The College Donor Digest

Generational Giving: the Huntsman family’s philanthropic legacy

November 27, 2019

Going home for the holidays is romanticized on television, but the reality is often far removed from Hallmark depictions. Conversations over the dinner table frequently reflect the opposing perspectives of multiple generations. In family foundations, conflict over values can escalate quickly. With the greatest transfer of wealth on record, $9 trillion, set to change hands, families must have difficult, but not impossible, conversations about changes in priorities.  

The story of the Huntsman family, covered by the New York Times in a recent article, provides valuable insight into the complexities of family foundations and philanthropy during a generational shift in leadership. The Huntsman family are well-known philanthropists in Utah. After the passing of Jon Huntsman, Sr., the family had to decide how to honor his legacy while shaping their own philanthropic vision. Huntsman Sr.’s foresight in structuring the family foundation was instrumental in smoothing the transition of power.

Mr. Huntsman built his legacy in cancer research. Although he gave to several other causes, the bulk of his support went toward researching cancer, especially at the University of Utah. The family will continue to support this research but are now directing their efforts in another direction as well. The Huntsman Mental Health Institute was recently established at the University of Utah with a $150 million gift from the family.

The motivations behind funding both cancer research and mental health are similar. The family has been affected by both cancer and mental health issues; Huntsman Sr. began donating to cancer research after experiencing cancer himself, and his son, Peter Huntsman, shared, “With mental health, there were enough experiences in our own family that if we didn’t have the name or the wealth we wouldn’t have gotten nearly the care we got.” The family was concerned with the inadequate mental health treatment and support generally available in Utah. The goal for the Institute is to make treatment accessible for all income levels.

When establishing the Huntsman family foundation, Huntsman Sr. made his priorities clear but built flexibility into the organization. The foundation’s mandates include continued cancer research, helping the needy, and a geographical focus on the Western part of the United States. This flexibility allowed for the establishment of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. The foundation’s board can also vote to change the mandates.  

The family decided to maintain Mr. Huntsman’s targeted approach toward philanthropy, prioritizing the support of urgent health issues facing America in combination with reaching the most vulnerable. Yet, his passing requires some organizational changes, with decision rights passed from one person to now multiple family members. The Huntsman family has navigated this shift while remaining faithful to preserving, and amplifying, Mr. Huntsman’s legacy.   

Thankfully, most family conflict over the holidays does not involve millions of dollars. Yet, when it does, careful planning can mitigate some of the conflicts that come with significant change. The story of the Huntsman family reveals a transition that has so far progressed smoothly.  When considering how to preserve their legacy through a family foundation, philanthropists should think about how to structure the foundation to be focused and flexible, able to thrive despite shifts in leadership and vision.  However, even the most carefully structured foundation cannot guarantee successful handling of family conflict. Then again, neither can the most perfectly roasted turkey.

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