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February 20, 2013

Philanthropy Northwest: Our Moral DNA and the Evolution of Values


Philanthropy Northwest

Our Moral DNA and the Evolution of  Values


February 20, 2013

By Chris Rurik, Historian/Storyteller, The Russell Family Foundation

The Russell Family Foundation (Gig Harbor, WA) held a session dedicated to values at last fall’s board meeting. My parents’ generation and the elder cohort of my generation were supposed to talk openly about the family’s guiding principles, about why we do the work we do. Coming in, this formalized discussion of values seemed a little silly to me. After all, this was my life, my heritage. We knew my grandparents’ values – non-negotiable integrity, trust, decisiveness, and so on – and had learned them from a lifetime of familial interplay, not hour-and-a-half meetings. We are a close-knit family, full of stories; I couldn’t not pick up the values.

Richard Woo, our CEO, likes to make references to our “moral DNA”. To me, the metaphor is perfect. I said my family is close-knit. By no means does that mean we are all alike. Biologically speaking, my grandparents’ genetic material has been recombined and re-expressed fifteen times now. We’re short and tall, introverted and extroverted, emotional and logical. The building blocks are the same, but they have been shuffled differently in each of us. More importantly, layered on our individual genotypic cores are widely varying life experiences that have sculpted the physical and moral expression of our DNA. Our lifestyles vary, and with them our beliefs. No family is heterogeneous; no individual is static. As years pass, families evolve.

If we’re all constantly learning and growing, our dynamics shifting, then how does our moral heritage express itself in a collective endeavor like a foundation? How do you balance the foundation’s founding ideals with the realities of a changing world and a changing group of trustees?

During our meeting on values, my parents’ generation got to talking about how they invented the foundation. They told of their shock at the amount for which my grandfather’s company sold, of my grandparents’ strong and stabilizing belief that the whole family should be involved in managing the windfall. To them, that meant philanthropy. My aunts and uncles laughed as they told us about early meetings held in my grandparents’ basement. After all, they were in way over their heads. Should they establish a foundation? How do you do that? They had no idea. As they learned, hashing things out, the most difficult and crucial element was the decision about what they would fund – how their variously expressed values would translate into a vision for social change. Siblings aren’t known for their willingness to agree, and my parents’ generation spans the full ideological spectrum. By all accounts, emotional back-and-forth was in no short supply. Before long, they made a simple rule: their foundation would only tackle causes that everyone believed in. To develop its mission, they would strip away all appurtenances until only their shared moral DNA remained.

For me, this creation story was a revelation. Here I was in the foundation’s building, in a smoothly run board meeting, accustomed to thinking of the foundation as a sturdy, physical, established presence. There were set ways of doing things, I thought. But hearing my aunts and uncles talk about the emotional nature of its invention, I came to see that they had once known as little as me. The foundation was not purely logical; it was as based on chance and personality as any expression of DNA. It was moldable. I would mold it, just by joining.

Too many people, when talking about the next generation’s role in philanthropy, make each generation seem a cohesive unit. But there is as much heterogeneity within generations as between them. My parents’ generation had to strip their values down to the basics when inventing the foundation. Now, as my equally diverse generation becomes actively involved, the process is repeating. As my family’s viewpoints again diverge, we have naturally returned to sequencing our collective moral genome. This is the kind of inflection point when evolution proceeds most rapidly. We are questioning our foundation’s accomplishments. We are re-imagining and recalibrating our hopes for the future. After all, our foundation’s mission is an outgrowth of our innate and diverse values, not the other way around.

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