It must be December because I am making a list and checking it twice – of all the things I promised myself I would do this year and have yet to accomplish. Taking stock is a healthy and disciplining exercise. It is also humbling and instructive. This December, I am learning new things about assessment, the value of heritage and history, and the inspiring lessons offered by children.

I am very excited that the National Center has new ideas and an important new resource to offer as you take stock of your grantmaking. Rarely do assessment tools in our field take into account the participation of donors and families. We have tried to address that lack with a new teleconference and publication. Janice Molnar has been conducting interviews and focus groups on evaluation in family giving programs for the last several months. She is the featured speaker for this month’s teleconference and will be sharing an executive summary of her findings with participants. Look for the full paper early in 2008.

So often, those involved in family philanthropy look to their rich charitable history for clues in developing their values, mission, and grantmaking. They examine the experiences of long ago ancestors and recall the charitable traditions of their family; perhaps they look into all the grants and bequests the founders made or interview senior family members. All offer a wonderful peek into our philanthropic past as well as possible direction for our giving today.

Those of you who follow this column know that I often use the December message to focus on what we can teach and share with our children. It is a time for reflection and gratitude. It is also the month when so many will give so much to others: volunteer time; presents; charitable donations; and more presents. True to form, last year I shared themes emerging from my work on raising charitable children.

This year, children have inspired me to write about what I have learned about charitable giving from them. I am convinced they have all the instincts to share and even give out right. Did you ever see a toddler hold a lollipop out for another person to share? (Okay, and how many of you faked licking the lollipop to both encourage and show gratitude for the gesture while avoiding the sticky mess?)

Having Susan Price, author of The Giving Family, join our staff has introduced me to some pretty big examples of the philanthropic spirit of young people. Susan told me about a group of seventh graders who mounted a community initiative so impressive it drew the attention (and the matching funds!) of major foundations. Her research for that book chronicled dozens and dozens of like examples.

I once spoke at a donor program for the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region and invited the 11-year-old granddaughter of a community foundation donor to speak about the charitable effort she organized that raised thousands of dollars for less fortunate children. (I have also learned what it means to be thoroughly upstaged.)

Like me, you probably don’t have to look beyond your family for examples. And, like me, you probably underestimate the potential of your kids to accomplish big things – for themselves and for others.

About a year ago, my nephews Michael and Patrick told me how much they wanted an Xbox 360 game player. They also told me they knew it was really expensive. I immediately considered whether I should get one for them for Christmas. Before I could act on that thought, I heard that Michael and Patrick had decided to fund the purchase themselves. They used birthday money, took on pet-sitting jobs, and saved for a very, very long time. At one point, I even thought again about “topping off” the fund, but they were so proud of what they were doing for themselves, I decided against it. I was also proud they were doing something together (not common for 11- and 14-year-old brothers). When they finally made the purchase, they were prouder and more pleased than they would have been had they been given the game console. My first lesson was in the joy of and growth that comes from self-sufficiency and personal accomplishment.

I was particularly pleased to see that lesson transfer to their giving to others. Christmas shopping can often mean accompanying children to the mall and financing their purchases for family members. This year, both boys report they have finished their Christmas shopping and paid for everything themselves (how much money CAN you make from pet-sitting?).

You might remember me telling you the story a few years ago of celebrating Michael’s birth by taking a tag off the “Angel Tree” for an infant boy. I thought I would express gratitude for our healthy baby boy by remembering another boy his age. I have done so every year since and, beginning at age four, Michael has accompanied me on the trip. This year, Michael told me he has already taken a tag off the tree for a 14 year old boy and he intends to contribute to the gifts we will purchase. My second lesson came from assuming that giving to others – especially those you will never meet – is less of a commitment and joy than buying for yourself.

As a doting aunt, it is tempting to want to make life easy for my young family members and to give them the little extra things that make life fun. But in doing so, I could take the adventure, the challenge, and the feeling of accomplishment right out of it. I could also undermine my other efforts to share the love of giving and volunteering with them.

This year, remind yourself it is the season of giving as well as getting. Chances are the children in your life already know.

Wishing you peace, joy and the love of family – now and in the New Year,

Virginia M. Esposito
President, National Center for Family Philanthropy