SoCal Grantmakers is proud to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of our Family Foundation Information Exchange (FFIX) groups! For over a decade, SCG has provided family foundation members with peer learning communities to provide ongoing support, foster honest conversations, and exchange the best grantmaking practices. From the beginning, Jan Kern, SCG’s Senior Philanthropy Advisor, has led and designed the FFIX groups. Today, Jan coordinates six FFIX cohorts with participants representing SCG’s diverse family philanthropy community.
To commemorate fifteen years of FFIX, Jan has penned a reflection on her experience leading one of the longest-running family groups in philanthropy and what is needed to create a safe and generative learning community for grantmakers.
A foundation’s legacy is often shaped by grantmakers who leverage their skills and values to take bold risks that don’t always have immediate or positive outcomes. But becoming a strategic and effective philanthropist doesn’t happen overnight, especially in family foundations that tend to be smaller in size and capacity. Family foundation leaders often feel isolated in their challenges and have trouble accessing the resources they need for their professional development.
So, where do family foundation members learn to be impactful philanthropists and turn their good intentions into action? Where can they go to become life-long learners on this exceptional journey known as philanthropy?
As a Philanthropy Serving Organization (PSO), SoCal Grantmakers has been committed to the sector since 1973, with a particular interest and focus on supporting family philanthropists from the beginning. One of SCG’s most successful models of family foundation engagement has been the Family Foundation Information Exchange (FFIX) peer learning groups. The first FFIX group launched 15 years ago and, to this day, maintains a solid core of “founding” members who regularly meet for thought-provoking conversations, problem-solving, and ongoing peer support. The relationships developed in this FFIX group and all subsequent cohorts have left an indelible mark in the SCG community.
The past fifteen years have taught our FFIX members and me many lessons on what it takes to sustain a generative and supportive funder learning environment. I want to elevate those learnings alongside the dynamics and achievements I am proud to have seen develop.
Establishing the Right Peer Model
The size of the FFIX group is critical to its success. We have found that the ideal number of participants is between ten and twelve, making the group intimate enough for everyone to engage while also allowing for a diversity of viewpoints. Because building a trusting rapport is vital to the success of these communities, members are not allowed to transfer into other FFIX groups. When members occasionally cycle off, the group can invite others to “test drive” the group. However, we have found that designating a specific timeframe for enrollment does away with unintended interruptions and keeps the group intact.
Having the FFIX groups establish how often they wanted or needed to see their community was also important. Before the pandemic, FFIX meetings were scheduled every other month (five times a year), with a pause over the summer. We hosted the meetings in person, and the location was the same for the entire calendar year. During the pandemic, FFIX members felt more isolated and requested virtual monthly meetings. Moving forward, each of the six cohorts will decide where and how often they will meet in 2022.
Setting the Right Agenda
At the core of an FFIX group is the firm belief that members drive the direction of the conversation. The learning groups have a standard structure that has changed very little over the years. We’ve divided the ninety-minute meeting agenda into two sections: the first half focuses on member sharing, and the second half explores timely and relevant issues for the group or the sector. The agenda always remains flexible to allow the group to allocate their time as needed.
The time devoted to member updates allows everyone an opportunity to share their successes, admit their frustrations and ask for advice. While this portion of the meeting is informal information sharing, it has led to some highly beneficial outcomes. Past issue deep-dive discussions have included: impact investing, succession planning, engaging the next-gen, shifting power, demystifying transparency, and more. All articles and pertinent information are sent to the groups before the meeting to help frame the conversation, and we often invite content experts to share their knowledge.
Fostering a Safe Community
“Whatever the issue I am sharing, I know that it will be relevant and understood by my colleagues and vice versa. I can always rely on the group to offer experienced and empathic feedback. We rarely hold back spontaneous laughter, anxieties, frustration, and honest conversation.”
FFIX provides a safe place where participants can have open and honest discussions about every aspect of family philanthropy, including internal operations, management issues, and family dynamics. The trusting environment is established over time but is promoted by maintaining a consistent group membership and reinforcing the importance of confidentiality. What members say in the room stays in the room. After each meeting, I share summary notes of the conversation and critical resources with participants. It is important to note that all of these discussions and notes are always confidential to maintain the privacy and openness of the group. The group’s facilitator helps guide the conversation, ensures that all participate, provides resources, and reinforces confidentiality. Members know they can always trust their FFIX group for support and guidance.
“We have shared many milestones together: families have welcomed new members and said farewell to many; succession torches have been passed; the markets have gone up and down; and, recently, we have all tried to adapt to a once a century pandemic.”
FFIX groups have become a network of support and, at the same time, have expanded the work and impact of family philanthropy in our community. I have seen our FFIX groups exemplify what a philanthropic peer community can and should be. Our members often vet consultants, serve as a referral for a grantee, participate in collaborative funding efforts, learn about new areas of funding, join hands-on outreach efforts, and do so much more. Our FFIX members have shared a few examples of how the groups have improved their grantmaking practices:
Enhanced efficiency: Often, FFIX members learn about a grantee they may want to support from a peer group member. Not only does this reduce the time needed researching potential grantees, but it also lessens the due diligence required since a trusted colleague has already vetted the organization or project.
Maximized investments: A funder’s single investment can often grow exponentially when other family philanthropists coordinate efforts and help fund the same grantee or initiative.
Promoted collaboration: Several FFIX members have joined together to fund a project due to the level of trust and communication established in the group.
Adapting to Meet the Moment
“We’ve all gone through so many transitions in our lives and trajectory as grantmakers, where we’ve needed to reexamine and redefine so many areas. Today, we are all looking at funding with an equity lens.”
The past year has highlighted many of family philanthropy’s strengths, such as its ability to respond quickly to requests, simplify proposal and reporting procedures, and provide multi-year, unrestricted funding. Conversely, the past year has also elevated the historic gaps in family philanthropy’s grantmaking, specifically in funding racial equity and BIPOC-led organizations. Racial equity has infused many FFIX conversations this past year, and it is clear that the journey ahead will be long, uncomfortable, and demanding.
In response to the complex issue of racial equity, several FFIX members created an additional learning cohort, Funding with an Equity Lens Learning Group. This group takes a deeper dive into individual and foundation actions that address systemic racism while challenging members to consider creative funding strategies and inclusive community participation. This group is an example of how FFIX members continue to adapt alongside our social and political landscape to evolve their grantmaking practice and advance racial justice.
“We’ve all realized that this journey is just that — a journey where we can explore, question, and innovate with all of the issues facing our community. Continuously reframing and reexamining our works helps us become more effective grantmakers. This is a lifelong learning process.”
Family philanthropy has arrived at a critical moment of transition. However, family philanthropy continues to inspire me every day with its openness to change. As younger generations step into active leadership roles and bring new energy and creativity, I have seen foundation boards change. I’ve listened to Next-Gen family members articulate bolder visions for what family giving can be while also holding on to their core family values. And I’ve witnessed so many family philanthropists acknowledge that racial justice is a continuous and daily practice that can no longer be brushed to the side with a simple “we are already doing it.”
Family philanthropy is adapting and evolving. In Southern California, I am proud of how our FFIX groups have profoundly influenced the local philanthropic community in the last fifteen years. FFIX represents what is possible when grantmakers come together for open, honest, and meaningful collaboration. I do not doubt that our FFIX community will continue to transform family foundations and serve as a model for philanthropy.