November 6, 2012

Wealthy Donors Increasingly Manage Giving Through Family Offices: Study

The family office offers both benefits and challenges to philanthropists

A growing number of philanthropic families are looking to family offices to manage their charitable giving, according to a new study released by the National Center for Family Philanthropy.

Families are leveraging the strengths of philanthropy and the family office for greater effect in the community and more satisfaction for themselves, the report found. It also noted that both benefits and challenges attend use of the family office structure.

Family Office Exchange, a partner in the study that was sponsored by Threshold Group, has estimated that some 5,000 single-family offices operate in the U.S., and a large percentage support philanthropic activity.

Researchers surveyed family offices with charitable foundations and conducted personal interviews with some of them.

The report identified several distinct advantages for enhancing a family’s philanthropy through a family office structure:

  • Integration of functions and services
  • Economies of scale, particularly when the family office supports multiple giving vehicles or foundations
  • Efficiency for family members and external vendors
  • Expanded capacity for mission-related investments by the foundation
  • Alignment of the family’s shared values as they relate to governance, financial and investment management, and family leadership development.

“We found that managing philanthropy through the family office can be a very effective approach for families, particularly if there are multiple branches to the family and if they are using a number of charitable vehicles,” Virginia Esposito, president of the National Center, said in a statement.

The study also found that both family office leaders and foundation staff members highly valued next-generation education, though neither side spent much time in this area. The National Center recommended that both the philanthropic sector and family offices invest more focus and resources in educating and training the next generation for leadership.

Respondents also reported challenges associated with managing philanthropy through a family office structure:

  • Different cultures of business and philanthropy that can cause miscommunication and misunderstandings
  • Varying measures of success and different terminology that can lead to tension
  • Them/us mentality resulting from competing interests and priorities, and lack of respect for charitable goals and endeavors
  • Competition for the attention and resources of family members
  • Complicated and counterintuitive IRS restrictions on interactions.

“To get it right, families must pay careful attention to structure and governance, to understanding the goals and values of the family, and to effective communications,” Esposito said.

One finding surprised researchers: the extent to which family office staffers were involved in the family’s philanthropic activity. The majority of respondents said the family office was involved in helping the foundation find a strategic focus, leverage the impact of its giving and measure the effectiveness of its grants.

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