THE IMPORTANCE OF

LEARNING TOGETHER

AS A FAMILY

by Katherine Lorenz

All families fight. All families have differences of opinions. But not all families have to work together. While all families have disagreements around the dinner table, not all families have to come together around a board room table to make joint decisions on critical issues.

 

Families that do business, invest, or do philanthropy together must come together, time and again, to make joint decisions. And the stakes are high. There are more opportunities for disagreements, and the results of these disagreements can have lasting impact on the family’s ability to continue working together.

 

One of the most important traditions our family began was the regular coming together to learn before we are required to make big decisions. It all began when our family foundation first started funding a program area in which we all had to agree on a topic and strategy. We had a simple majority vote to decide on the topic area, but agreement on the strategy was a little more complicated.

 

In order to make educated decisions, we spent two long weekends exploring key questions. What are the key challenges that need to be addressed? Where are the gaps in funding? Where are we uniquely positioned to have an outsized impact? Who are the other players in the field with whom we should work? Although we were afraid we would never be able to come to a clear conclusion with consensus, to our surprise, after such a deep learning experience, we all agreed on a singular path forward.

 

Given the success of that first family learning experience, we began to incorporate a learning component into all board meetings, particularly when there is a key decision to be made. It has helped our family enormously in the following ways:

Inspiration for younger generations

One of the greatest parts about learning together as a family is how the younger generations become inspired and excited about issues from an early age—and sometimes even shift the trajectory of their careers. For example, we gather annually as a foundation to learn about the key issues we fund, primarily sustainability. Two cousins were so inspired by what they learned that they began taking classes focused on sustainability issues, and one even changed his major. Many of these younger cousins did not have an opportunity to know my grandparents very well before they passed away, so it is particularly moving to see how their values and legacy are passed down through these learning sessions, inspiring the next generation.

Passing down values 

Given that much of the learning our family does together is about the foundation, it is a perfect venue to pass down important values to the younger generations. We always begin the learning sessions with information about why we are focusing on the specific topic, usually watching old video clips of my grandparents or reading quotes from them. Bringing the history into the learning conversation serves as a way to remember why we are learning and also to continuously link the family legacy to future planning. With much of the family now dispersed throughout the country and world, many with differing perspectives and politics, coming together to learn about issues my grandparents cared about and the possibility for our foundation to make important impacts in Texas enables us to instil and revisit important family values.

Levelling the playing field

A key area that can exacerbate disagreements when families must make joint decisions is the lack of a similar level of knowledge. If one family member is highly experienced in a topic, it is often hard for others to feel comfortable expressing differing views or taking part in the conversation as equals.

 

Some family members already have deep expertise in the areas we fund while others have absolutely none. By exploring these critical questions together and learning from outside experts, we are able to level the playing field a bit—those who have less experience in the topic are able to make more informed decisions. This has helped empower those who are less knowledgeable to have louder voices while also ensuring we are all working within a similar context to make big, strategic decisions.

 

Creating an atmosphere of dialogue and learning

When our family comes together to learn, one of the greatest aspects is the conversation and atmosphere in the informal times in between the learning sessions—at dinner, over a fireside chat, or on a walk. The conversations from the learning sessions continue in these informal spaces, so family time starts to include informal conversation about philanthropy and tackling the earths most critical challenges. It creates an atmosphere of intellectual curiosity and worldly dialogue.

 

Over the years, these learning sessions have spanned many topics—from water scarcity to fiduciary duties to poverty alleviation. They have been invaluable in our ability to make educated decisions as a foundation board to guide us in our mission to carry out my grandparents’ legacy and improve the state of the world. Equally importantly, learning together has instilled a culture of learning and created an atmosphere of intellectual curiosity that has had immeasurable impact on our family.

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