Kerry Alys Robinson

Passing the torch

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Seventy-two years after the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities was established by John and Helena Raskob, close to 100 of their direct descendants are actively engaged in serving the church philanthropically. All service is voluntary and nonremunerative. Today, members of the fourth and fifth generations lead the way.

I remarked on the active participation of the fifth generation of the Raskob family at a recent meeting on faith and giving hosted by Lake Institute, where I had the great fortune of meeting Ginny Esposito, president of the National Center for Family Philanthropy. Almost immediately she brilliantly conceived of a discussion panel titled “Thrive at Five” to explore successful strategies of engaging successive generations in philanthropy.

Ginny’s thoughtful conversation and evident knowledge of the potential and challenges facing family foundations  —  particularly around generational transition, family engagement and unity, and mission effectiveness — made me think of similar challenges facing the church.

What is most striking about the Raskob family is the emphasis placed on ensuring the youngest members of the family are afforded meaningful opportunities for leadership and decision-making. Upon turning 18, one is formally invited into membership. Accepting the invitation entails a three-year apprenticeship. Each apprentice is paired with an older family member of his or her choice — a parent, aunt, uncle, cousin or grandparent — who serves as a mentor and is jointly assigned applications to review. There are formal training sessions for apprentice members. By unspoken fiat, it is the youngest members of the family who are preferentially encouraged to serve as committee chairs, to represent the family to bishops or at national Catholic conferences, and to stand for election to the board of trustees. 

Most of the family would decline participation if we waited until they were in their 50s or 60s. When I interviewed family members of all generations and political and theological leanings, each relative confided how important early participation was to the cultivation and maturation of their faith. Many wondered if they would be Catholic at all if it were not for their exposure, through the foundation, to the global church, in all of its diverse expressions and ministries. At the Raskob Foundation, evangelization is the byproduct of service.

A common challenge facing family foundations is the tension between two seemingly competing goals: family unity and mission effectiveness. We clearly value family unity; we want full, active participation of each succeeding generation, and we want it early. What we have learned, however, is that the most effective way to achieve broad, satisfying participation and unity is to prioritize mission. Outward focus, on our grantees and on the church, effects greater family unity and less division. Inward focus — on us — almost always leads to dissatisfaction, compromise and mediocrity.

Parishes are like families. What is the purpose of a parish in the midst of all the messiness and heartache of life? Is it to satisfy individual parishioners’ desires? Or is it to form communities to live faithfully and accountably, so that its members are equipped to be agents of transformation, reconciliation, mercy and hope?Outward focus on mission strengthens parish unity. Consider those parishes that have organized to bring about more just conditions in their neighborhoods, or who have sponsored a refugee family, or who have formed small church communities and opportunities for social outreach and action. In each example, this outward focus on others results in greater parish cohesiveness and engagement. 

The Raskob Foundation is still learning after 72 years and five generations, but participation and commitment to donor intent is high. If our experience and reflection has any light to shed on the church’s own challenge, it is this: Prioritize young adults. Invest in them and equip them for responsibility early. Create a culture of formation that is other-centered in order to inspire commitment, belonging and meaningful purpose.