NEW YORK Like most families, Susan Colpitts has many holiday traditions, but she particularly values one that she started several years ago. At Christmas she gives each of her children a blank check for $25. Her three daughters - now 23, 21 and 17 - have a week to decide what charity will receive the money.
It's one of the ways Colpitts, a financial adviser in Norfolk, Virginia, teaches her children about philanthropy, something she thinks parents need to encourage on a daily basis through discussions, donations and volunteering. "So many of the values we teach our children happen across the dinner table," she says. "It's not just giving, it's also about volunteering."
Colpitts has a lot of company, according to philanthropy experts. Many families use the holidays as a time to have multi-generational discussions about giving, reports Bruce Boyd, a principal at Arabella Philanthropic Investments Advisors, a firm which helps families manage their giving programs. Some families even schedule volunteer activities, retreats and guest speakers.
Boyd himself has volunteered with his children. Why? "We are incredibly fortunate," he says. He wants them to know "they won the lottery" being born to a lucky family.
My husband and I have used many of the same strategies and traditions with our own children. We've cooked at soup kitchens, cleaned playgrounds and read at shelters. It wasn't easy to schedule with competing soccer games and swim meets, debate tournaments and birthday parties, but those experiences were invaluable.
It was time together that enabled us to help others but also to learn that those in need have much to offer.
But other than the typical charity race or school fundraiser, we didn't involve our children in our charitable giving decisions until a few years ago, and that was accidental. We had, over the years, collected thousands of coins, and the bank only wanted them if they were wrapped and counted.
Three extra sets of hands makes counting $441 go a lot faster. We decided to let the kids decide where to give the money. They chose well - a homeless shelter where they volunteered, an international relief organization and a local hunger group.
This year, we solicited ideas from the children (all of whom are now grown, at least to the college level) at Thanksgiving. One came back with two organizations that serve flood victims in Vermont; the other two were overwhelmed with too many requests. In the end, we chose a Vermont community foundation and a charity in Michigan where a friend who recently died had volunteered.
We have continued and adjusted our family giving rituals over the years, and I have learned a lot about how to do it right. Here are some of those lessons.
- Keep it simple. Just because you're ready to be philanthropic doesn't mean your teenage son wants to stop playing video games to check out an organization on Charity Navigator or Guidestar (see www.guidestar.org). You could start by pre-selecting a few charities, doing the research work yourself, and then presenting them to the family for the final decisions.
- Volunteer where you give, and vice versa. It's satisfying on many levels to be involved in a particular cause. Giving your time and your money to the same organization strengthens the connection between that organization and your family. It will teach you and your children more about running and participating in a charity, and about the issue that is the central focus of that organization. You may discover other ways you can easily help. And you'll all learn a lot.
- Make it age appropriate. A toddler can put a toy in a collection basket (as long as he knows there's one for him, too). A young teen can volunteer at a shelter; an older teen can organize a family fundraiser. A young adult can start vetting charities.
- Allowances count, too. Many parents teach their children to split their allowance into thirds: one-third for fun now, one-third to save for something big, and one-third for charity. Even if the charitable "third" is only five or ten percent, that's a start.
- Share what you do. Parents know that kids are sponges. They learn about your favorite sports teams and recipes, vacation spots and books because you show them and tell them. So let them know about the giving that you do. You don't have to do it in a showy way or feel that you're bragging. Just let them know that charity is part of the family budget and let them know what kinds of causes you support.
- Caring isn't seasonal. Learning values takes a lifetime. One check or one visit to the shelter isn't going to change a person.
- Attitude isn't everything. Sometimes, your kids may volunteer grudgingly; they're doing the right thing but cranky because they're missing a day with friends. Don't get frustrated. The biggest complainers are often the ones who later tell their friends how much they enjoyed talking with the residents at the shelter.
- Giving matters. Your actions and checks make a difference. U.S. charitable giving reached $290.89 billion in 2010, according to Giving USA Foundation, and about half of all contributions come from small, individual donations. That's something the whole family can celebrate.
(Editing by Lauren Young and Beth Gladstone)