On Philanthropy: Teaching children about giving — right from the start

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

September 7, 2015

Philanthropic values cannot be passed on to rising generations all at once, in one big "data dump" towards the end of a donor’s life. Rather, philanthropy is an evolving opportunity for learning that is best pursued over a lifetime.

Right from the start, young children can be involved with simple giving activities. By the time they have leadership opportunities, they will be well versed in and comfortable with the family’s values and will have developed philanthropic skills.

Even 3-year-olds can be encouraged to select and donate gently used items like clothes, books and toys to children with less. When they assist in delivering these items, they will see how their donations actually help others.


Many of our children already have plenty of "stuff" — far more than any previous generation. On birthdays, holidays and other special occasions, encourage your child to request donations to a local charity in lieu of a mountain of gifts most of which will be abandoned in days and in landfills in months. Make sure that your child has a clear understanding of how the donations will be used. When parents walk the talk for their own gift choices for holidays and birthdays, it sets a good example.

As soon as a child is old enough to receive an allowance, label three jars: one for spending, one for saving and one for giving. One-third of the child’s allowance should go into each jar.

When a certain amount has accumulated in the "giving" jar, help the child identify a personally meaningful charity and deliver his or her donation. Families do not need a lot of money to build upon this healthy approach to money. One dollar in change can be divided among three jars as easily as $100 in bills.

Once children are old enough to have some useful skills, they can join with other family members in a volunteer project — such as working at a soup kitchen, tutoring younger children or joining a cause-related walk. Families can also include meaningful volunteer activities in their vacations, especially abroad.


As parents and children grow older, education in the ethos and skills of giving should evolve as well. It is important to communicate honestly and transparently about the family’s goals regarding money, estate planning, philanthropy and charitable legacy.

Too often, the vision for philanthropic ventures is unilaterally imposed by older generations. If they are going to survive eventual transition, values must be relevant to all. Begin to involve the rising generations well before they are responsible for these decisions.

To capture and hold the interest of younger generations, give serious consideration to the causes they find meaningful — even if these are not the causes you would otherwise select. Millennials, in particular, are very interested in becoming personally involved in philanthropic causes.


Many families with philanthropic interests choose to open donor-advised funds, or DAFs. A DAF is a charitable fund created by a donor within a public foundation. It allows a donor to "advise" the sponsoring foundation about which nonprofits should receive grants.

Asking older children to research and recommend the nonprofits in a DAF lays a solid foundation for future responsibilities.

A family DAF can be opened by parents with a local community foundation or through many investment firms. A collective fund allows siblings to learn to collaborate on donation decisions. Families with enough funds can open a separate DAF for each child.

Where larger sums are involved, a family foundation can be established. Once again, older children should be involved in the process of researching and providing input on donation decisions and need to have a respected voice at the planning table.

Philanthropy addresses important societal needs. No matter the size of a family’s philanthropic budget, the consistent involvement of younger generations (and recognition of their interests) can enhance family connectedness and communication, teach kids to appreciate the lifestyle they are privileged to enjoy, transmit values to future generations — and leave a lasting family legacy.

When it comes to philanthropy, it is never too early to start.