Skip to main content

Standing the Test of Time

Family philanthropy may serve as the glue that draws family members of different generations together. 

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Alice Walton

Longevity can take many forms and philanthropy can extend both the impact and the legacy of a family across multiple generations. Below are examples of families that sought to be remembered more for their charitable imprint than their wealth and, in so doing, define an identity that withstands the erosion of time. 

John D Rockefeller, Sr (JDR) was born with the entrepreneurial spirit of his father, and the religious-driven generosity of his mother. JDR became involved in the petroleum industry, soon founding Standard Oil, which would become the dominant oil company in the US. With the great success of Standard Oil, JDR explored new purposes for his wealth, allocating a significant portion to charity. The first two generations of the Rockefeller family were among the small group of individuals who created modern philanthropy by attempting to deal with the root causes of poverty, disease and ignorance. 

More recently, 89 members of the Rockefeller family’s fifth and sixth generations have come together to share resources and talents in a new initiative. A governing council allows the group to maintain the central values on which they were founded, while allowing new members to have an impact on the organisations they support. In this way, the philanthropic values of the family are carried on to the next generations, allowing family traditions to be reinterpreted. 

The Rockefeller University River Campus (c) Halkin Mason

The Rockefeller Foundation’s newest chapter — making large investments in clean energy while moving out of the few fossil-fuel investments it still has — aligns with Rockefeller’s vision of seeking creative and science-based solutions. 

The children of Warren Buffett illustrate how siblings can pursue their own philanthropy independently, and still maintain the family spirit of giving back. As Buffett stated last winter: “My three children are now — and this is hard for their father to believe — between 65 and 70 years of age. For some years, their foundations have distributed substantial sums, occasionally to the same donee. Usually, however, the three follow different paths.” Specifically, his daughter Susie focuses on social justice in Nebraska, while her brother Howard works abroad on food security and other issues. Their brother Peter supports indigenous communities. 

The children will serve as co-trustees of the charitable trust established to receive at least 99 per cent of his wealth upon passing away and will have the responsibility to make decisions unanimously as stewards of their father’s legacy. In announcing this appointment, Warren acknowledged that time had to pass before they were ready to assume this role: “They were not fully prepared for this awesome responsibility in 2006, but they are now.” 

Julia Chu, head of philanthropy and family governance advisory, Neuberger Berman  

Sam and Helen Walton moved to Northwest Arkansas in 1950 to open a five-and-dime store, and their passion for retail later led to the creation of Walmart. In 1987, Walmart celebrated its 25th anniversary, and Sam and Helen established the Walton Family Foundation. They envisioned the foundation as a bond to strengthen and bring their family together, children and grandchildren across generations, to find lasting solutions to big challenges. 

Today, several generations of the descendants of the founders and their spouses work together to lead the foundation. Its board of directors is composed entirely of family members who lead the foundation’s strategic approach to philanthropy. 

Family philanthropy may serve as the uniting force that draws family members of different generations together in a common mission. Defining your intended impact, both on the family and community, can provide a framework for planning a legacy that can endure. 

Julia Chu is head of philanthropy and family governance advisory, Neuberger Berman  

This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Longevity Issue, Summer 2024. To subscribe, click here.