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Christmas Q&A: Joe Reilly Asks Charles Collier

Joe Reilly

21 December 2012

Editor’s Note: Joe Reilly, president of the Family Office Association, recently sat down with Charlie Collier, former senior philanthropic advisor at Harvard and now a consultant, to talk about how he came to write his influential book, how to get a family comfortable talking about money, and living with Alzheimers.

Joe Reilly: Ten years ago you wrote Wealth in Families, which is now in its third edition and continues to sell dozens of copies a month online. It is the first book that I personally give to family members who are beginning to explore this world, and it has helped many families break the ice around issues of wealth. What was the inspiration for the book? 

Charlie Collier: I joined Harvard in the mid 1980s as the University’s director of planned giving. For the early years of my career, I focused primarily on helping wealthy donors set up planned giving vehicles. I enjoyed the work immensely and had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people and their families. I was fortunate in the mid 1990s to meet Jay Hughes, and he was a great mentor. At one of his conferences, where I was speaking, I met Kathy Wiseman, and she persuaded me to go to the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. It was the most important learning of my adulthood.

Coming to understand family systems theory opened a whole new avenue for exploring the challenges families face in making decisions about their wealth and legacy. It changed my approach to having conversations with families and led me to broaden the concept of family wealth to embody dimensions of human, intellectual, and social capital in addition to financial assets. From all of this came my writing Wealth in Families

 Joe Reilly: What is your process for working with families? 

Charlie Collier: I believe that the most difficult challenges that the wealthy face are not financial, but instead, are relationship- and family-based. Money can be a source of anxiety that can deeply affect family relationships. I have discovered that the hardest, yet most rewarding, conversations can help families make better decisions. Through asking penetrating questions, I help families engage in breakthrough conversations to gain a deeper understanding of their lives and their money. 

Joe Reilly: What kind of questions do you ask during a family meeting? 

Charlie Collier: Well, for example, during a meeting to help a family have a conversation around their money and the inheritance to the next generation, I might ask:

·         How much information have you given your children about your wealth and your estate plans?

·         What are the qualities you want in a trustee for your children’s trusts?

·         Should you let your children make their own decisions about a prenuptial arrangement?

·         What are you doing to help your children find a binding passion and turn it into meaningful work?

·         What worries you most about your children's use of their inheritances?

·         What would your parents say about the financial inheritance you plan to leave your children?

These types of questions help families begin to change their thinking about making important decisions. My intent is to serve as a resource, not to tell them what to do, because there is no one right way to be a family.

Joe Reilly: You recently retired from Harvard, which recognized you at commencement for your unique service with the Harvard Medal. You have been forthcoming with the fact that you stepped down because of Alzheimer's. How has Alzheimer’s affected your life, and how are you coping as you continue your work with families?

Charlie Collier: The Harvard Medal was a wonderful surprise and honor. For me, it represents my relationship with the University and the many alumni families that I have met through the years. My master’s degree in divinity from Harvard has helped me think about my illness as a “gift.” I now volunteer my time with the development offices of several independent schools and colleges, as well as with the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. Helping families make good decisions about their futures has been my life’s work - my ministry, if you will - and I feel very fortunate to have had that opportunity.