David Trickett: Wealth and Giving – Notes from a Spiritual Frontier

What are the relationships between faith and wealth, on the one hand, and faith and giving, on the other? This essay from ‘Faith and Family Philanthropy’ will help families address the important links between their faith, spirituality, and philanthropy and serve as an educational tool for wealth advisors to use in their work with families.


What are the relationships between faith and wealth, on the one hand, and faith and giving, on the other? How can families of faith, who are also families of wealth, approach this question with some kind of orderly process, in ways that ensure a useful outcome that is both based on their faith and consistent with their family responsibilities?

It turns out that these times are particularly suited to seeking answers. Now, just after the turn of yet another century, we find ourselves at the threshold of a new frontier. Venture philanthropy, socially responsible investing, faith-based investing, spiritually screened hedge funds — all of this is quite new, and gives grounds for a thoughtful look at this frontier at whose edges we now stand.

If you were to go into the world of the securities industry today, as I do in the course of my work, you’d find some very interesting developments. Whether you focus on growth or value opportunities for your clients, you’re likely hearing something with increasing frequency from them: I don’t want only high returns, I want somehow to do something good, or at least keep from doing harm. Several decades ago, a group of clergy and laity decided to pick investment options according to principles of social responsibility, which they saw as an inescapable aspect of their faith. Over the years, entities such as the Calvert Group, the legendary work of Sir John Templeton, and even the more recently emergent Domini Social Investment Funds have brought more than $2 trillion under professional management. To be sure, not everyone who invests in such ventures is a person of active, professed faith. Still, many are, and in some cases they even participate in such funds without actually knowing it (through pension fund activity, for example—including a number of multibillion dollar funds of various religious denominations and orders).

Yet there is a bit of head-scratching going on in the wealth management industry: A noticeable number of families are asking for help in connecting their generation and accumulation of wealth with their giving. Donor-advised funds, socially active philanthropy, and the like are sprouting like flowers after a desert rainfall. A decided — and growing — number of these families are acting from a faith-based perspective, asking questions that make financial advisors scurry around looking for good answers.

That’s one of the ways I originally got into the picture: Having been brought up in a family of relative privilege, mine was also one of deep faith; and from early days I was nurtured, in the spirit of the 18th century Anglican John Wesley, to strive and acquire what can responsibly be gotten, save all I can, and give all I can. Not always doing a brilliant job at balancing these three phases of what is in fact a spiritual discipline of caring for wealth and its dissemination, I have nonetheless been an active scout on this frontier for a long time. From this perspective, I have been able to serve as both a reality check and a professional resource to those who are trying to figure out how best to work with this new development. It hasn’t hurt that much of my graduate education was in theology and ethics.

Seeking a Conceptual Framework

The conceptual framework I’ve wrestled with, and have found helpful to illumine the wealth-faith-giving thread, has been contributed to by countless women and men who have gone before me, but at heart they all converge somehow to a basic set of themes: some members of families of wealth have:

  • Developed a more or less unvarnished sense of gratitude for the means they have acquired or inherited, and they want both to preserve those assets and give a portion back to society; or
  • Experienced a crisis, sometimes bringing with it a life-jarring moment of judgment, and have come out of it with a sense of need to pay back, for they now have a calling of duty that they believe they must exercise; or
  • Become aware (or are becoming aware) that wealth — which entails not only money and what it can buy but also time and talent — has brought them to struggle with their very sense of self — their identity, the values for which they and their family stand, and the traditions of which they are a part, both within their blood family and a broader community of shared convictions. They find themselves exploring different ways of “discovering” themselves by giving philanthropically to various undertakings.

Underlying all these basic themes is a consistent and ancient call that resonates from core sacred texts:

What good is it, my friends, for someone to say he has faith when his actions do nothing to show it?…Suppose that [someone], whether man or woman, is in rags with not enough food for the day, and one of you says, “Goodbye, keep warm, and have a good meal,” but does nothing to supply their bodily needs, what good is that? So with faith; if it does not lead to action, it is by itself a lifeless thing….Do you have to be told, you fool, that faith divorced from action is futile?… As the body is dead when there is no breath left in it, so faith divorced from action is dead.

A deep-seated connection exists between the conviction that one is claimed by a Higher Power and how one is to live in the world. Simply put, how we see things shapes how we act.

The lens of faith is far more widely used at its intersection with wealth and giving than we may initially think. One key reason for this is that many spiritual leaders who are duly credentialed (ordained in some traditions) don’t ever get educated to address such matters. Further, in their active working careers, they don’t generally take the opportunity to reflect on and then enter into a dialogue with others about wealth, faith, and giving beyond the very narrow “stewardship” themes that tend to surround congregational life. As a result, they don’t do a very good job of helping to educate those in their spiritual care. The annual “stewardship” campaigns to help fund houses of worship tend to perpetuate a deep split in our understanding of what wealth is all about — and that affects how we draw the line that links wealth with giving.

One of the chief obstacles we must overcome before people of means can find a real sense of dynamism weaving their wealth with their investing and their giving is that of seeing “wealth” to equate with “money.” Many houses of faith shy away from giving more than lip service to such a comprehensive understanding of wealth as to include family values, traditions of blood generations that continue to live and shape a family’s identity, and the capacities and dreams that any of us has to offer the world.

Thus, it isn’t awfully surprising that people of means who also happen to be people of faith are often at a loss in knowing how to be the most effective stewards of all that they have been given. They talk only about money. Because of this relative confusion, not too many of us talk about the broader meaning of wealth — which is why we may be surprised to learn just how widespread our own kinds of question and concern about these matters are.

Deep spiritual principles (faith practices, if you will) guide both strong financial principles and philanthropic principles — in fact, they are the same principles simply given different practical expression. Here’s a link that we will do well to ponder: to generate and preserve wealth, we need to focus and invest in the effort. The same applies in our giving. The head and the heart must be linked explicitly with one another to fathom — and then to practice with a sense of real fulfillment — the disciplined art of investing and giving that is enriched by faith.

When we see things in a certain way, we find that what our advisors and brokers speak of in terms of “wealth management” should actually also be seen as a form of giving back. If, for example, we invest in international stocks that can enrich women and men around the world who are in need, and in whom the investment is a deep form of developing capacities and options for their—and our—future, then that act is in itself a profound form of giving to society.

Many of us have not arrived at this point of insight. We are somewhere else on the journey of self-discovery as we go about amassing assets and then overseeing their distribution, and there are often bumps of different kinds along the way to keep us from easily arriving at this balanced understanding of faith, wealth, and giving.

A friend of mine once expressed his struggle in a way that echoes in the lives of many people to whom privilege and success have been given: “Is this all there is?” He found himself asking questions of faith that his earlier experience –which also included a long relationship with alcohol — had nearly smothered. And some answers began to come, among them the crucial awareness, as he puts it, that “how you live your life does matter.” In the process of reclaiming a heritage of faith and its impact on his growing wealth and nascent giving, he began to search the depths of his very identity, asking what all people of faith must in one way or another: “What is God’s will for me and all I’ve been given?” It is the question of those seeking to find an appropriate response to the enveloping mystery that faith claims upholds us in life. A sense of grace, of blessedness, of gratitude before very long led to a sense that he had an obligation to live responsibly.

Following that bend in the road of his life-journey, he found that again, before too many years had passed, he had now developed a strong desire to give back. So the circle connecting wealth and its accumulation with the deepening and maturation of a faith-life refined by struggles not unlike those faced by others, was made complete by leading him to discern the path forward. These days, he thinks of giving “in a broad sense of time, treasure, and talent.” For him, although he undertakes to give money “wisely and usefully,” the most significant aspect of his giving back is how he gives himself. A strong link connects disciplined, faithful life, and giving in the path he’s chosen to follow.

What Are the Lessons Learned?

What are the lessons learned from experience like my own or my friend’s? Each path taken has something to share with the others; that’s a basic principle of shared learning that comes from living on the frontier. What can we say that contributes to the desires of others who are privileged as they seek to find a powerful and sustainable relationship between faith and giving? Here are a few key lessons:

  • We can reflect both individually and as part of a family meeting on just what money, faith, and family are all about. This isn’t for the purpose of conducting a mental exercise, but rather for claiming the boundaries of what’s important for us. That we frame questions well is absolutely essential; and it is for this reason that often we find another person, not part of our family, is best suited to help us with this process.
  • We need to ask ourselves how we are motivated in the faith and wealth arena—what aspirations really move us so that we want to be more than spectators of the world’s passing show?
  • How can we see investing (more traditionally thought of as wealth accumulation and its preservation) as a form of giving, and not merely as a venture in personal gain? Likewise, can we allow ourselves to be stretched so that our traditional notion of “giving back” is grasped as a form of investing in society’s betterment? When we are able to make these concepts interchangeable in our hearts as well as our minds, we find firsthand how faith, wealth, and philanthropy can be effectively connected to each other.
  • We must realize that some potential stumbling-blocks can easily get in our way: fear and envy often undermine developing the trust needed to invest and give with the sense of purpose and fulfillment faith gives us grounds to have.

Summing Up: Faith, Family, and Giving

Overcoming fear and envy is important, but only part of our task. Family dynamics—especially across generations and geographic distance – pose a constant challenge. The commitment of family wealth to a large family foundation, for example, may raise profound questions of family values; when is blood thicker than the charitable impulse? Professional advisors may be one-dimensional in their counsel and may have difficulty understanding our family’s unique strengths and weaknesses. Family office staff may not really “get” what we’re most deeply about and therefore try to manage in ways that diminish their effectiveness in serving us. We may experience a gnawing anxiety that we may not “have enough,” and therefore feel we have to acquire and hold more than we sense a call to give.

Sometimes, these powerful cross currents may even paralyze our investor and donor intent. We must be freed from our attempts to hold too tightly to our investments, whether for financial or societal gain. We’ve learned that real joy comes only when we let the spirit of thanksgiving live through all our actions and also shape the way we understand what we’re trying to do as people of faith who want that factor in our lives to make a difference in our giving. Now the challenge before each of us is to live what we have been led to profess.