Seven generations ago, Elisha D. Smith bought a wooden bucket factory that grew into the international packaging company Menasha Corp.
Now a handful of his descendants are working to hand down a legacy of philanthropy and are finding it’s also good for business.
Starting with $50,000, the group dreams of having a major impact on charities in the communities from coast to coast where they live and influencing the giving spirit of distant cousins not yet born.
The Smith family has established the NxG Fund at the Community Foundation so family members from college age into their 30s can claim their place as the next generation of Smith philanthropists.
“(Charitable giving) has always been out there as a very important thing that the company does,” said Owen Smith, a 30-something NxG Fund board member who lives in San Francisco. The Menasha Corp. Foundation provided not only much of the structure for the next generation’s giving, but also the initial funding.
Owen said the family looked at the practices of other family-owned businesses and found out about U.S. Venture Inc.’s Schmidt family and its charitable G4 Fund at the Community Foundation. The example was explained at a family business meeting.
“We all wanted to give it a try,” Owen said.
The cousins and second-cousins are spread all over the country, but, Owen said, “as GenXers and Millenials, we’re surprisingly good at getting to know each other even if we’re not in the same room with each other.” They grew up communicating electronically.
“This gives us something to rally around as the younger generation,” Pierce Smith of Neenah, also a board member for the fund, added.
The lessons the NxG board members are learning extend beyond philanthropy.
“As our family gets larger and spread across the country, it is harder to keep up close connections and this can only help if any of us take on larger roles within the family business in the future,” he said.
At last summer’s family meeting in Elkart Lake, WI, they held an auction to raise money for granting. Then they invited family members to suggest charities in the areas where they live to receive grants. A committee of seven young family members read written applications solicited from the charities and spent several hours sorting out how to allocate the money. Their focus is on disadvantaged youth. Local recipients included YouthGo, the Boys’ and Girls’ Brigade and the Menasha Boys and Girls Club.
“I think we were all very pleased with what we came up with,” Owen said. The Foundation has handled the grantmaking transactions “flawlessly,” he said.
Bob Ellis, Vice President Development and Donor Services, said the Community Foundation can offer many services to families seeking to teach younger generations about giving. That may include anything from recommended reading, to information on local charities working in particular areas of interest or guidance in how to review grant proposals.
“The relationships we are building now around philanthropy can only be helpful for the future,” Pierce said. “As our family gets larger and spread across the country, it is harder to keep up close connections and this can only help if any of us take on larger roles within the family business in the future.”