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Mitzi Perdue Copyright Jason Kempin, Getty Images
Mitzi Perdue

Mitzi Perdue: Philanthropy Is the Lifeblood of Family Continuity

Frank Perdue’s widow, and daughter of the co-founder of Sheraton hotels, knows a thing or two about family businesses.

Someone asked my late husband, Frank Perdue, founder of Perdue Farms: “Do you find charitable giving a satisfying thing to do?”

He answered: “Charitable giving is personally satisfying,” but then added, “But it’s also simply the right thing to do. Giving back is what you should do when you’re a part of a community.”

He then said something, which I make it my business to have the younger members of the family hear frequently: “My wish for future generations is that they be known as good citizens and contributing members of the community in which they live.”

I think it was genius of him to say this. It’s an attitude that gets family members thinking what they can do for others, not just what the family can do for them. And that, by the way, is one of the secrets of happiness and cohesiveness. It’s the opposite of selfishness.

It reminds me of a catch phrase Frank used to say: “If you want to be happy, think of what you can do for someone else. If you want to be miserable, think of what’s owed to you.”

A Powerful Force

Because philanthropy causes people to think of something bigger than themselves, it can be one of the most powerful forces for keeping a family together. If your client’s goal is to keep her family members together across the generations, this may be the best way of achieving it.

I’ve seen how this works with the Hendersons [founders of the Sheraton hotel chain], the Perdues and countless other families. Money can be a centrifugal force in a family, but philanthropy brings families together and the rewards are powerful.

The rewards include: having a good name, having influence and receiving important emotional rewards. Behaving philanthropically is one of the best sources of what both the Hendersons and the Perdues call, “family glue.”

Behaving philanthropically tells family members: “This is who we are! This is what we believe in! This is how we do things! ” Members from all generations can be a part of this.

It gives family members a sense of identity. 

Multigenerational Families

I’ve seen in my family of origin the benefits of philanthropy across the generations. The Henderson Estate Company (forerunner of the Sheraton hotels) began in 1840, and we just celebrated our 126th reunion.

I think our family foundation is the biggest reason the Henderson family gets together to this day. By the time you’re seventh generation, it’s pretty much guaranteed that many members won’t be working in the family enterprise, especially if the family sold the biggest part of it, as we did with Sheraton.

Even though we sold Sheraton 50 years ago, the Henderson Foundation and other philanthropic activities help keep everyone engaged. It’s a reason for frequent communication, and the board meetings provide a scheduled, you-know-it’s going-to-happen reason for getting together and having a family reunion.

I’ve also seen the same effect in the Perdue family. The Perdue Family, as it approaches its 100th year as a family business, has fourth and fifth generation who will probably never be in the business. However, they’re all part of the family foundation whether they’re in the business or not. To use a Perdue phrase, “It’s gluey!”

Being charitable is about benefiting others, but even so, the benefits for the families are incalculable. When families engage in philanthropy, it provides shared purpose and a sense of “This is what it means to be us.” It provides identity.

Philanthropic Activities Your Clients Can Do

Here are some of the philanthropic activities that families can do together. Discuss these ideas with your clients:

  • For the older family members, instead of exchanging gifts with each other, give gifts to those in need. My family regularly gets together at Thanksgiving and packs Christmas gifts to give to employees who are serving overseas in the Reserves or to associates who’ve experienced flooding, fires or other catastrophes. We write letters to the individuals to accompany the gifts and the younger family members participate by coloring holiday decorations to accompany the packages.
  • Contact your local Habitat for Humanity and see if they’d like the services of your family in helping to construct or repair a home. You don’t need building skills; you’ll be told how you can help and you’ll be given directions for doing it. It’s a wonderful bonding experience, to be unselfishly working on something important that benefits others, and the family has the incredibly bonding experience of being there together to share in the joy of the recipients as they enter their new or repaired home.
  • Model philanthropic behavior. Have family members collect their no-longer-needed clothing and bring these items to a homeless shelter or a shelter for abused women. In the process, the youngsters will learn that caring for others is part of the family’s values.
  • If your family can, you might want to create a family foundation. As I’ve said, both the Hendersons and the Perdues do this, and it’s a wonderful tool for having family members come together for something admirable, something that does good, something that’s bigger than any individual.
  • You might consider having an annual award for the family member who did the most for the community and who made the family proud. The Henderson family has just started this tradition, and it’s a wonderful way of focusing attention on what we value and what we reward.

Being part of a family whose culture includes philanthropy provides individual members with meaning, motivation, direction and identity. As Frank used to say, “Most people spend their lives trying to find something meaningful to become a part of. A family business is a ready-made answer.” Especially when the family business has a philanthropic side to it.

Take advantage of this wonderful activity. It will not only benefit the recipients, but it will also provide priceless rewards for your family cohesion.


Mitzi Perdue is a speaker, author and businesswoman. She is the widow of Frank Perdue and daughter of Ernest Henderson, co-founder of the Sheraton hotel chain.


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