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Financial Planning > Charitable Giving

What to Do When Generations Clash Over Philanthropy

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Across generations, values evolve to reflect new voices joining the family over the course of time.

In exploring the dynamic evolution of values across different generations of a family, one might draw upon the metaphor of a river to capture the idea that these beliefs are constantly in flux, subject to the twists and turns of larger forces. From the steady flow of long-held traditions to the unpredictable currents of new ideas and perspectives, each generation adds its own unique contribution to the family’s collective legacy.

Ensuring that this collective legacy is accurately reflected through effective philanthropy is a hefty responsibility for advisors to families with wealth, and guiding clients through these conversations is one of the most impactful roles an advisor could have.    

Values-driven giving is the core of effective philanthropy. Financial and philanthropic advisors can guide donors to ensure their giving reflects those values. How can advisors best discuss these important themes with clients regarding their interests and hopes for future generations?

The first step when discussing philanthropy with a client shouldn’t even mention money. Rather, advisors should work with family clients to determine their values, where they differ within the family, and how to embrace change and growth within the value set.

Questions to consider that will aid in laying the foundation for this conversation include:

  • What causes has your family historically supported (e.g., education, health, art, etc.)?
  • Why have generations of your family supported those causes or organizations? Is it related to the family’s background or family members’ professions or religious beliefs, or something else?
  • Have the family’s values evolved since it began accumulating wealth? If so, how? If not, why might that be?

The insights taken from this exploration will help identify the opportunities for future giving to build upon an existing legacy. For some families, the rise to wealth from a less secure financial position in previous generations manifests in initiatives fighting hunger or poverty. For others, the impact of a difficult disease may inspire a focus on supporting medical research or public health initiatives. In other cases, religious traditions steer philanthropic efforts to support others in similar spiritual communities.

When the roots of a family’s charitable giving strategies are defined, it’s easier to navigate the alignment and divergence with the next generation.

There are many reasons for the widening of views across the branches of the family tree. A few examples include:

  • Geographic distance: branches of the family moving across the country or even the world
  • Career: some may leave the family business or pursue a professional area that is distinct from the historical driver of wealth
  • Personal life: marriage/divorce, having children, religious experiences, student vs. working status

Whether intentional or incidental, individuals naturally deviate from a perceived “baseline” of values within a particular family, which can manifest across emotional, geographical or educational spectrums. In some cases, this distance might put family members on opposite sides of certain issues.

The key to engaging clients in these complicated conversations (where the end goal is to agree on benevolent acts of public service) is to encourage listening to one another. Give every branch of the family tree an opportunity to share their values. Most importantly, learn why they feel the way they do and why giving in a particular area is important to each member of the family.

Consider Thanksgiving dinner — the stereotypical family always has a set of two people with polar opposite views. More likely than not, those two people share many other commonalities and many other points of agreement. When conflicting values bubble to the top of philanthropy planning, it’s helpful to explore other ways in which family values overlap. 

Perhaps one branch of the family supports organizations tackling food insecurity and sustainable agriculture while another now focuses efforts on K-12 education. There may be ways to combine the two, such as taking funding elementary school meal programs for children living in food-insecure households. Another solution for this example would be to work with high schools to build community gardens and lesson plans around sustainable agriculture.

There is no universal solution that suits every family. Commonly, charitable giving can be allocated in different proportions to various causes and family branches. In other cases, certain children or grandchildren are given their own focus area to champion within their philanthropic efforts.

Defining the values of the current and upcoming generations, recognizing commonalities and divergences in interests, and establishing a structure for joint and individual giving can enhance the family’s involvement and harmony regarding its charitable principles.

Craig Styles is a vice president at Morgan Stanley. He is a philanthropic advisor with a diversified history of working in the financial services and philanthropic consulting industries. He is skilled in mission and vision development, charitable giving strategies, intergenerational philanthropy, nonprofit governance, fundraising and development strategies and internal operations.


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