Charitable Children and the Season of Giving, Getting and Growing

A colleague who works with philanthropic families was once asked at what age children should be taught about giving and philanthropy. “The first time the child says ‘mine,’” was the immediate and not entirely facetious reply. After all, one of the first concepts we teach our children is sharing.

Passing on the tradition of family philanthropy – particularly where an organized family giving program is in place – requires setting the socially-conscious bar a little higher. Those involved in a foundation or fund want to teach more than encouraging a child to be personally attentive to the needs of others. We want our children to be aware of their communities and community needs, we want them to develop interests and causes of their own, we want them to be philanthropic according to their own means, and we want to prepare them to participate in the family foundation or fund and, perhaps, pass it on to their children as well.

For many years, I have been looking into the ways philanthropic families raise charitable children. Three key themes have emerged for me and they have less to do with the age you start or the activities you offer. They come more from why you want your children to understand generosity as a key family value and how you hope they will take both a personal and a family role in philanthropy.

The first theme has to do with how you introduce your children to the possibility of participating in philanthropy. What will you communicate about the privilege of philanthropy? In your family, is privilege an entitlement or an honor and responsibility? Is the family’s charitable legacy a burden, a birthright, or an opportunity (all of the above?!)? I have been overwhelmed with the stories – both the sad and the delightful – of those who tried to teach privilege but were met with arrogance and selfishness while others discovered a richly meaningful new way to interact with their family members.

The second theme addresses the responsibility you’re preparing them for and the attitude you hope they will bring to the work. Will they guide the philanthropic resources entrusted to them with a sense of ownership or stewardship? There are so many things we give to our children to own and enjoy, even for a very short time. Other things, including legacy and values, we give them to hold in trust. You may give your daughter a bicycle and expect her to care for it and enjoy it for as long as it lasts (or until she decides on a spiffier model or, heaven forbid, a car). She owns the bicycle. But you also may be giving her your Grandmother’s quilt. In that case, you expect her to care for it, but there is also an expectation she will one day pass it on to a new generation. Now she is a steward.

My sister, Joan, has had a fairly average interest in cars: you put gas in them, take reasonable care of them, and they get you where you need to go. If it has the occasional nick or ding, no problem – until recently. Knowing she would probably have to get a new car in the not-too-distant future and knowing my very busy niece, Erin, was about to get her driver’s license, Joan promised her car to Erin. All of a sudden the ding in the passenger door was fixed, the side view mirror with the crack was replaced and there is even talk of painting. What’s the difference? Joan has gone from thinking of herself as a car owner to someone who is holding the car in trust for Erin. Her change in perspective and role prompted a change in how she cared for the asset.

There are likely family assets you will give to your children hoping you’ve taught them what it is to be a good owner. And, if you’ve got a foundation or donor advised fund, you will pass that public trust on to your children hoping you’ve taught them what stewardship means to you.

Finally, a common theme is emerging from my intense (if not statistically representative) sampling and that has to do with giving them the tools they will likely need to be successful. In those families where both parents and children, grandparents and extended family members report confidence and satisfaction in their work together and in the hope that the next generation will carry the work forward, there is a commonality. Those families have stressed the value of encouraging children in their own personal accomplishments.

These families value their children’s education and careers, their interests and ideas. They encourage them to volunteer – both independently and as a family. They encourage them to get involved in causes and institutions – even if they aren’t the focus of the family’s giving. They teach them how to pursue personal interests and still come to the family giving table with an ability to work within the parameters of shared values and interests. And they encourage them to give according to their own means – avoiding teaching them that philanthropy is all about giving away someone else’s money. By giving them both permission and expectations, they raise children that come together with their giving family confident in their own ideas, experiences, and instincts. These children don’t feel the need to draw on the family’s name, money, or philanthropy for their identity or self-esteem; rather they have something to offer the foundation or fund.

There are more themes to come: training models; eligibility and expectations; and matching grants as incentives among them. I continue this work in this field, I welcome your new stories, comments, and strategies. I marvel at the generosity of those who share their experiences with me and with others here at the National Center for Family Philanthropy. I continue to be as inspired as I am educated.

While it is the season of getting, remind yourself that there is as much, if not more, giving and sharing going on. This is a great time to teach by example and involvement. In this season of giving – whatever your holiday tradition may be – I hope you find many ways to include young people in your work and to see yourself as a charitable mentor.

Happy Christmas! Merry Hanukkah! Good Kwanzaa! May the New Year bring us peace and the promise of new generations of donors, volunteers, and giving families.