Family foundations are important institutions, making up a significant portion of the foundation universe and having both local and global impact. Yet we have no shared definition of this diverse and evolving category. Clarifying the definition will help challenge persistent misconceptions, get perspective on the diversity, and improve foundations’ understanding of their own family dimensions.
This article surveys the different definitions of family foundation that are, and have been, used by key organizations in the field and by researchers. It also reviews examples of the variations and complicating factors that make answering the title question difficult.
A single or simple definition of “family foundation” is infeasible and largely unhelpful to the field or to individual foundations. Instead, we offer a more inclusive definitional framework, using a list of “possible family dimensions of a foundation.” The list includes dimensions related to self-identification, the family’s influence and involvement, donor intent and legacy, and assets.
Individual foundations can use this framework to reflect on their particular mix of family dimensions, to discuss what these dimensions mean to them, and to be more intentional in utilizing their family dimensions to achieve their mission.
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