What charitable giving can give your family

With the right approach, giving can be a great way to bring your family closer together.

  • By DR. TIMOTHY HABBERSHON AND TOBIAS DONATH, FIDELITY CENTER FOR FAMILY ENGAGEMENT, FIDELITY WEALTH MANAGEMENT
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Key takeaways

  • Shared philanthropic endeavors can help bring families closer together, provided they exercise care in how they communicate their feelings.
  • Families should avoid defaulting to traditional hierarchies and embrace a method of communication and decision-making based on "peership."
  • By co-creating a plan for charitable giving, the family can honor individual passions while laying the groundwork for an enduring family legacy.

Lillian is a 73-year-old widow and retired lawyer with 3 adult children and 7 grandchildren. After a recent conversation with one of her granddaughters about the barriers they had encountered as women of color, Lillian was left wondering about how she might bring her entire family together around charitable giving, which they had never done before. She had questions like, "How do I start the conversation?" "How can we honor our family's diverse perspectives on philanthropy?" and "How might we establish a family legacy of giving?"

No matter where your family is on the giving continuum—from starting out to already being active with shared giving—generational engagement offers many opportunities. It can build a shared sense of purpose around a positive impact. It can create closeness as you learn about each other. And it can access and leverage the generational diversity that makes your family unique.

Unlock generational opportunities by practicing peership

When families like Lillian's come together around giving, it's helpful to be mindful of the impact that natural family hierarchies may have on the process. Hierarchies—such as parent-child, expert-novice, birth order, gender, and decision-making rights—can create one-up, one-down dynamics that are barriers to communication and decision-making. In the charitable space, this might sound like, "As a family, this is how we make decisions," "This is our philosophy around giving," or "You know more about this than I do, so I will defer to you." Rather than defaulting to hierarchy, your family can practice "peership"—a sense of mutuality, regardless of hierarchy, in which relationships and communication flow both ways. In peership, everyone is interested in each other's opinions. You focus on creating a safe space for exchanging views, and you are committed to people having a voice in decisions that impact them. And when you engage from a position of mutuality, you set yourselves up for co-creation.

A framework for co-creation: My Giving, Your Giving, and Our Giving

Co-creation is an empathetic, test-and-learn process that empowers views, voice, and vision. As an inclusive mode of decision-making, co-creation integrates individual and collective perspectives to create a shared sense of ownership over the process and outcomes. To initiate generational co-creation around charitable giving, you can structure the way you think and talk about philanthropy around a 3-part framework: My Giving, Your Giving, and Our Giving. The framework helps everyone expand from thinking of philanthropy as a series of point-in-time decisions to viewing it as an ongoing process. And it ensures that whatever conversations and activities take place in one stream benefit the rest of the system. Here's an overview of each stream, a technique for each, and an illustration of how Lillian's family used the framework to structure their approach to family giving.

My Giving

The My Giving stream focuses on philanthropic activities driven by an individual's interests. From a relationship perspective, think of this giving stream as an opportunity for other people to learn about you. As they explore your giving priorities, they learn about what matters to you, how you see the world, how you make decisions around giving, and the story behind how you came to have that view.

My Giving honors individuals because it normalizes the value of pursuing causes you care about. And while this stream is about personal passions, it doesn't mean you have to make decisions in isolation. You can always seek input from others and talk through your approach and priorities.

Share your story

A technique for My Giving is to leave space to hear a person's story—the meaningful and emotional parts of their experiences—to get to know each other in a more intimate way. When we engage around someone's story, it can sound like, "How did you become involved in this cause?" "What does it mean to you?" or "How have your views around giving changed over the years?"

As you explore stories, you can use an inquiry technique called Key Word Questions. While someone is sharing their story, listen for meaningful and emotional words like "important" or "impact," then ask a question using those words: "What is important to you about that?" or "What does impact look like to you?" (For more, see Leading Indicators of Enduring Family Harmony.)

When Lillian shared the story behind her charitable giving—which she had never done before—it was a moving experience. She explained that since she got her first part-time job at age 16, she had been donating to a community college in downtown Philadelphia where she grew up. Her mother, a single parent, had taken night classes there to put herself through secretarial school. Lillian said her mother's wish was to earn enough money for Lillian to attend college, which led her on a path to law school and a 34-year career as a corporate lawyer. Lillian explained that she made those ongoing donations because she wanted to recognize that everything she had accomplished began with that community college.

Your Giving

The Your Giving stream offers a way to explore what matters to another person. Rather than thinking of their giving as something they pursue on their own, you can see it as a way to learn about them, their passions, and their priorities. Through a Your Giving lens, you can build empathy and understanding that strengthens your relationships and improves communication. It is also a way to give people a sense of inclusion by conveying that what matters to them matters to you.

Be an explorer

When you engage with another person's priorities, think of yourself as an explorer and leave space for learning. Be open and curious. Suspend your assumptions. Think of new topics that arise as doors into deeper understanding of what's important to someone else. One skill for exploring Your Giving is open-ended questions starting with "What" and "How" to empower people to convey what it is important to them. These might sound like, "How did you come to have this view?" "How are you thinking about this topic?" or "What comes to mind when you think about charitable giving?" Also, try to avoid asking "Why" questions, which can be heard as judgmental or critical and may lead people to become reactive rather than reflective.

After she shared her own story, Lillian spent several months exploring the passions and experiences of her family members. She learned about the causes that matter to them and their views on what it means to do good in the world. She was inspired by the passions within the family and fascinated by the experiences behind their diverse perspectives. And she and her family began to see ways that their individual interests overlapped.

Our Giving

The Our Giving stream offers opportunities to co-create everything from values to processes to plans. When senior generations have a wish for their family to engage in philanthropy, Our Giving helps them achieve that developmental goal. For example, this stream helps parents move beyond the hierarchical view that values are "passed down," which can be a barrier to shared giving, and adopt the peer-based view that values are co-created. Because legacies live on in the people who participate in the story, a co-owned and co-created approach to giving contains the seeds of its own long-term growth. When you settle on processes and causes that are collectively fulfilling, you not only do something meaningful today, you empower torch bearers in future generations.

Strive for alignment—not agreement

Families that drive toward agreement introduce the risk of creating tension and disconnects in relationships. Instead, strive for alignment, which moves the conversation to a higher level. Alignment leaves space for differences in priorities and perspectives. It emphasizes moving in the same direction rather than being locked into an agree/disagree model.

Alignment begins with everyone sharing their wishes for the future, about everything from how decisions are made to the causes you support. It sounds like, "What's your wish for our process?" and "What are your wishes for our family's impact on the world?" You can then align around a shared vision based on those wishes and develop principles to guide you as you do it. (For more on alignment, see Leading Indicators of Enduring Family Harmony.)

When Lillian and her family took time to share their wishes, they discovered that they share a passion for helping to break down barriers faced by young people from marginalized communities. By focusing on alignment rather than agreement, they left space for individual perspectives on how they might pursue that vision. With a shared vision in place, Lillian transferred capital assets into 2 types of giving accounts: a shared pool of funds for educational causes in the Our Giving stream and a set of individual accounts to support each family member's My Giving activity.

The benefits of learning to navigate generational diversity

As it did for Lillian's family, co-creation honors individual passions while creating a shared sense of purpose and laying the groundwork for an enduring family legacy. By adopting a relationship-based approach that considers "how" you engage, you expand options, get to know each other in new ways, and strengthen relationships. You also practice skills for navigating diverse generational perspectives related to any money, wealth, and estate planning topic. In this way, charitable giving isn't just about having a positive impact in the world. It's a way to change the trajectory of your family's financial future.

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