Can You Hear Me Now? Reflections on Effective Communication from the Next-Gen Family Philanthropy Session

RG’s national organizer, Nicole Lewis, reflects on her experience at the Council on Foundation’s Next Generation Retreat. Reposted from the blog Re: Philanthropy.
Simply put, we all want to be heard. But, we don’t always know how best to communicate. During a session on the art of effective communication as part of The Council on Foundations Next Generation Retreat for Family Members it became clear that the Next-Gen, though seated in their place at the proverbial table, are struggling to be heard. Next Gen Retreat participants shared stories of philanthropic challenge and triumph. In some cases, explosive conversations grounded Next-Gen involvement for several years. In others, the Next-Gen was able to move important resolutions forward. In cases of communication-gone-wrong the common thread was unclear. Perhaps these young trustees were working with a particularly difficult family member? Maybe they had not presented their case well? Maybe this work is, well, just difficult? But, when I turned my sights towards the more successful conversations, I could hardly tease a common theme either. There was something I was missing. I mused on what the potential blocks may be. The answer did not come to me until later that evening.

In COF’s opening plenary, during a particularly endearing moment, Dr. Myers expressed his need to see his daughter, and treasurer of their family foundation, for the competent adult she is and not as the exuberant 6-year-old he so fondly remembers. Myer’s comment helped to illuminate what Next Gen family members are up against. Even though most young trustees sit shoulder to shoulder with their parents or grandparents as thoughtful young adults during foundation meetings, it may not be enough to shift their parents frame to the present and replace nostalgic memories of childhood with the seriousness and urgency of the now.
Leaving the opening plenary I began to wonder if training the Next-Gen in effective communication was enough. It seems a missing piece to the communication puzzle is untangling our familial relationships in order to help parents and grandparents shift the frame through which they view their children and their children’s participation in the family’s philanthropy. Perhaps the neutral eye of an outside party could to the trick. Good facilitators have a knack for serving as interpreters and a good interpreter can do wonders to move meetings forward, diffuse tense moments, and preserve important family relationships. Might this be the bridge needed?
I wonder: is good communication contingent upon great facilitation? How might the conversation shift when an outside party enters the picture? Or, should families be able to conduct business and communicate effectively without outside help?  Through my work with Resource Generation’s Creating Change Through Family Philanthropy Program, I am excited to get to the bottom of the communication quagmire.