November 14, 2018
We all remember the excitement of receiving gifts as children — the thrill of unwrapping a present that you didn’t expect; the anticipation of not knowing what’s inside. The happiness that came from receiving gifts provided some of our best memories growing up.
But we eventually reach an age when we realize that giving gifts can be just as rewarding as receiving them. As adults, the satisfaction of giving back or the joy of making someone happy becomes some of our best memories. We recognize that enriching the lives of others makes us all wealthier.
As parents, how can we instill a charitable mindset in our children so they can experience the joy of giving at a young age?
For me, my first experience with charity came from attending church with my parents. When I was very young, I remember watching my parents write a check to the church on a weekly basis. I participated in the process by helping them stuff the check into a church envelope and placing it into the collection plate. I knew it was important for my parents and the church.
As I got older, my parents gave me my own box of checks and explained the reasons why it was important to give, the expectations for giving, and how my donations were used by the church. It was then that I realized that all of the good that our church did for others was not free but instead came from the generosity of its members. I was impressed with how much our church could accomplish by pooling this generosity and how good I felt to be a part of it. Not only did my parents instill a charitable mindset, but they also shared with me their values that I carried into adulthood.
For most of us, the thought of raising charitable children is important, but we struggle with how and when to have the discussion with them. So what do the experts say? We asked a philanthropic advisor and Aspiriant client, Stephanie Ellis-Smith, for tips on raising charitable children.
Stephanie is the founder and principal advisor of Phila Engaged Giving. She has spent more than 20 years in the social sector serving many non-profits in various capacities including chief executive, board member and trustee. Her Seattle-based firm specializes in providing strategic advice to affluent families in creating and maintaining a thoughtful and successful giving plan.
Stephanie believes children do not need to dive straight into strategic philanthropic planning. “I believe it is more important to focus on the foundation of what any charitable act is based on — empathy,” she says.
To instill a charitable mindset in your children, Stephanie offers the following ideas.
1. Expose them to need
Most kids live in bubbles encompassing their homes, schools and not much else. Unless you live in a particularly diverse area, your kids may not have friends who’ve experienced hunger, insecure housing, or the worry that comes with a jobless parent. Look for the teachable moments in movies, TV and in real life when you notice someone struggling. What would it be like to be in their shoes? What is their day like? Volunteering at the food bank will be much more meaningful if you can have a discussion on why some people don’t have enough to eat.
2. Talk about what giving means
After you’ve explored some issues together, start talking about what it means to help. Donating money is but one way to be charitable. Volunteering or just being kind to others who are struggling is important too, especially for young children.
It can be quite interesting to look for inspiration from those who are already in the trenches and doing the work. Point out particularly generous or charitable people and praise them in front of your kids. For example, we are unfortunately experiencing more and more disasters, natural and manmade, and the news runs on a 24-hour cycle. A great idea comes from the venerable Mr. Rogers. He says to “look for the helpers.” What are they doing to assist others in need? What are they sacrificing and why?
If your children are older, write out the charities you give to and volunteer for regularly. Show them the list and discuss why you chose those organizations.
3. Make it a family value
If being a family who supports their community and gives generously is important to you, walk your talk. Kids are smart. If they see all talk and no action, they will quickly dismiss any philanthropic goals as disingenuous.
So get involved yourself, with or without them. Make charitable donations when possible, serve on boards, have a charity of choice, etc. It will make an impact on them if dinner is a little late one day a week because you’re volunteering at the library. When appropriate, ask your kids to help you come up with ideas to give as a family, preferably in a way that does not directly benefit them (e.g., their school or sports team). Consistently demonstrate that one is expected to help those in need — family, friends and strangers alike. They may initially feel burdened by it, but research shows, and we know it ourselves, that helping others feels good.
4. Remind them they inherit more than money
The mores and values we inherit define our family membership for generations. To the extent possible, engage grandparents, great-grandparents and other extended family members to create a family narrative that does not involve money or what you own. Perhaps it’s your family genesis story, places that make your family unique, or how your family planted roots in the city you’re in. Share the sayings, anecdotes and culture that make your family unique and bind you to higher ideals.
5. Recognize the privilege that comes with wealth
Regardless of how it came to you, there is an undeniable privilege that comes with having money to help others. While money can’t buy happiness, it does buy convenience. Maybe your kids don’t need to work during high school or won’t be burdened by student loans like some of their friends. Being more aware of the advantages that wealth affords won’t make your situation similar to your peers, but it helps to recognize others who have a different experience. No, not everyone will appreciate it. But it’s being honest, and there is integrity in honesty.
In my experience, instilling empathy and creating a passion for philanthropy are among the great legacies a family can leave their children. When I work with clients to help them create a financial plan that includes philanthropy, I’m often reminded of a saying by Winston Churchill, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Achieving a long-term family goal of philanthropy doesn’t have to be daunting. The most important thing is to just get started. Share your ideas with a financial advisor who can recommend financial strategies and work with a philanthropic advisor to help you select and evaluate charitable beneficiaries, facilitate multi-generational family meetings, and clarify your family’s values around giving. Initiating conversations with family members of all ages can create an open and collaborative environment to explore your family’s motivations around giving. With the proper planning and inclusion, your children will be able to see how rewarding philanthropy can be and how they can share in taking it to the next level.
“Without setting a clear idea of the outcomes you envision for your family — the big question of why you’re doing this — the family can lose its way and see philanthropy as a burden,” Stephanie adds. “The prework, before you get to philanthropy, is getting in touch with your values and making sure they are aligned as a family group. Developing in your child a basic sense of connectedness to their community and care for others will set them in the right direction.”
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