changing rapidly and that our money has the potential to achieve a lot more. Also, this family's personal issues take up a lot of energy at our board meetings and shape many of the foundation's major decisions.

I want to lead this foundation, but any changes I attempt to implement are bogged down by old patterns and the family dynamic. How can I help the family members make decisions in the best interest of the foundation, and not themselves? -- Enmeshed Executive Director

Dear Enmeshed Executive Director,

You are in the middle of it, for sure. Family foundations often become arenas for playing out deep-seated generational and political issues within the tribe.

But don't leap to the conclusion that the foundation is dysfunctional. Our colleague Jeff Lawrence quips that there is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization because every organization is perfectly aligned to get the result is it currently getting. Your employer family might prefer to have a less effective family foundation that embodies all those unresolved family issues, rather than go through the risk and pain of working out those issues around the dinner table or in a therapist's office.

The first question for you is: How well situated are you to resolve the challenges holding the foundation back? It's a tricky business. An otherwise deeply fractured group can unite in opposition to someone who is raising difficult issues they would prefer to leave unaddressed. Do you have a contract? How about a substantial severance package? Are there good alternatives if you should lose the job?

If you do feel secure enough, then you might structure a process to address these deeply rooted issues. But beware: Once you let the family genie out of the bottle, you will not be able to control the outcome. The results may not be to your liking, either personally or in terms of the direction of the foundation.

A safer alternative might be to use your arrival -- a new beginning -- as an excuse to get some "objective" outside help on the family issues that seem to be constraining the organization's effectiveness. And, by the way, you need to treat your interpretation of things as just that -- an interpretation, not a fact.

There are lots of firms that specialize in advising family foundations and helping them work through issues that are affecting their family philanthropy. This type of consulting practice was more or less invented by our friend Peter Karoff, who started TPI, The Philanthropic Initiative, in Boston in 1989. He was trying to establish his own family foundation, and he couldn't find anyone whose business it was to help people think through these type of problems.

When and how you take initiative on this issue depends on your own formal and informal authority. The more solid your situation, the more quickly you can move. But if you are not a known commodity to the family, and you have not been specifically charged with dredging up these tough issues, then you probably need to address some low-hanging fruit before you take on, or even suggest that you hire an outside firm to take on, the challenge of these deeper issues that undermine the foundation's goals.

[Send your questions to leadership@washingtonpost.com or leave them in the comments section below.]

By Cambridge Leadership Associates

 |  August 24, 2009; 1:07 PM ET |  Category:  Change management Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg     Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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My situation couldn't be much less solid. I can move fast.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 26, 2009 12:17 PM

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