As part of my work with the Fund for Academic Renewal, I am privileged to hear many stories of families who enjoy giving together. It is possible to cultivate a shared ethos that guides philanthropic decisions, whether through small trusts or long-established, mega foundations, if you invest time in living out your values with your children and in explicitly including those values in your choice of giving vehicle.
While it is never too late to begin talking to your children about philanthropy, the sooner you begin these conversations the better. Beginning at a young age normalizes discussions around giving responsibly. For instance, the Youngbloods, Arizona-based philanthropists, made two conscious decisions early on as parents. First, they planned to give away the majority of their net worth rather than leaving a large inheritance. Second, they hoped to use giving to teach their children responsibility and generosity. Towards these ends, they established a charitable trust and an educational trust, thereby creating a process for their children to practice philanthropy.
Every year, the Youngblood children received a set amount of funds for charitable purposes. Their parents left them alone for a set time period to decide where the money would be distributed. Once the decisions were made, the siblings explained which organizations would receive funds, how much, and why. As the children matured, the amount of money grew as well, and their spouses now participate in the committee. Not only did the Youngbloods model giving through their own charitable efforts, including their children in those activities helped them develop a rigorous thought process to evaluate potential beneficiaries.
The Youngbloods’ approach is one of many that donors can take to involve their children in the giving process. Similar conversations may begin organically, with a child discovering a cause and encouraging the family to take an interest. As the practice of family philanthropy carries into adulthood, families can choose to continue to make time for conversations about their values and how to translate those into their giving.
Longtime donor to The Citadel, Peter Sulick told FAR in an interview, “You cannot control everything, but you can develop a giving ethos among your immediate family members. My daughter works for me, I see her every day, and we are very close. She was specifically named as my heir that will step into my role when I'm no longer able to do it. She knows exactly what it is I would like to do, and if at some point in time she decides that she wants one of her four children to be in that role, hopefully she's imbued them with the same ethos. And maybe that will continue.”
In many high-net-worth families, the philanthropic legacy extends several generations. Descendants may choose to create their own charitable vehicles while still participating in the family business of giving. Alice Walton, for instance, started the Alice Walton Foundation and the Art Bridges Foundation in 2017. Her personal charitable endeavors focus on expanding access to art and healthcare. She is also a member of the Walton Family Foundation, which concentrates on giving in Arkansas and is primarily family-run. The foundation’s Board of Directors is comprised of family members and spouses, and each program is run by a committee of Walton descendants. Remaining involved in a broader family foundation does not preclude donors from pursuing their own charitable goals but provides a starting point from which they can grow in their philanthropic endeavors.
At $3.4 billion in assets, the John Templeton Foundation is an excellent example of how even large foundations can codify the vision of the original donor. Between the foundation’s inception in 1987 and his stepping down as chairman in 2006, Sir John Templeton refined the foundation’s charter as he grew as a philanthropist. Joanne Florino, in the Philanthropy Roundtable’s 2020 guide Protecting Your Legacy: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Honoring and Preserving Donor Intent, explains how five principles from Sir John’s own life still drive giving decisions at the Templeton Foundation: intellectual humility and open-mindedness, relentless curiosity, and individual and economic freedom. Now worth over $3.4 billion, the Foundation still conducts external donor-intent audits every five years to ensure the foundation is adhering to Sir John’s vision by honoring those principles.
Not every family will prioritize maintaining strict adherence to an original donor intent but developing a set of principles to drive thoughtful philanthropy creates a giving ethos with a sense of continuity. The practice of philanthropy is also one way to strengthen family ties, rather than let conflict over money tear them apart. By establishing good habits early on, prioritizing time spent together, and refining their values, families can cultivate a spirit of generosity that carries forward.