How to Create a Culture of Giving in Your Family: Ideas for Catholic Philanthropists

Many Catholic philanthropists—whether they have a family foundation or not—have grappled with the question: how can I involve my family in philanthropy? This blog post discusses ideas on how to involve younger generations in family giving, incorporating examples from “The Next Generation of Catholic Philanthropists: Inspiration and Ideas for Engagement” from FADICA.

Faith & Philanthropy

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me… Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” 

– Matthew 25:35-37, 40

Giving to others and easing their suffering is a central part of the Catholic faith and a rich tradition in Catholic philanthropy and social justice work. For hundreds of years, Catholic hospitals, schools, universities, and charities have operated thanks to the efforts of those who uphold the Catholic spirit and tradition of generosity. Engaging your family in giving is a powerful way to share values and grow in faith together.

Reasons to Start the Philanthropy Conversation Early

Start as early as possible to cultivate a true spirit of giving.

Involving your children in philanthropy early on is advantageous from a practical standpoint. In addition to learning key financial skills such as the details of making a grant and how tax law affects decisions, they will also learn what causes you give to, how to vet organizations, how to carry on relationships with grantees, and even how to run board meetings. 

Aside from practical reasons to engage your family members early, engaging them in philanthropy instills in children the importance of giving. It envelops them in the family culture, allowing them to identify a spirit of giving as who they “are” as members of the family. 

Your children will not just hear about your family foundation’s good works; they will see your faith in action. This can inspire them to continue to learn as they get older, and willingly adopt progressive responsibility and involvement in grantmaking.  

It can be more difficult if you wait until adulthood to start involving children and family in philanthropy. It’s a lot to learn, and family members may have different priorities, causing conflict. In FADICA’s report on engaging younger generations in Catholic philanthropy, they share, “No one expressed any regret about starting too soon.” (pg 16)

Keep The Right Perspective

Planting the seeds of Catholic philanthropy in younger generations is a labor of love. It takes time, patience, and an open mind. It requires a willingness to listen to differing passions and opinions while being open to shifting philanthropic priorities.  Despite any challenges, it is a gratifying experience and creates more impact in the long run. 

Although it can be helpful to look at it as a strategy and drive towards results, it is often more helpful to view it as a way of life; small steps each day will eventually lead you to your destination.

“Cross-generational change is almost always slow, rarely linear, and often happens when least expected.” (pg 20)

How to Engage Your Family in Philanthropy: Practical Ideas

Initiate Conversations

If you’re starting early on, use everyday opportunities to spark conversations about giving. This could be as simple as discussing a recent impact investment around the dinner table.

If your children are adults and you haven’t talked about giving or your philanthropic legacy yet, it may be difficult to start that first conversation. The more you talk about it, the easier it will become.

Understand that your children and other family members may have a variety of reactions to the topic. It might be emotional for them especially if it follows a loss in the family. Be patient and compassionate, and go into the conversation knowing it is just the first of many. A rocky start is better than no start at all.

If you find it’s difficult for you to articulate your giving history and legacy plan, you can ask your financial advisor or accountant to explain your situation in more detail to your family. 

Bringing in a third party has the additional benefit of diffusing some of the strong emotions that can flare during those initial conversations.

Age-Appropriate Activities 

It’s never too early to start talking to your family about philanthropy and involving your children, grandchildren, and extended family in decisions or activities, however small. Engaging children in giving as a way of life powerfully shapes their path of generosity and faith, as Kerry Robinson attests: 

“Kerry Robinson of the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities recalls the blessings of growing up surrounded by extraordinary leaders in faith and nonprofit leadership. Participating in site visits and attending Board meetings and conferences as a young person infused and shaped her worldview with a love of these kind, generous, and faith-filled leaders.” (pg 15)

Start simple from the very beginning. You can praise toddlers for sharing or encourage young children to throw their birthday party for a cause. Provide a monthly allowance with the stipulation that they donate a portion of it to a charity or cause of their choice. Small, consistent efforts yield lasting results.  

Talk about finances regularly. For some families, it may feel unnatural or difficult to discuss financial matters, especially if they have never done it before. However, opening the floor for discussion with your children, when you feel they are mature enough to handle the information, can be very rewarding.  

For teens, consider mentoring from extended family and non-family figures who have a role in the foundation or community philanthropy:

“Elizabeth Anne Donnelly, Trustee of Mary J. Donnelly Foundation, provides an example of how profound an influence extended family can have on young people. She expresses a deep gratitude for the love and understated mentorship of her beloved aunt and godmother, the late Ruth Donnelly Egler. Growing up in a very close family with her aunt’s family only ten blocks away, Donnelly was influenced by Aunt Ruth’s example of balancing care of her eleven children with energetic community engagement, clearly animated and nourished by her Catholic faith.” (pg. 14)

Take older children and family members on a mission trip. An immersion trip can be life-changing and eye-opening, as the Executive Director of The Loyola foundation, A. Gregory McCarthy IV, and his daughter experienced firsthand: 

“Recently, McCarthy took his daughter along with another family on a day trip to Tijuana, Mexico, where the Loyola Foundation had previously made a grant to the Oblate San Eugenio Mission for assistance with the acquisition of a school bus to transport area children with special needs back and forth from their homes to the mission. While in Tijuana, McCarthy and his daughter witnessed and served at the Oblate’s Mission. 

Carrying out hands-on volunteerism, observing, and experiencing the local culture, and accompanying the Oblate priests in their mission work, McCarthy and his daughter were deeply impacted, and the mission trip helped to educate his daughter about responsible Catholic philanthropy. McCarthy says, ‘As we traveled back to the United States, we reflected on the wide-ranging and informative day we had just experienced. We had seen life and death; we had witnessed a baptism as well as the administration of last rites. … My family and I left with a greater understanding of the many services offered there, as well as their intrinsic value to the local Catholic community.’” (pg 17)

Find or create volunteer, service, and junior leadership opportunities; encourage young adult family members to join working groups and peer groups. In the midst of young peoples’ technology-heavy worlds, inviting them into a hands-on experience is a powerful way to encourage and foster a spirit of giving. 

When you feel children are mature enough, trust them with a project or responsibility that is truly their own so they can learn by immersion. For example, you might ask them to choose the recipient of a grant. 

“In the midst of young peoples’ technology-heavy worlds, inviting them into a hands-on experience is a powerful way to encourage and foster a spirit of giving.

One foundation established a creative way to engage even the youngest family members in hands-on philanthropy: 

“The Doty Family Foundation was created by Marie J. and George E. Doty to support charitable organizations and to encourage the generosity of the family’s five children. Now well into the third generation, the Foundation has clearly achieved its founders’ goals, with more than twenty active family members giving to over 100 charities in 2015. A key factor in this success has been the Foundation’s triple match model. The Foundation provides a triple match to family members’ contributions of $50 and above (for example, a $250 contribution becomes $1,000), as long as the donation is made to a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization and does not conflict with Catholic Church teachings. As a result, as family members graduate from high school and college, many have begun participating in the family’s philanthropy, with those in their twenties and thirties becoming increasingly active.” (pg 15)

Involve non-family members. Although family foundations are, of course, centered around family, inviting non-family members to participate can broaden horizons and perspectives:

“While most family foundations do not have nonfamily board members, having outside experts and trusted leaders can help elevate the level of dialogue, respect, and commitment among family members. If a foundation decides not to include nonfamily board members, the foundation can benefit from the gifts of non-family members by involving them on staff or as issue-area experts, legal and fiduciary advisors, philanthropic consultants, or spiritual advisors.” (pg 21)

Potential Roadblocks (and Solutions) to Involving Family in Philanthropy

“…when foundations engage the family’s third generation or beyond, a sense of freedom, creativity, and joy often emerges.”

“A number of experts agree and several FADICA members shared that when foundations engage the family’s third generation or beyond, a sense of freedom, creativity, and joy often emerges. Foundations that focus on future generations can awaken new possibilities and potential.” (pg 19)

While this is true, there are certainly roadblocks that naturally emerge from tensions and disagreements that can arise in a family system, especially when more generations are involved. These issues can be tremendous opportunities for growth. 

Sibling rivalry. It’s only natural that people who grew up together may still, on occasion, behave, think, and feel like the children they once were. Involving non-family members such as industry experts or religious brothers and sisters in philanthropy discussions can help family members see each other in a broader light. This can encourage more mature behavior and an open mind towards each other as they move past childhood memories and behavior patterns.

Family drama and unmet expectations. Arguably the best way to counter disappointed expectations of your family is to cultivate a spirit of patience and acceptance. Remember that you did what you could and you cannot control everything, which is okay. Finding humor in the situation, when appropriate, can also be a helpful coping skill.

Family members don’t want to participate. Oftentimes this happens when a family member starts the conversation about philanthropy later, when adult children and grandchildren are already becoming established in their careers and have competing priorities. 

Despite how frustrating this can be, try to be patient and understanding while communicating your wishes clearly and respectfully. If you lay the groundwork for a trusting relationship, you may eventually find a middle ground with your family members. They may be more willing to agree to partial participation in the family foundation if they see that you respect their current situation and priorities.

Disagreements around how to use the funds. This kind of issue can occur no matter how early on you start engaging your children and family in philanthropy. Inevitably, there are going to be clashing interests and differences of opinions of what investment to make, what cause would be the most impactful to support, and more. 

“Younger generations of donors cite a greater interest in causes and issue-based giving, and recent research indicates their trust in and opinion of institutions has grown more negative in the past five years.” So perhaps the older generation would rather give to a well known charity, but the younger generation would rather give in support of a specific social cause.” (pg 6)

Be open to discussing disagreements calmly; hear each other out. Adopt the perspective of the foundations in this example who have approached inter-generational discussions with a sense of openness and discovery: 

“Foundations may find that in working with next generation leaders, conflicts or tensions flare up on occasion. Often this is because they are passionate, thoughtful, and engaged participants who care deeply for the issues and people involved. The alternative—disengaged descendants—would be considerably worse. Appreciating generational communication styles will undoubtedly enhance engagement with young leaders.

Foundations such as the Mustard Seed Foundation, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Foundation have thoughtfully approached their faith-based identity as they have sought to engage younger generations. The most effective of these engagement strategies involve encouragement of exploration, learning, and mutual discovery. The foundations profiled in this resource exhibited a desire to honor their family’s historic values and founder’s identity, even if some of the younger family members are less involved or not involved in the Catholic Church personally.

Finally, establishing realistic expectations may involve giving up some control in order to effectively engage younger generations. It is important to take time to identify next generation leaders with specific skills and interests, and to consider issues and approaches important to them. If foundations do this strategically, early, and thoughtfully—aware of the subtle process of change in families—all generations can experience a sense of pride and an even deeper sense of purpose.” (pg 27)

Planting the seeds of philanthropy in the next generations can be one of your most rewarding endeavors. If you are looking for an easy way to get started, learn more about the Catholic Funding Guide. You can search for projects in your interest areas in need of funding, and connect with likeminded funders. 

Want to dive deeper into the topic of philanthropy for the next generation? Read the full booklet from FADICA for examples, insights, inspiration, and research on the topic. 

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