Guiding Your Children: Meaningful Philanthropy

Meaningful philanthropy grows from deep roots. Its beginnings are in the development of empathy. For teens and young adult family members, the important first steps are in the volunteering they do. This volunteering is for perspective and understanding.

First, to develop meaningful and effective philanthropy, young family members need to volunteer to help teens and young adults, who through no fault of their own, are in hospitals or assisted living because they cannot function on their own (e.g., cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, paraplegics from accidents, other injuries and medical disorders). This volunteering should be ongoing, for instance, three times per week for an entire summer. The summer commitment is so that your junior family members have the opportunity to form relationships with some of these young people who are living in difficult circumstances. The object is for your teen or young adult to see that the people they serve aren’t “the other,” but are very much like them, with the same hopes, dreams and desires. If successful, your young family members will develop empathy for those they help. They may also recognize that their own financial position (just like the physical condition of those living in institutions) is not of their own making. In your junior family member’s case, their financial advantage is the result of the efforts of others and a blessing for which they should be immensely grateful. It is certainly not a badge of entitlement or status.

Second, they also need to experience working with teens and young adults who, as a result of their own bad choices, usually involving drugs and/or alcohol, are not able to take care of themselves now – like those who depend on the Salvation Army. Again, this needs to be an ongoing volunteer job, so that they have the opportunity to form relationships. At best, your young volunteers will realize the impact bad decisions can make on their own lives and their volunteer experience will make vivid the reality of the consequences that flow from such behavior.

Additionally, there is the need for young people to understand that charities vary widely and selecting one takes careful consideration. Learning how to use analysis tools such as Charity Navigator is also good for their education in becoming a discerning giver. What does the charity say they accomplish and how does their claim stand up under scrutiny? This discernment is important in evaluating charities and can open the eyes of these young family members to the full range of management effectiveness or lack thereof.

When young family members are deciding how they would like to volunteer, there is a wonderful opportunity to discuss the fact that there is often a big difference between doing something that actually helps and doing something that makes YOU feel better. How do you tell the difference? They can focus on observing this in their own volunteering and it is a constructive topic for a family discussion.

Volunteering and these early steps of philanthropy can be processed as a family, and this will provide valuable opportunities for discussion and understanding. The family philanthropy model at this early stage can be simple and modest. For these first steps, it is not necessary to participate in a family foundation, nor is it ever, during these early learning experiences. Even when you add monetary gifts to your elementary philanthropy program, any funds set apart for your giving will do. The money donated is not the focus. The study of financial concerns can be introduced later.

There is a rich array of concerns that can be exemplified and taught in these early steps. Parents can effectively highlight recognition of family strengths; kindness; responsibility; generosity; business principles (through their research); and later, investing principles (through managing the funds which will produce the income to be designated for gifts). Last but not least, the family can experience teamwork with its multifaceted benefits.

Tucked inside the early steps of philanthropy is a powerful message for these young family members. We all inherit assets in life. For some it is great intelligence, for some it is fabulous good looks, or athletic ability. For some it is financial resources or it may simply be the quality of resourcefulness, but we all inherit some kinds of assets. However, the one thing no one inherits is a meaningful life. For that, we have to work.

None of us have been given a meaningful life, we are each meant to build one. Many wealthy family members, usually those who are not indulging in entitlement and who have developed empathy, find fulfillment and meaning in the work of their philanthropy.

© 2013 Thayer Cheatham Willis. All Rights Reserved.

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