Randy Fox Interviews Gary Shunk on Storytelling

Randy Fox Interviews Gary Shunk on Storytelling

Article posted in Values-Based on 1 February 2015| comments
audience: National Publication, Two Hawks Consulting, LLC, Gary Shunk | last updated: 4 February 2015


A deeper dive into understanding donor families and their values.

Randy:    It is January 21, 2015 and I'm here again with Gary Shunk, the Founder of Family Wealth Dynamics, a national consulting firm for families of wealth. 

I'm seeing a lot of press about charities discovering, or rediscovering, the art of storytelling and I know that is something that you really are helpful in enabling families to get their story told.  I'd really like to get your take on how you do that and why it's important. 

Gary:    This is a subject that I have great passion for and, I don't remember this, if it's Latin or if it's Germanic or Old English but the root of story deals with storehouse.  So, inside a story is the history and values and all of the things that matter most to us individually, but also collectively, as families, as cultures, societies. Actually, religions, all of the religions are story based.  It makes a lot of sense that there's a passion in philanthropy and charitable giving around what's the story behind why does this family want to give?  What is the why behind it, meaning the energy and the drive? 

When advisors are sensitive to the why and the impetus of what started the giving, what started the charity, they can ask about the story. In fact, sometimes when I do family retreats and family meetings, I'll invite the elders to share how the wealth was created, where did it start because a lot of the family members, they just don't know and there's so many details that are in the story of how the wealth was created or how the business was created. In those stories are, as I say, storehouse, memories, values and anecdotes and all kinds of little items that make sense of what a family is and what matters for a family. 

When advisors are sensitive to this and invite this, they're helping themselves, as advisors, to be able to serve the family at a deeper level because they'll end up knowing more about what drives the family as far as philanthropy and charitable orientations.  But also, what is it this family is really all about?  What drives them?  What really matters most to them?  

Randy:    Let me stop you for a second.  One of the things you said, Gary, was you get the story and it explains why the family might have the pattern of giving.  Can you get the story to help the family understand why they might want to give?

Gary:    Absolutely.   Even if the family is not oriented towards charitable giving, when you ask them what's the story behind the creation of the wealth or the family business, or whatever it might be, inside those stories and histories are what I would call the values and the virtues that drive and are the glue that hold a family together.  Families are made up of two elements.  Of course there are many, but the two elements that I think of: one is love and the other is power. 

Love is the drive to unity.  What love does is pull together those things that are apart, and families, even if they're having a hard time, they will still stick together. 

The other element is power.  Power is the drive toward self-expression, self-realization.  Harmonious, healthy, vibrant families of love champion the individuals into their own sense of self-expression, self-realization.  Considering those two items around stories and inviting people into the charitable conversation, I might ask, “what is it that created the wealth?  What were the drivers to create the wealth or the business?  At the same time, how else might those values and virtues be demonstrated?” 

An invitation or sharing a story with family members – about a family other than the one we're working with, i.e., John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates, the Mellon family, Carnegie family, any family that you can think of that may be well-known that is known in charitable giving.  There are parallels in the values and virtues of creating a business and creating wealth, as well as being philanthropic and impacting culture or society.  A family may or may not have even considered how else they could be impactful in culture, but the storytelling can help them think about that. 

Randy:    How do you open that door?  How do you get a family to begin telling their story?

Gary:    One way is the way I just described now. You could talk about the Mellons, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers and Gates. Often they’ll say “we don't have billions of dollars,” and I will give them other stories of families that are lesser known who have smaller amounts of wealth but are charitable because it's just a natural part of who they are.  There's one family that I know of that their real significant wealth was created in their later years but when this couple got married – they're now in their late 70s – when they got married, they started a foundation because that was just a driver for them in parallel to wanting to create the businesses that they created. 

Now, their foundation, because of the wealth that was created later in their lives is more substantive.  And now they've involved their children. If I told you the name of this family, you wouldn't know who they were.  However, they are a family of affinity and one of the things that they unite around is their giving.  Because they don’t have the businesses anymore, they sold them, but they find that giving together and meeting together to talk about what they'll do with their philanthropy is a way for them to be together and unite together on their values and they're creating stories while they're doing that.  Years from now, their grandchildren and great grandchildren will inherit those stories as well as the foundation.

Randy:    Do you capture the story in some way so that it can be handed down or told down to subsequent generations?

Gary:    Yes.  There is the oral tradition, which is the classic storytelling.  But today, with technology, there are people that have organizations that videotape family histories and then there are also family historians that will actually interview everyone and then they'll create a family book that captures those stories, and then there are audio recordings as well that some families do.  These become family heirlooms and archives.

Randy:    I think it's really important as the generations go by that we keep track of where we came from.  I know I'm only a second generation American, so most of my story, my family's story, is lost, but I'm in the process of recording what I know and remember because my grandchildren won't know anything about it. 

Gary:    I don't know what the percentage is of families that are in business but it's 70%, I think – internationally, 70% of the businesses in the United States and the world are family-owned, and often, prior to the family business organizing, there really isn't any history.  It organizes around what the family organizes around, meaning the stories. In my case, I would have been a fourth generation in a family business.  They sold it when I was a boy.  But when we gather as a family, cousins and so on, we talk about the family company and my great grandparents, grandparents and our parents and their involvement.  That's an organizing principle, which is really story based.  It's a heritage and it's a wealth of its own, actually, to really have a sense of your identity in history.

Randy: One of the provocative questions that I've heard asked is if your house caught on fire, what things would you carry out of the house?  What things of value would you carry out of the house and inevitably, people say our photo albums, our history. They don't go running for the change they left on the dresser.

Gary:    A great way to start a conversation about what's the story behind the family is to ask that question that you just asked which is, if there was a fire, what would you go and grab and protect?  And then why is that important, and then you've got the beginning of storytelling right there.  

Randy:    Many advisors and, I would suspect, plan giving officers also, would be uncomfortable with getting a family to tell their story.  What would be that entry point?  Where do we start this?

Gary:    I would ask “what do you know about your family's history?”  Do you know if there is a giving history?  Some advisors I know do a family money history amongst the clients they are working with.  What is their relationship with money?  What's their history with money, and that can be a very provocative area to go in to. 

Some people think talking about money is more taboo than talking about sex. Why is that?   Because money is so loaded with so many different types of things and so, for advisors to explore the history of the relationship with money, the family members individually, what that does is open up the sense of being vulnerable about how they are in their relationship with money and then where that can lead to is, as far as giving it away, that idea of spend, save and share.  So giving it away or sharing what it is that you have, what's your history in that?  What's the history of your parents and your grandparents and great grandparents for that matter?  A lot of people may not know but they get to explore that and as they explore that, they discover some things about themselves and about where they came from and those are stories.  And those stories are filled with wisdom, they are filled with all kinds of different things that inform the current generation and the next generations coming up.

Randy:    That's an interesting approach and I do know some people who use that approach. It can unleash a lot of interesting material. 

I think it's probably a good idea to just wrap right here.  Have you got anything to conclude with?

Gary:    Well, in wrapping it up, I would just say that it's really great that you're bringing this to the fore and that you're inviting advisors to think about storytelling and that it's a hot area.  I think it has been for a few years and it takes awhile for something like this to kind of move through the culture of financial or wealth management, charitable planning.

Randy:    I think instead of talking about assets and balance sheets, and stocks and bonds, and real estates and businesses, saying who are you and where did you come from is much more interesting subject matter and a good place to dig in and really find out who that donor or who that client is. 

Gary:    I would refer to as the qualitative issues of an individual and a family client – qualitative issues.  Those are the ones that really inform advisors how best to serve the client and they can serve them then with the quantitative, the technical solutions that provide certainty for the client. 

Randy:     That also aligns with the qualitative issues.

Readers, is storytelling an important part of your practice? And how much do you know about your own history and story?

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