Philanthropic Planning in the Land of Giants

An Interview with Jamie Weiner of the family consulting firm Inheriting Wisdom



It is commonly believed that collaborating on charitable giving can be a catalyst for cohesion in high-net-worth families. It can also be a flashpoint for conflict. While financial advisors are becoming more accustomed to helping their wealthy clients with philanthropic planning, they may not be fully ready for the family dynamics that may flare around differing priorities and values. That’s why I asked Dr. Jamie Weiner - co-founder of the family consulting firm Inheriting Wisdom along with his wife, Dr. Carolyn Friend – to share his thoughts on how advisors can help affluent families use philanthropy to increase performance and sustain wealth without sparking undue conflict. Jamie and Carolyn are expert in working in what they call the “Land of Giants” – the personal, professional, and societal realms of great achievers who have amassed great fortunes and who cast giant shadows for their successors. Jamie’s current work is aimed at increasing understanding and empathy for the rising generation in affluent families as they seek to individuate and use philanthropy as one tool to make their own personal impact.

Here’s what Jamie Weiner had to say:

Some say that philanthropy is a wonderful tool to help families unite and work well together again – so, some see family unity as an outcome of philanthropy. I view it the other way around. For families that work well together, philanthropy is a wonderful outcome.

If families have not collaborated well in the past, it’s a challenge to believe that they're suddenly going to communicate well now just because they are operating in the theoretically neutral territory of philanthropy. If there are problems, they usually started long before anybody was considering a charitable foundation. It wasn't like they created a philanthropic foundation and that’s when a new ghost appeared. These are old ghosts.

We were called in once about two years ago to work with a family that was able to give away money, but they couldn't meet without being in conflict. What a beautiful and terrible situation to be in. It was at its worst when it came to a conversation about passing on the foundation to the next generation. They couldn't find a pathway forward. The founding generation of the family had a very clear focus about where they wanted to give money. And the charitable interests of the younger generations were very different. To state the obvious, getting productive conversations going given those family dynamics is a challenge. The answer isn't in either extreme but in how you are able to negotiate and compromise using empathy.

Around four and a half years ago, it occurred to me that nobody had stopped to ask rising gen family members a simple question: “What is it like to grow up in the land giants?” That research led us to write a new book being published by Wiley in July 2022: “The Quest for Legitimacy: How Children of Prominent Families Discover Their Unique Place in the World.” I've used stories from interviews with over 20 rising gen members to describe the journey they take to carve out their own identities.

There are two characteristics that instigate the journey. One is the “breaking moment”. Those are times of shock or awakening. The other characteristic is that those breaking moments lead to periods of what I call liminality. Liminality is feeling betwixt and between. It's the feeling that you're in the middle of a struggle. We're mistakenly convinced that the ideal is to not struggle. But a lot of good things come out of breaking moments that lead to periods of liminality.

One example is when a child is fired by his father via email. That happened to one of our interviewees and, boy, did he turn his life around after that. First, though, he stopped talking to his dad for several years. After struggling, he found his way on his own back to his family. And now he is both philanthropically and professionally active and in a leading role in the community beyond his family.

Our research uncovered four distinctive phases along the journey. It starts with a period of awareness, leads to a time where you're still connected to your family but more open to learning different things from the outside world and start to step out of the shadow. That turns into a period of exploration, followed by a period of taking ownership of your life. Becoming self-aware enables rising generations to grow and define themselves, outside of the shadow. Then there is the opportunity for reintegration – where, by aligning their values to their actions, they reconnect with the family as an adult. And all of that is done in context of growing up in the shadow cast by giants. Whether or not we're from a prominent family, we all experience these phases to some degree. But when you have that family prominence, the shadow is like a heavy blanket. It can take much more effort to break away and find your own path.

With family philanthropy, the starting point is that, often, rising gen family members have a strong desire to give back to the world and to have an impact. For advisors, it is important to understand just how big the shadow is under which rising gen family are raised and their need to have their own quest to figure out who they are. That empathic awareness may change the way an advisor engages.

It seems so simple, but that's really what it is. Many advisors just aren't equipped to understand that families of wealth or prominence are actually humans not giants. They have issues to deal with, too, just like you and me.

Charitable Planning Takeaway: Advisors are increasingly asked by their wealthy clients about charitable giving. It’s a request filled with positive opportunity and, at the same time, fraught with difficulty. To be effective, it is essential to assess the nuanced dynamics of each family and to bring empathic understanding to each family member. An empathic advisor understands clients more holistically and are better able to establish they trust.