Guarding the Family Treasure

Guarding the Family Treasure March 8, 2016

This week, I’m spending three days in Georgetown, DC, as part of the post-graduate program at The Bowen Center for the Family.  The program is to deepen understanding in Bowen Family Systems Thinking.  Today, I heard a presentation that made me think, so I’m passing it on, in case it might spark some thoughts for you.

The presentation was about how families preserve–or fail to preserve–wealth across generations.  Citing a study by the Allianz Insurance Company of over 3,000 wealthy families, the presenter said that only 30% of wealthy families keep their wealth across two generations.  And only 10% of wealthy families keep their wealth across 3 generations.  So, 9 in 10 wealthy families will have lost their wealth by the time the grandchildren reach the end of their lives.

They dug into this phenomenon to find out what happened.  What they learned was that, of families who lose their wealth over a few generations, 60% practice poor communication and show low levels of trust; 25% failed to prepare the heirs to handle wealth (to live responsibly and thoughtfully with a lot of money); 10% was from the lack of a family mission; and the remaining 5% was for other reasons.  One of the take-away insights was that the first generation of a wealthy family spends a lot of effort on building up the money; but they don’t invest as much in building the capacity of the family.  What separates the families from their money is not poor financial skills so much as it is poor relationship skills–between one another, and between the heirs and wealth.

The presenter mentioned some families that had been able to maintain wealth over the course of several generations, including the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, and said that these families had learned some healthy habits.  For instance, they had clear family governance structures–ways of making decisions, as a family–and clear modes of communication; they were intentional about finding ways to have fun together.  On the whole, they tended to their relationships as well as they did to their investments.

Stacks of Gold Coins

That got me thinking.  What if a family was wealthy in an asset other than money?  For instance, my mother’s family has a number of good storytellers–my mother is a good storyteller, and so are my aunts.  They know how to “hold a room,” as people say.  My sister is one of the best storytellers I have ever heard, and I can tell a pretty good story myself.  So, somehow, my mother’s generation was able to transmit that asset.  But what about to my children, and my sister’s children?  If “storytelling” is an asset–a valuable resource to support a flourishing life–how could that asset be shepherded and transmitted, to ensure it lasted as a legacy and didn’t just flicker out?

Or maybe storytelling is not an apt comparison to wealth, because it lacks the anxiety that can surround money.  Maybe there are other assets closer linked to survival, as money can seem to be.  Can you think of any?  Like, what if a family was gifted in relating to death?  Or if a family had some wisdom about relating to power?  There are probably other areas of life that have some anxiety attached to them, where competence and resources can be seen as a kind of wealth.

Another direction is to consider the topic in light of institutions other than families: a congregation, or a business.  How can those institutions successfully maintain wealth over generations, in a way that’s life-giving?

How can a family, congregation, or business begin working now to improve its chances at a lasting legacy?  How can one give the generations to come a better shot at having access to the resources enjoyed by the current generation?  Whatever the answer, it seems to have less to do with skillful management of the resources, and more to do with the functioning of the family system–the ability to communicate, to connect, to be thoughtful and playful together.  Those are qualities we can all begin to work on developing in our families and congregations right now, whatever our assets.

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