Addressing the Taboo: Talking About Money in Family Philanthropy

Money Messages and Wealth Identity

When we work with philanthropic families in our multigenerational and next generation engagement practice at 21/64, family members share their values, their vision and their philanthropic passions and grantmaking.  Grantmaking is many things to many people, but it is fundamentally about the transfer of money. In our work with families, it often makes us wonder about where money culture and wealth identity show up in a family and how it gets taught and shared. We have come to define money culture as the family’s values, beliefs, rules, customs, messages and practices around their money and finances. We often see how a family’s money culture plays a big role in the development of each family member’s wealth identity—who each family member is in relation to their wealth as a financial decision-maker and how they make money decisions.

Exploring money culture and wealth identity is a particularly big question because money is one of those topics that is not often spoken about. Still considered taboo in many conversations, money is often the dirty word we talk around instead of addressing head on. It’s something our wider culture doesn’t address directly, and when it comes to families where money can represent so much more than just numbers on a balance sheet—like love, approval or control—it can sometimes act as a stand in for other underlying communication challenges within the family. And that can make the topic feel off-limits in a way.

One aspect of the work of 21/64 is to help individuals and families take what is unsaid about their money culture and wealth identity and say it through intentional conversations and intentional actions. For example, a family came to us with a “philanthropy problem.” They had a vision of making grant decisions with three generations of their family, but the third generation was not actively engaging in the process. How could we help them to participate? In conversations with the third generation, it became clear that it wasn’t a philanthropy problem, it was a money problem. Using our Money Messages tool, we asked the third generation to consider the money messages they received growing up and the money messages they would like to live by going forward. Hearing messages such as “Never spend the principle” and “The money belongs to those who make the money” seemed to be in conflict with having agency or leadership in a process of giving away money, even for charitable purposes. Before they could engage in grantmaking, we had to address the money at the center of the situation.

The Next Generation

Likewise, in the work we do with the next generation at our Next Gen Donor retreats, we often use our Lay It On the Line exercise to ask them to agree or disagree with a statement on a continuum line. One question that can bring up a lot of emotions for people is: “I am comfortable talking about money.” There are a range of answers from “Yes” to “I don’t even say that word with my family”, but for the next gen who are not comfortable having money conversations, most are actually really hungry to talk about it. In some cases, they experience an internal conflict of privilege and guilt and are seeking opportunities to wrestle with those ideas. In families with a culture where money is not discussed, we often see that the next generation also misses out on related conversations of wealth, privilege, purpose and the “why” of giving as a family.

The good news is that research from the book Generation Impact: How Next Gen Donors Are Revolutionizing Giving, co-authored by our colleague Sharna Goldseker, illuminated that the greatest influence on children are parents and grandparents—89% of next gen said they learned their values from their parents and 63% from their grandparents. This is an empowering statistic for all the parents and grandparents that what you do matters. We know that much of parenting happens in observation.  Children and grandchildren observe the choices we make and how we spend our time and dollars. So how do we bring more intentionality to our actions around money? How do we have specific conversations that bring to light our connection to money? And how do we increase the transparency of our actions? It starts with exploring your family’s money culture and your own wealth identity. By reflecting on what values, stories and money messages you inherited from your family, and what values, stories and money messages you want to live by in your life going forward, you can better understand yourself—your opportunities and challenges in the area of money. Whether they came to you directly or indirectly, these parts of our identity inform our attitudes and behaviors about money and give you the knowledge and purpose to be more intentional about how you act—save, spend and give money—and about what you communicate to your family.

Making Time for Money Conversations

Often the hardest part of talking about money is getting started. We encourage families to use our Exploring Wealth cards which are a series of questions that give you a structure and ideas to initiate the conversation. Some families will include time at their foundation meetings and use the cards to ask open-ended questions, such as “What is it about having wealth that fulfills you?” or “Beyond the financial element of wealth, how would you define your prosperity?”  These questions create constructive dialogue that allow for personal reflection and intentional conversations across generations—often illuminating topics that have not previously been discussed. By using the cards on a regular basis, families are flexing their conversation muscles, removing the weight of money as the taboo topic and creating the skills to have meaningful discussions of wealth.

In the examples shared earlier, it is through individual conversations with all of the family members about both their family’s money culture and their individual wealth identities that we are able to create space and a voice for everyone involved and, as an objective third party, reflect back what we hear. Then the family can identify the common threads and acknowledge where there are differences to be able to make decisions together. With awareness of the challenges and opportunities those similarities and differences represent, the family can discuss money more openly, make better informed decisions and make the change they want to see in the world through their grantmaking.

Interested in this topic? Watch our webinar Money, Values, and Culture featuring Robyn Schein or find resources from our Money and Values Content Collection.