Letting the Kids in on the Charitable Giving Conversation

Author: Ron Lieber

Money is one of the most powerful tools we have to teach children the values and virtues we want them to adopt. Given how many of our own values are wrapped up in charitable giving, it makes sense to bring the kids in on some of the decision making.

This doesn’t need to be a conversation about how much money you make and what percentage of it you should give away. Younger children don’t have enough math skills and experience to grapple with five- and six-figure numbers anyway. But a family’s choices about how it divides its charitable dollars reflect its values. So what’s the best way for parents to help their children see their values in action in this context? And how best to get them to question parental priorities and express strong feelings of their own?

Here’s what my family did as an experiment this holiday season: We put 100 dried beans on the dining room table, with each one representing 1 percent of our annual giving. Then we divided them up into piles to represent the causes and institutions we had supported in 2012.

Next, we looked through a pile of solicitations that had arrived in the mail, from organizations we had supported in the past and ones that hoped to persuade us to give before the end of the year. We also came to the table with new ideas, based on issues that were newly important to us.

Here’s what we learned by making this a family conversation about how to redivide the beans for 2013:

WANTS AND NEEDS One surprise was that our 8-year-old daughter applied the “Want-Need” test to this particular exercise. Normally this comes up when we talk about consumer purchases more broadly and whether various objects of desire are things we actually need or simply want. The necessity of cable television is one that we’ve been debating recently.

The test came up while discussing a pitch from the Public Art Fund, which helps place art in public spaces around New York City. Set against real human need, locally and globally, our daughter wondered whether this was something we really needed to support or whether we merely wanted to. It didn’t make the cut, though we agreed that we can help improve our local park by participating in cleanup days more often.

TRANSPARENCY Our family devotes a decent chunk of our giving budget to the educational institutions that gave me scholarships a couple of decades ago. We also try to give generously to the places that have helped shape our daughter, so that they can help as many children as possible afford their tuition or programs.

Many overnight camps lack much racial or socioeconomic diversity, since they have no endowments or much of a donor base. Our daughter helped persuade us to support a scholarship fund at her camp. We also decided to give to an organization that helps homeless children locally, moved as we were by the New York Times series about a young girl living in a shelter with her family.

We received a pitch from a dance company where our daughter took some lessons a while back. But the solicitation said nothing about its efforts to help children afford its classes, so we made a collective decision to pass on that one.

MARKETING We’re well aware that by looking at the solicitations at all, we’re encouraging nonprofit institutions to send ever more mail each year. This clogs mailboxes, kills trees and wastes piles of the very money that families like us donate.

This was an experiment, though, so we wanted to see what kind of impact the pitches would have on a child. It probably won’t come as much surprise to learn that the clever folks at Heifer International were the only ones who managed to sway our daughter via a direct-mail piece. Like many children, she was moved by its catalog of smiling people around the world who are able to make money and feed their families with the help of a water buffalo or sheep that the organization provides

One wrinkle here was that she didn’t want anyone eating these animals, because she’s a vegetarian. Several pages into the catalog, however, she found a beehive that she wanted to donate.

My guess is that any family that tries this would hear their children echo at least some of the values that they hold dear. If not, the conversation offers an opportunity to find out which issues and institutions matter most to every family member and why.

Our plan is to make the dining-table allocation exercise an annual tradition, albeit without most of the mailers. Any other tweaks to the bean exercise that you would suggest?