Not all traditions are formal practices or celebrations; some are customary ways of doing things that go unquestioned

Not all traditions are formal practices or celebrations; some are customary ways of doing things that go unquestioned

Often family members think and behave in certain ways because “that’s how it’s always been.” When families set up family foundations, they generally structure those foundations according to the same traditions. Foundations that do not have private offices, for example, often hold meetings in the home of the family elders (the traditional meeting place). Similarly, families with a tradition of vesting authority for business and investment decisions exclusively in the hands of the men in the family or the family elders generally set up a similar hierarchy in the foundation.

Traditions respected within the context of the home, however, may be challenged when carried over to the foundationing together under different circumstances and in a wholly different arena, family members who have been excluded from decision making may no longer be as willing to abide by the usual traditions when they become trustees. Sometimes, even the family leaders themselves recognize that a different management structure is needed for the foundation.


Family cultures vary greatly in their tolerance of differences. Some demand total allegiance to the values of the culture and regard any divergence from the norm as threatening to the well-being of the family. Some even go as far as to cut off all contact with family members who embrace different philosophies or styles of living.

When families of this cultural type set up foundations, they impose the same demand for conformity on trustees

Typically, little if any debate takes place, and new voices or perspectives on issues are discouraged. One trustee, the granddaughter of the founder of a large foundation in the South, tells of her experience of joining the board when she was well into middle age. Married at age nineteen to escape what she described as an oppressively proper family life, she lived on the West Coast until her divorce several years ago. Back in her hometown, she was eager to serve on the family board, seeing the foundation as a way to reintegrate into the community.

In her absence, the control of the board had passed from her grandmother, the founder, to her father, and then to her three brothers, who, for the past eight years, had followed the same “cookie-cutter” approach to broaden the foundation’s grantmaking. She began meeting with members of the community to learn more about the foundation’s funding areas and to explore new approaches that the board might take in supporting local groups. Excited by her findings, she recommended that some of these individuals be invited to speak to the board at its next meeting. The board turned down her suggestion.

“They reacted as if I were a traitor to the family,” she says. “They regard any changes from the way my grandmother and father did things as betrayal. It’s frustrating that they shut the door to new ideas because with the amount of money we give away each year, this foundation could be a real force for change in this town.”

Other families, like the Stranahans, go to great lengths to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. In 1956, Duane and Virginia Stranahan formed the Needmor Fund in Boulder, Colorado, with money earned from the family business, Champion Spark Plug, started by Duane’s father and uncle. The Stranahans are a large family (Duane and Virginia had six children who had sixteen children of their own), and their politics run the gamut from conservative to progressive. Despite their diversity, they place great value on inclusiveness.

“My grandfather is a quiet man who set an example of not imposing his views on others,” says Abby Stranahan, the current board chair. “He Santa Rosa CA escort reviews wants the family to work together, and he trusts them to make good decisions.”