Ask NPC: How should I involve my children in our family’s giving?

Parents are powerful role models in all aspects of a child’s life, and philanthropy is no different. Research suggests charitable behaviour when young is associated with altruistic behaviour as an adult. Many parents want to ensure their children develop an active social conscience early in life, by showing them how rewarding and enjoyable giving can be. Allowing them to learn firsthand about issues you care about, and the difference your time and money can make, is a great way to help them develop.

NPC’s  2010 Family Office survey  indicated 85% of families with children under 21 involve them in their giving, and a recent US study found a majority of people felt they have a responsibility to pass on a tradition of philanthropic giving to their children. Even if children are too young to be responsible for major giving decisions, they can begin learning why philanthropy is important, what it can achieve and how much fun it can be.

At NPC we encourage families to introduce their children to the idea of giving from an early age—seven or eight. Often parents are surprised how interested their children are; we worked with one family who thought their 10-year-old wouldn’t be interested in a charity working with terminally ill children, but took her along when they visited the charity because they couldn’t find a baby-sitter. Three days later she was still talking about the charity non-stop.

Charitable activity brings families together, providing a focus and building traditions. Some foundations set family-focused objectives alongside issue-based ones, for example to educate younger generations in philanthropy. Some use charitable giving as a way to introduce their children to money management. One philanthropist we work with asks his children to donate 25% of their monthly pocket money to charitable causes. Private banks running courses on assets and responsibility often include sessions on philanthropy, involving challenges, games, and charity visits to help young people engage with charitable projects.

Families take different approaches to involving their children in giving. Some divide funds into various pots with each family member allowed to fund as they like. Others choose a consensus-based approach, where all members choose causes and charities together. Some decide on overarching themes together, but different members build up specialist knowledge in particular areas, reporting back to the rest of the board on charities they propose to fund.

Whichever way you choose, a key element of good family giving is to let your children make their own choices about what to support with their time and money. In this way, they can develop an independent sense of philanthropy, identify issues they care about, and see the rewards giving can bring.

Sometimes this may also mean standing aside and allowing them to make choices you don’t agree with. A client of ours gave his children pots of money to give away themselves. One of the children wanted to support an organisation that our client felt was not very effective. But he restrained himself from telling him not to donate to it, as he was keen he should learn on his own. When the client and his son visited the organisation a year later they saw that the money had been squandered. The client felt this provided a better lesson than if he had prevented his child from giving to the organisation based on his own suspicions.

There is no right or wrong way to involve your family in your giving. The key is to be clear from the outset which approach you take, and what role each family member plays. Most importantly, let the younger generation find their own causes and interests; in this way, their passion for giving will stay with them for the rest of their life, and be passed on in turn to their own children.

Over the next few months we’ll be publishing a series of blogs dealing with common questions NPC consultants get asked in their day-to-day work. This is the third in a series of Q and As for donors written by NPC’s Funder Effectiveness team, based on their experiences of working with funders of all kinds.