Sharing the Baton: One Foundation’s Perspective on Family Leadership Transitions - Exponent Philanthropy
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Sharing the Baton: One Foundation’s Perspective on Family Leadership Transitions

In an interview with Andrea Pactor of Women’s Philanthropy Institute, Exponent Philanthropy member Jane Leighty Justis, board chair of The Leighty Foundation, describes steps she and the foundation leadership are taking to educate and engage the foundation’s next generations.

When Ike Leighty was in his 60s, he and a partner began a small manufacturing business. Each year the company became more profitable. Ike realized, as he says, he “had been given the stewardship of more steak than he could eat,” and decided with his accountant to create a family foundation. A widower, Ike asked his two children, Bill and Jane, to join him as foundation directors. They joined and became Generation 2, or G2.

In the early years, the family treated the foundation as a “giant checkbook” according to Jane, and awarded grants and contributions without clear direction. Jane’s background in nonprofit management gave her a desire to experiment with becoming more strategic. She became executive director in 1990 as a logical and natural next step in the foundation’s evolution, and her experience with the Women’s Philanthropy Institute in the 1990s reinforced her sense that women often have unique perspectives and contributions to make as leaders in this field.

For 20 years, Ike and his two children and their spouses governed the foundation guided by the mission: “to carry on the Leighty family legacy of service and stewardship by leveraging our time and talents, as well as our financial resources, primarily in the areas of earth protection, education, and the promotion of volunteer engagement and philanthropy.”

The third generation grows up

When Ike’s four grandchildren (G3) were between 10 and 14 years old, he invited them to help with the foundation’s stewardship. Stewardship is not a word Ike uses lightly; stewardship and service are two of his core values. He clarified that this was an invitation, not an expectation. Foundation participation was not a prerequisite for being a “family member in good standing.”

For G3 members who requested it, the board allotted them up to $250 a year to begin their involvement with the foundation. Through their teen years, their allotment increased, and each one took advantage of it sporadically.

As the foundation grew and evolved, it enlisted the help of consultants. One met with the grandchildren to discuss the elements they thought might be important in their education about philanthropy, and what criteria they thought should be met for consideration for membership on the board. When G3 members were in their 20s, they were invited to become advisors to the board and to attend board meetings.

Succession talk

A foundation retreat with another consultant, and Jane’s initiation of conversations about succession planning, have prompted the G3 to become more deeply engaged in foundation leadership. Currently, four of seven G3 members have applied and been accepted as board members. The others have chosen to remain advisors at this time, but may apply to serve on the board as other members rotate off.

For The Leighty Foundation, engaging G3 has been a deliberately slow process. As with many GenXers and Millennials, the Leighty G3 are overextended, busy with careers, and raising G4.

Jane’s approach to involving G3 has been to find time-limited and time-sensitive ways for G3 to be involved in their areas of interest, and to provide education around philanthropy. She has used quarterly reports to share operations and practices, writing about why relational and collaborative efforts work, for example. At the same time, Jane—as daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and trustee—has worked to refine the balance of enjoying these roles while also staffing the foundation as executive director.

Although Jane wants to continue with her passion for promoting volunteer engagement and philanthropy, she informed the board that she would like to “retire” from her executive/administrative responsibilities. G3 comprised the majority of a committee to research options for outsourcing the “back office” work of the foundation. Subsequently, the committee enthusiastically appointed Nancy Waterman, a board member and Bill’s spouse, to the new position of managing director.

Jane has agreed to serve as chair of the board—but only for one year. The board encouraged G3 to use this year to consider who among them might be willing to assume that role next year. Ike, the founder, who is turning 99 in November, will be chair emeritus. He has given his blessing to the younger generations when he says at the close of each meeting, “I’m confident that the foundation is in good hands!”

Fresh perspectives on core values

As in many multigenerational family foundations, G1 and G2 have found that G3 brings its own perspectives and opinions about how the foundation might look in the future. Valuing this diversity has prompted the family to place a high priority on creating a culture that encourages honest communication and respectful disagreement with one another. They agree that it has been helpful at times for an outside consultant to guide these conversations, thus removing some of the emotion and ensuring that everyone is heard. One key to the success of any family business—corporate or philanthropic—is the ability to know when to separate the two.

After an in-depth discussion among the board and advisors regarding the value of perpetuity versus spending down the foundation assets, G3 agreed they wanted to manage the foundation assets in such a way that funds could be available  to family members “seven generations” into the future, following an Iroquois philosophy of sustainability and perpetuity. This was an important milestone as G3 recognized they were making a commitment to lead the foundation in the future.

As this transition continues, Jane expects that she, and perhaps others in the “senior” generations, will experience some conflicted feelings around when to offer guidance and wisdom gained from many years of experience, and when to step back and let go to allow the foundation to continue its evolution with its new generation of leaders.

For the first time in American philanthropy, many families have four generations working actively in their foundations. Today’s philanthropy is less a matter of passing the baton, according to Jane, and more a matter of learning how to work together intergenerationally.



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