The Effects of Family Culture on Family Foundations

The Effects of Family Culture on Family Foundations

Most people do not think of their family as having a “culture.” They associate culture with countries and ethnic groups. But the family? For most of us, it’s just a group of familiar people doing what they always do.

Yet it is exactly this-a characteristic way of thinking, feeling, judging, and acting-that defines a culture. In direct and subtle ways, children are molded by the family culture into which they are born. Growing up, their assumptions about what is right and wrong, good and bad, reflect the beliefs, values and traditions of the family culture. Most take for granted their family’s ways, and they carry into adulthood numerous attitudes and behaviors acquired in childhood.

Even those who later reject all or part of the family culture often discover that they are not entirely free of their early influences. No matter that they promise themselves they will never repeat the mistakes of their own family-certain cultural attitudes and responses are so ingrained in family members that they continue to affect their thinking and behavior, whether or not those individuals are aware of such influence.

To say that families have identifiable cultures, however, is not to suggest that they are static. Families are in a constant state of transition as each member moves through the cycles of life and the family itself moves from one stage of development to the next. ily constellation and, in profound ways, alter the family culture. Simultaneously, larger political, economic and social forces also impinge on the family culture. The social revolution that began in the 1960s, for example, changed-among other things-attitudes and expectations about the roles of men and women. The boy or girl raised in a family in which mother and aunts are professional women is exposed to a very different family culture from the one their grandparents knew.

Organizational Cultures

In the 1980s, management theorists and consultants popularized the concept of organizational culture. They described corporations in anthropological terms, pointing to their social structure, norms and laws, language, dress codes and even their artifacts. Organizations with distinct cultures invariably bore the imprint of their founders. The corps of clean-shaven IBM executives dressed in white shirts and blue suits reflected the personality, beliefs and style of Thomas Watson, Sr., just as the bearded Apple employees wearing jeans, T-shirts and Birkenstock sandals reflected those of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Like corporations, family foundations have distinct organizational cultures, and they are as varied as the families that generate them. They run the gamut from formal, with tightly run meetings held in foundation boardrooms, to informal, with gatherings around a family member’s dining-room table. As in corporations, the values and norms of the founders and their families determine the focus of the foundation as well as how it is governed, how conflicts are handled and how emotions are expressed.

To recognize the effects of family culture on the style and direction of a family foundation, Chapter 1 will look at four particular cultural attributes: values, norms, traditions and conformity. Each is examined below.


The values of the family set the basic tone for the family foundation. They inspire the choice of mission as well as the foundation’s policies and practices. Typically, the values of the individuals who have created the family’s wealth predominate. Entrepreneurs with the single-mindedness and drive to amass fortunes often have powerful and compelling personalities to match. Not surprisingly, then, they shape foundations in their image and according to their values, philosophy and preferred style of management-just as they did their business.

One such man was A. Lincoln Filene, who founded the Lincoln and Therese Filene Foundation in 1946. Born shortly after the assassination of President Lincoln, he was named by his immigrant parents in honor of the fallen president. Filene remained true to his namesake; throughout his life, he held progressive political views and acted on them.