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Lasting legacies: Five strategies for impactful family philanthropy

February 26, 2020 Article 7 min read
Jacqueline Venier Wealth Management
These strategies can help your family give more effectively and create a passion for philanthropy that lasts generations.
Lasting legacies: Five strategies for impactful family philanthropy

What do the inheritors of wealth wish the previous generation told them about philanthropy? That’s a question we explored with our expert panel on family giving at the Plante Moran Wealth Management Summit. Moderator Jackie Venier sat down with Susan Dudas, Gretchen Valade, and Megan Fenkell to talk balancing new passions with family legacies, capturing knowledge from previous generations, and passing values and generosity to the next generation.

While all three of our panelists have lifetimes of experience in family philanthropy, their methods of execution and perspectives are unique. Susan’s experience involves running her family foundation, and she’s a prolific nonprofit board member. Megan also runs her family’s foundation, the Jamie and Denise Jacob Family Foundation, and Gretchen runs philanthropic projects at her family’s company, Carhartt. For all three women, giving is a cornerstone of their family values. In our discussion, we uncovered five strategies to help ingrain inspired philanthropy within your family culture for generations to come.

1. Start teaching your children about philanthropy early.

Whether or not you’re talking to your kids about money, they’re forming their own ideas about it from a very young age, and probably younger than you’d expect (a Cambridge University study suggests kids form money habits as early as age 7!). If you guide them early, you can ensure their personal “money story” is positive and their ideas about giving align with your family values. While our panelists all agree that there’s no one right age to teach the next generation about money, there are appropriate ways to introduce the idea of giving at any age.

A method recommended by Susan Dudas is to teach your kids to divide their money up into three “buckets” — one for spending, one for saving, and one for giving away. “My girls were reluctant to put that 10% away when they were little,” Susan explains, “but when they selected their charities to donate to, they felt a sense of ownership. It’s easy to give away Mom and Dad’s money, but when it’s their own, they take it more seriously.”

Megan suggests a method her family’s been known to use: “Kids get a certain amount from their parents at the beginning of the school year, and by the end of the year, they have to select a charity to give it to and present why they chose it to the family.” Allowing kids to participate in philanthropy themselves instead of just watching their parents instills a sense of responsibility, as well as a comfort and confidence around giving.

2. Honor the legacy …

When donating money inherited from previous generations, it’s important to consider the organizations that your family’s been supporting that might be depending on your donations. Plus, there’s a major feel-good factor in supporting the causes that meant so much to the family members that came before you. But, if you aren’t aware of what matters to previous generations, you might not know how to honor their legacy.

If you guide them early, you can ensure their personal “money story” is positive and their ideas about giving align with your family values.

If you’re lucky enough to still have older generations around, spend time with them and ask questions about where their passions and values lie. Why do they give to the organizations they support? If you don’t have a particular family legacy, create your own. Be sure to explain to the next generations what motivates your giving and why you want them to carry on your legacy.

One caveat here — stay up to date with the legacy organizations you support. A university program that Susan’s father had given to, that she wanted to continue to support, changed the way they operate. Because her father had retired early and spent a lot of time with her, she was confident that she understood his wishes. Even though the family had supported this particular fund for years, Susan knew that she would need to pivot to continue to honor her father’s legacy. Her family still supports the university but contributes to programs more in line with her father’s original intent.

3. … but consider your passions (and let your children follow their own).

It’s important to honor the legacy, but to stay motivated and inspired, you need to consider your own passions, and encourage your kids to follow theirs. Consider creating focus areas around the causes that mean most to you and concentrate your funds and support there.

“When we see our daughters focusing on particular causes, we do what we can to fan those flames,” Susan advises. If a cause can get your children passionate about philanthropy, it’s a worthy use of their time, even if it’s not in line with the causes you want to support.

If you don’t have a particular family legacy, create your own.

Following your passions doesn’t just mean donating to causes you’re passionate about; it can also mean doing activities you love to do in support of those causes. As Gretchen says, “I’ve been able to practice skills that I don’t do every day in my career by doing it with the organizations I support.” Gretchen loves event planning, so she fuels that passion by planning several annual events for the Detroit Institute of Arts, where she serves on the board.

4. Take your time, and value your time.

If you’re interested in supporting a certain organization, you don’t have to write a check today. As Megan explains, “When I was first starting out, I just wanted to give as much as possible to every organization, but I found it was more effective to take a step back, consider our focus areas, and evaluate whether an organization was a good fit for us.” Some foundations take as long as 18 months before selecting a charity to support, and while you don’t have to wait that long, it never hurts to take the time to “kick the tires,” as Susan says. You want to make sure that the organizations you’re supporting not only align with your legacy and passions, but also that the funds you contribute are going to the right things.

Of course, money isn’t the only way to give — giving of your time is an important piece of being philanthropic, but, like money, it should be spent wisely. “Some advice I got that I didn’t take but should have was to value my time,” says Gretchen, who serves on three boards. “Each board requires quite a bit of time, and if you’re on a board, you’ll need to commit fully. I suggest joining a subcommittee.” If you don’t have the time to join a board, there are smaller ways to contribute, like volunteering at events.

5. Do it your way.

Megan grew up participating in charity activities with her family in the conventional way — driving down to the inner city to serve soup or drop off gifts, then heading back to the suburbs. As her views on giving evolved, she decided that she didn’t like the feeling of swooping in as a savior; she wanted to work side by side with the people whom she wanted to support. Now, for example, if she and her family are supporting an event for kids, you’ll find her working with the parents of the kids the organization supports, and her kids will be there enjoying the event with the other kids from different backgrounds and cultures.

Putting your name on a donation is a powerful tool for inspiring your peers to follow suit.

For Gretchen, doing it her way means giving of her time and sharing her knowledge as much as possible. “I want to make my own identity in Detroit, so I encourage myself to get involved in ways that are meaningful to me.” In serving on the many boards she’s a part of, philanthropy has become a major part of her social life, which keeps her inspired to give.

Another thing to consider is whether or not you want to put your name on a contribution — there are advantages to both methods. Like one audience member suggests, putting your name on a donation is a powerful tool for inspiring your peers to follow suit. However, Susan’s family gets great satisfaction from supporting in secret, and it’s a fun tradition for them. You don’t have to pick one way — there’s a time and a place for either. At the end of the day, there’s no wrong way to give.

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