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Why HNW Families Should Involve Kids Early in Philanthropy

Family values can’t be passed on all at once. It takes time.

Many of us adults give considerable thought to how we’ll pass along our money to the next generations in our families when we die. Far fewer of us also consider how we’ll pass along our “value assets”—our family’s unique approach to community, giving back and helping others, while we’re living.

The passing along of family values can’t take place all at once, in a few conversations towards the end of life or in a paragraph buried in a will. Rather, to be effective, it must be an ongoing and an integral part of family communications from the time children are very young well into their adult years.

A couple of generations ago, young children each had a few prized toys. Today, many have far more toys and games than they could ever play with and more books than they could ever read. On every birthday, holiday or other special occasion, the amount of “stuff” continues to accumulate.

Giving Opportunities

When speaking with clients about charitable giving, remind them that children have many opportunities to give. Children as young as toddlers can donate gently used toys and books to a local nonprofit serving children. Likewise, for special occasions, your client’s child can request donations to a local charity in lieu of gifts from her peers. Encourage the child to review a few nonprofits and select one that strikes a chord. Explain how the donations will be used to help people or promote a cause. When possible, have the child take the new or used gifts to the charity to participate in the transfer. Your clients can set an example by making the same request for their own birthday and holiday presents.

When children reach the age to receive an allowance, your clients can consider the “three jars” approach: one jar for spending, another for saving and one for giving. One-third of the allowance should go into each jar. Your client should help the child identify a personally meaningful charity to periodically receive the contents of the “giving” jar.

Children who are old enough to more actively participate can do all of the above, as well as join with older family members in a volunteer project—such as packing meals at a food pantry, tutoring younger children or engaging in a cause-related walk, run or ride. Meaningful volunteer activities can also be included as part of family vacations, especially abroad. 

Giving Decisions

As children grow older, they can become more meaningfully involved in family giving decisions.

In too many families, philanthropic values and activities are unilaterally created and imposed by the older generations, with little consideration for the lens through which the younger generations see the world. This is nearly always a lost opportunity to engage in thoughtful conversations about what members of each generation value and how they view their role in helping to repair their community, nation or planet.

It’s important for clients to create a “safe zone” where all family participants can safely share their views and values. The wise family will give serious consideration to the causes important to their rising young adult members. In the words of an ancient proverb: “Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time.”

Many philanthropic families choose to create donor-advised funds. This is an easily administered charitable fund within a public foundation or investment firm. It allows the donor to “advise” the sponsoring foundation about which nonprofits should receive grants from those funds.

Older children can be invited to research nonprofits and make recommendations for funding. A collective fund allows parents and/or siblings to learn to collaborate and communicate on donation decisions.

If larger sums are available, a family can establish its own foundation. Once again, older children should be involved with researching and providing input on donation decisions as they need to have a respected voice at the planning table.

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 acknowledge the lifestyle they’re privileged to enjoy, transmit values to future generations—and leave a lasting family legacy.


Bruce DeBoskey, J.D., is a philanthropic strategist working across the U.S. with The DeBoskey Group to help families, businesses, foundations and family offices design and implement thoughtful philanthropic strategies and actionable plans.


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