Building Children Into Your Philanthropic Life

April 28, 2022

From volunteerism to giving decisions to structured philanthropy, you can help family members find a satisfying path.

Philanthropy and volunteerism are personal and often reflective of our values and/or experiences. We choose organizations to be involved with that align with us and decide how best to engage. For some, that’s donating money regularly; for others, it’s volunteering or even serving on the board. However, something to consider is sharing that involvement with your family. Engaging your children with your personal philanthropy provides an opportunity to expose your children to a world outside of their own, as well as an opportunity for you to connect and bond with family members.


Finding opportunities to volunteer with your family can often best be accomplished by starting local. Volunteering in your community can be convenient in terms of scheduling and traveling, but it also provides a natural way for you and your family to feel connected. We all care about our homes and neighborhoods. An easy place to start is either with a local school or your place of worship. Reach out to the organization’s leadership and inquire if there are family-friendly opportunities to support the organization itself or another community partner that works with the organization. Local community centers that offer programs for families often look for volunteers; activities may be as basic as spending time with their clients (seniors, underserved children) or helping with clean-up projects like painting murals or doing light gardening and revitalization.

For example, one of the Neuberger Berman Foundation’s largest grantees, Association to Benefit Children (ABC), has welcomed our employees and their families as volunteers for years. ABC is located in East Harlem in New York City and provides critical services for at-risk infants, toddlers and preschoolers, through supportive housing, mental health services and crisis intervention, family preservation, year-round youth development programs. Employees have played with ABC children, escorted them on field trips, and served meals to their families. On Saturdays, ABC provides family-strengthening activities including computer and job training workshops, beginners’ and conversational English classes, coursework for the General Equivalency high school diploma, assistance with earning citizenship, and domestic violence support groups; while parents are participating in these programs, ABC children are playing and learning. Many of our people have noted how eye-opening and rewarding it has been for their children to be involved at ABC and other organizations—helping them to get a sense of how others live and find satisfaction in making a difference.


Just as you might talk to your children about what’s important to you and the family on a broader level, I believe you should also consider talking to your children about how you are involved with the philanthropic world. Bringing your children into this part of your life will let them know that donating time and money are important to the family. Share with your children what type of work your nonprofit might be doing and ask them questions, too: What are they interested in? What do they care about? Who would they like to help? Fred Rogers, who hosted the pre-school television series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” spoke often about “looking for the helpers” in times of peril or disaster in the world. Explain to your children that “helpers” take on many forms, but often manifest as the nonprofits that serve our communities.

One of my colleagues, who is passionate about philanthropy, takes a practical approach in sharing the world of nonprofits with the children in her life. For birthdays and holidays, she gifts DonorsChoose gift cards to her children, nieces and nephews. DonorsChoose is a platform that allows public school teachers to highlight needs and projects they are trying to fund for their students and classrooms. A donor is able to view and select a project of choice and donate. My colleague sits with her children and, as a family, they examine the different projects and select those that resonate with the group.

These types of discussions can evolve as your children grow. Perhaps your family has a family foundation or contributes significantly to the same organization or cause on an annual basis. Involve your adolescent children by, again, leaning into your family values. Share with your children why the family has chosen a specific nonprofit or cause to support. Was there some significance for previous generations? Were they involved in its creation or benefit from its mission? Identify ways for your children to connect with the core values of your philanthropic work.

Perhaps your family contributes to a donor-advised fund. Consider providing your children with an opportunity to select grant recommendations based on organizations they might have an interest in. Talk to your child about how your family foundation makes decisions or why you’ve contributed to certain organizations.


As your children get older, encourage them to find activities and causes they are passionate about themselves. A good way to start is by encouraging college-aged students to get involved with organizations on campus. Many student groups have some sort of charitable component, whether it’s volunteering with a fraternity or sorority or organizing a fundraiser. Allowing your children to find what drives them will keep them motivated, engaged and compassionate.

Junior board service is another, more elevated way for your children to gain exposure to the world of nonprofits and tap into communication and leadership skills. Many nonprofits have a junior board or young professionals committee geared toward people in their 20s and 30s. These groups are not intended to govern the nonprofit or fundraise a significant amount of money, but provide an opportunity for their members to share the mission of the organization while benefiting from a network of contacts.


Finally, there may come a time when your family philanthropy—whether it be a family foundation or a donor-advised fund—will need to be passed along to the next generation. This period of transition can often be stressful but doesn’t need to be. Involving your children from early on, whether through volunteering with the family or including them in decision-making could inspire them to carry on your philanthropic legacy.

Virginia Esposito, senior fellow and founding president of the National Center for Family Philanthropy, writes that a donor who is thinking about passing on family philanthropy needs “a structure and shared values that make it easy for everyone to stay committed: (1) inspire them to participate, (2) train them to be able to participate, and (3) plan how they will participate” when there are many family members involved.¹

Ultimately, such a carefully considered approach can be vital, whatever age and degree of involvement of your children at the time. Bringing them along step by step, encouraging their involvement while valuing their independent judgment, can help reinforce their interest in and passion about important activities and causes. By developing the inclination and habit of giving and volunteerism, you can strengthen your shared relationship and enhance your legacy as your children continue your important work.

Critical Questions for Family Philanthropy

Developing a philanthropic program may involve many steps, but I believe none is more important than creating a solid conceptual framework and thinking through key areas of emphasis before you set anything in motion. The following questions, developed by renowned philanthropy advisor Charles B. Collier, can provide a starting point for your efforts:

Goals and strategy:

  • What issues will be the focus of your family’s philanthropy?
  • Do you want to help solve immediate social problems, invest for long-term change or both?


  • Do you want to be proactive or reactive to issues?
  • Do you want to give independently or collaboratively with other funders?
  • Do you want to support established organizations, seed new projects or both?

Assessment of grantees:

  • Who will undertake your due diligence research and site visits?
  • What questions will you ask to assess the organization’s leadership, expertise, financial strength and chances of success?

Grant making:

  • What will be the size of your grants?
  • Will they be one-time or multiyear grants?
  • Will you fund unrestricted support, specific projects, grassroots innovation or research?

Measuring outcomes:

  • What will be your criteria to effectively assess the success of your grants?
  • Should you commit money to measure outcomes?

Source: Collier, Charles W., Wealth in Families, Harvard University, 2012.

1 See Collier, Charles W., Wealth in Families, Chapter 8: “Philanthropic Parenting,” Harvard University, 2012.

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