Creating a family spirit of giving
The kids are making their wish lists and checking them twice -- to the tune of hints, cajoling or outright whining. Whether they celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza, for many children, the holidays can easily be all about the loot. Meanwhile, their parents may find themselves wondering if they're doing enough to balance all those festive gifts and gatherings with a greater spirit of giving. Adults often have the opportunity to give back during the holiday season, whether by dropping off cans at the food bank, dropping a coin in Santa's kettle, or adopting a family through a workplace program. But what's less obvious is how to get the kids involved in charitable giving, not just during the holidays but in a meaningful way that can continue throughout the year. So how can parents make giving a lifelong value and an educational experience for their families -- even if they don't have a lot of money?
Creating age-appropriate lessons for giving
Seattle resident Mary Pembroke Perlin remembers her mom throwing on a raincoat and doorbelling around the neighborhood to raise money for the Cancer Society. She also recalls her dad regularly attending Lion's Club meetings. "I feel strongly that philanthropy is something you learn in the home," Pembroke Perlin says. "There was always a culture of giving in our house."
Pembroke Perlin grew up to incorporate those home-grown philanthropic values in her career. She was the director of many of Microsoft's corporate and employee giving programs through much of the '90s, and in 1996 was a founding partner of Social Venture Partners, a circle of corporate philanthropists that started in Seattle and now reaches worldwide. With a family that includes two children under the age of 7, she is also working to make philanthropy a part of her home life, but has encountered some stumbling blocks along the way.
"I was enthusiastic about getting my children into philanthropy," Pembroke Perlin says. "As soon as their playroom had what I thought was too many toys -- when they were 2 and 3 -- I decided we would talk about giving some of their toys away to other children who didn't have many toys.
"You can imagine the reaction from a 3-year-old parting with their toys! This was a quick lesson for me about age-appropriate giving, and that this approach just wasn't going to work yet."
The Pembroke Perlin family shifted gears and decided to start a little more low-key by nurturing a sense of gratitude with their kids. "We talk a lot at the dinner table about what we are thankful for today; it is kind-of our way of saying grace. One time my son was thankful for his milk; another time he was thankful that he got to spend time with a special relative before they passed away," says Pembroke Perlin. "The things the kids are thankful for can both amaze and amuse us. Our hope is that this simple ritual helps them keep in mind the blessings in life, and help us avoid a sense of entitlement."
Pembroke Perlin says that as kids get older, a simple way to help them explore philanthropy is to hook up with organizations that have proven programs for youth philanthropy, like Campfire, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Her group, Social Venture Partners, has a youth arm called Social Venture Kids, and the Seattle Foundation also has information about volunteer programs for children.
Building philanthropy into the everyday
Seattle educator and social activist Laura van Dernoot Lipsky learned from her mom, also a teacher, that contributing to the community is a responsibility. Van Dernoot Lipsky's mother, Alice, taught English as a second language to immigrants and refugees. "She would tell me and my brother when we were very young about the courage her students had and how they fled persecution in their countries," says van Dernoot Lipsky. "She taught by example and we learned about interdependence, giving and empathy for others, in large part through watching her connect on a daily basis with others through small and basic acts of kindness and a complete resolve for treating others with respect."
In this spirit, van Dernoot Lipsky believes in integrating philanthropy into the daily routine of her own family. Once a week, she takes her daughters, ages 2 and 5, to work in a south Seattle food bank to sort beans and rice, or do whatever is most helpful for the food bank at the time.
"It's incredibly humbling to be there -- the girls totally get why we are there, and it stays with us throughout the week," van Dernoot Lipsky says. "We walk through the food bank and see everybody waiting in line and you understand that we are all part of a larger humanity."
Van Dernoot Lipsky incorporates similar lessons at the Seward Park school she directs, Prescolar Alice Francis.
"I believe you cannot emphasize compassion, kindness, gratitude and humility enough, especially growing up in America and with the lives my family members are blessed with," van Dernoot Lipsky says, "so I think keeping those themes constantly rolling through is hugely important."
Exploring passions through a family foundation
Matt Cone's experience with the dot-com bubble led to an "early mid-life crisis" that has shaped his family's philosophy of life and child-rearing.
During the Internet craze, Cone worked for a Portland start-up for what he calls a wonderful and then mostly miserable three-year experience -- the latter half of which he spent reluctantly laying off people that he had enthusiastically hired in the first half.
"I found myself living this surreal life that I never quite expected and frankly didn't enjoy," says Cone, who had grown tired of the long commute and work hours and the sense of hollow materialism with which he and his wife felt the family was increasingly surrounded. Cone and his wife decided to step off the treadmill, selling all their possessions, taking their two children out of school, and traveling by motor home and motor scooters throughout Europe and Southeast Asia. Cone says the family adventure gave his girls, now 13 and 15, the chance to get a perspective in a very first-hand, humbling way, of differences and how children live in other parts of world.
"Our home is decorated with pictures from our trip as a reminder that we live in a very small swatch of society and there are a lot of different ways to do things," he says. Upon returning to the U.S., the family has kept their lives simple, downsizing to apartment living in Seattle and riding bikes to work and school when they can.
The Cones also had the resources and opportunity, with the help of an organization called Foundation Source, to start their own family foundation, a venture that has fostered family bonding and a chance for the couple's children to explore their interests and passions about the world and learn more about each other. Cone explains that once a month the family holds a much-anticipated dinner meeting to discuss the organizations they have learned about and to try to convince other family members to make a larger grant. "It's all about instilling passion at a young age for whatever they find of interest," says Cone.
Cone has been so impressed with the impact of the foundation structure in his own family that he now works for Foundation Source. He talks to other families about the services of the group that offers back-office and Web-based tools for families to set up and maintain family foundations. In his work with families, Cone sees a range of motivations for giving. "In our own family, our goal is finding something that each of us is interested in and can support each other on," he says. "We are supporting independence in our children; that's the goal for us right now."
Creating a family philanthropy plan
Not every family has the means to set up its own foundation, but everyone can have a plan of giving -- deciding how much to give, and to whom. A plan can make family philanthropy and volunteering more organized and purposeful.
Alice Shobe, director of Sound Families, which funds housing and support services for homeless families in the Puget Sound region, finds that a family giving plan helps her and her husband impart the family's values about giving to their two children.
Shobe says that when a solicitor comes to the door, her kids hear her explain to the solicitor how her family creates an annual giving plan. Shobe always asks the solicitor to leave information for consideration for the next year.
"Upon closing the door, I have explained to my boys how much I appreciate that passionate people are working to help others in need, but that we can be more thoughtful about how and to whom we give our money," Shobe says. "They both understand that we really care and that we really don't like to give money at the door."
Shobe says that because her two sons are still young, she and her husband mostly use the plan that they've created as an explanatory tool. "In the future, I expect we'll ask them to contribute to our annual decisions," she says. "Creating a yearly plan helps us explain to our boys the ways we think our giving is most effective in our community."
Rhonda Aronwald is a Seattle-based communications consultant and parent of a child in elementary school.
Resources for family philanthropy and teaching philanthropy
Getting started in philanthropy and creating giving plans:
Creating a family foundation:
Talking to your children about philanthropy:
- Learning to Give (parent resources)
- "Growing Up Giving" -- a workbook produced by The Seattle Foundation to teach young philanthropists
- Volunteering Opportunities around Washington
- Youth Serve America -- partners with organizations "committed to increasing the quality and quantity of volunteer opportunities for young people, ages 5-25, to serve locally, nationally, and globally." YSA is also a sponsor of National and Global Youth Service Day
- Family Cares (opportunities for family volunteering)
- Volunteer Match
- The Seattle Foundation, family philanthropy resources
- Social Venture Partners, personal philanthropy resources and organizations
Originally published in the December, 2005 print edition of ParentMap.