Giving well to charities and organizations outside one’s family is difficult . . . but giving well to children, grandchildren, and other family members is even more challenging -- after all, what causes more fights and hurt feelings than money and family? Giving well within families is the subject of a wise new book The Cycle of the Gift: Family Wealth and Wisdom, by lawyer James E. Hughes Jr., psychologist Susan E. Massenzio, and scholar Keith Whitaker. All three have long experience in advising wealthy families about how to transmit wealth between generations and to give philanthropically.
Their intended audience is men and women who are properly daunted by the task of giving thoughtfully to family members or managing a family trust. Drawing on their experience as advisors to wealthy families, their book is full of practical advice, for example: how to balance giving “fairly” vs. “equally” to children whose circumstances differ widely; how and when to involve children and grandchildren in philanthropy (starting at age six and limiting young children’s grant authority to no more than $500); whether to ask children who will eventually inherit great wealth to get a prenuptial agreement (yes, if there is a family business); and the difference between a charitable lead trust and a charitable remainder trust (and why wealthy families might be better off avoiding perpetual trusts altogether).
But the heart of The Cycle of the Gift is not the abundance of practical advice it offers but the philosophy of giving and receiving it imparts.
As the authors stress, no gift is neutral in its effects; no gift is “free.” A gift to a family member can have the character of a mere transfer of resources from one family member to another, not much different than a business transaction. Such gifts tend merely to subsidize and confirm the recipients’ past choices rather than open new possibilities for the future.
All depends on what the authors call “the spirit of the gift” -- the spirit in which it is offered and the spirit in which it is received:
The spirit of the gift, we believe, arises from the natural struggle between entropy -- the force of decline, diminishment, and destruction -- and growth or generativity. So often in our lives stale forms of thought and behavior contribute to entropy. Gifts offered as mere subsides, to maintain the existing state of things, actually foster decline. How many times have these subsidies undermined the well-being they were meant to maintain! In contrast, gifts that seek to transform and enhance often generate new life.
As the authors caution, the talk about “spirit” sounds rather like “new age” talk, but it’s meant to point to the virtues that make for successful giving: most especially the virtue of humility on the part of the wealthy parent or family member to recognize that his success depended upon gifts that he received early in life -- such as sound, if humble, upbringing.
Those in a position to give large gifts to family must find way to give that fosters the growth and maturation of recipients -- a task that might be harder than accumulating wealth in the first place:
Affluent families often focus on how much they have. Perhaps you can buy homes for all your adult children or pay for school for all your grandchildren. But in thinking about what is buyable, we easily lose sight of what is desirable.
Giving wisely is never easy -- something to remember in this season of gift-giving. Even gifts of very little monetary value can carry the power to uplift another’s spirit or to wound him. The Cycle of the Gift is a valuable practical guide for those who have the capacity to give great wealth, but the authors’ insights about giving and receiving in the right spirit apply much more broadly.