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Choosing a Charity: How to Make It a Family Affair

Deciding with your kids and grandkids where to donate

By Kimberly Lankford

Many families are looking for ways to come together (remotely, if not in person) with a purpose this year. One way to do it: involving your kids and grandkids in a year-end tradition of researching charities and then deciding which ones will receive your family's donations.

The Kuritzky charity Zoom meeting, Next Avenue, choosing a charity,
The Kuritzky charity Zoom meeting  |  Credit: Courtesy of the Kuritzky family

Dick and Pat Johnston, of Wilmington, N.C., started a family tradition of giving six years ago. Back then, when they were in their early 70s, they opened a Fidelity donor-advised fund account so they could involve their eight grandchildren in charitable giving.

Using Donor-Advised Funds to Help Charities

Donor-advised funds offered by financial services firms let you make a charitable contribution, receive an immediate tax deduction and recommend grants to specific charities from the fund over time. In the past, you generally needed at least $5,000 to open a donor-advised fund account, but Fidelity and Schwab just eliminated their $5,000 minimum, making donor-advised funds more accessible to families of all income levels.

"They learn from us and we learn from them."

The Johnstons' grandkids ranged from age 9 to 22 and were living throughout North Carolina when they and their grandparents began making charitable donations together (since then, the Johnstons' kids have become involved, too). As this generosity has continued, they've had an opportunity to come together at least once a year, talk about their values and decide which charities to support.

Each grandchild chooses a need they care about, researches the charities and gives a presentation at the family meetings. Before the meeting, they also check back with charities the family supported the previous year. The grandkids then give updates about how the funds were used.

Says Pat: "Part of the joy for us is to hear them make the reports. They're clear and concise and they even have flow charts. They learn from us and we learn from them."

How the Johnstons Do It

The Johnston pre-pandemic charity meeting, choosing a charity, next avenue
The Johnston pre-pandemic charity meeting   |  Credit: Courtesy of the Johnstons

The oldest grandchild, Carryl Tinsley, now 27, leads the family meetings for the cousins. "I try to make it accessible to them," she says. "We're in three different cities and we don't see each other all that often and this is a really cool way to stay connected to the cousins and learn what's important to everyone."

Carryl has found assisting charities so fulfilling that she's now earning a master's degree in nonprofit management.

The Johnston grandparents have one guideline for giving: they urge family members to choose a charity they're involved with or one where they have a personal connection. One granddaughter chose the Special Olympics because a neighbor with developmental challenges was part of that program.

The Johnstons usually decide how much the family will donate each year based on the investment performance of the donor-advised fund, so they can protect most of the principal and the fund can continue to grow "and last beyond us," says Dick.

When the Johnstons first began choosing charities together, the grandparents thought they'd all vote on the recommendations. But Carryl says everyone has brought such good ideas that they ended up giving each grandchild a set amount of money to give each year and to decide where it will go. Not everyone has charity recommendations each year, but most family members usually do.

Sometimes, they also help charities through volunteering.

One of the Johnstons' granddaughters was interested in sustainability issues and ended up making contact with the woman who started a nonprofit that teaches sustainable farming in Central America. The founder invited the young woman to intern with the nonprofit in college. "She may have found her life's work," says Dick.

Since Dick has been involved in the Bald Head Island Conservatory and his oldest grandson was an Eagle Scout, the two of them started a program for local Boy Scouts to come to the conservancy and earn their environmental science merit badges. Over the years, they've grown this project to include scouting programs in nine surrounding counties.

"It's something my grandson and I do together, and it's been fun," says Dick.

Bringing Families Closer Together

Giving together can strengthen family bonds. A study by Fidelity Charitable found that 81% of families who grew up with strong giving traditions describe their core family as very close.

Erin Boorn, senior philanthropic officer at the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, works with a couple who were recently remarried and have two grown children apiece from previous marriages, who live in Texas, California, and different parts of Atlanta. The couple opened a donor-advised fund so they could bring their blended family closer by deciding which charities to support.

"It's a nice way to show they're still a family," says Boorn.

Charitable giving as a family can also keep older siblings connected to one another. That's been true for the Cetrino family.

Tom Cetrino's mother, Ann, 88, started a donor-advised fund with Bank of America when the Long Island, N.Y. woman received an inheritance in 2008. She wanted to involve Tom and his four sisters and their families in charitable giving together. The 10 grandchildren and great-granchildren are ages 1 to 40 and involved at various levels, based on their age.

"We set up a process where we could all participate and vote and give to charity," says Tom, 69, who lives in Albany, N.Y.

The family met in person to discuss the charities for the first few years, but now communicate mostly through e-mail since family members reside in Colorado, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Washington, D.C.

"When we come up with an idea for charitable giving, we send everyone the information, then they discuss it and approve or disapprove," Tom says. "We each have different things we support; I'm interested in food security and homelessness and college scholarships."

Giving Differently Due to COVID-19

The Cetrino family, next avenue, choosing a charity
The Cetrino family  |  Credit: Courtesy of Tom Cetrino

One sister is interested in mental health, another in Habitat for Humanity and another in groups helping people with Multiple Sclerosis. A nephew in Texas has been active in supporting homeless veterans.

Says Tom: "Everybody enjoys doing it, and we're supportive of each other's interests."

Although the Cetrino family votes to approve or disapprove charity recommendations, they haven't rejected any ideas.

"When we come up with an idea for charitable giving, we send everyone the information, then they discuss it and approve or disapprove."

Since the family communicates through e-mail, they haven't had to change their giving procedures because of COVID-19. But they have been giving more money to charities this year because the needs have been so great, especially for homelessness and food insecurity, Tom says.  

You don't need a donor-advised fund for your family to start a giving tradition. Some families donate money they would have allocated for holiday gifts. That's what the Kuritzky family has been doing for 12 years.

"When the kids were growing up, everyone spent weeks shopping and accumulating things and we had a massive Christmas gift exchange," says Howard Kuritzky, 68, of Allentown, Pa. So, when his youngest child was 21, he notes, "my wife, Sylvia, had the idea that each of us would pick a charitable activity we're close to and rotate. It was a bit of a strike at the materialism and craziness at Christmastime. She was trying to find a way to make it more meaningful."

Each year, another family member decides where they will all donate the money they would've spent on Christmas gifts. Howard uses money from a Fidelity donor-advised fund for his contributions.

On Christmas Day, the kids still get presents (including Howard's 8-month-old grandson) and everyone gets a stocking. But the extended family, including the Kuritzkys' four children, now 32 to 43, as well as Sylvia's three siblings and their families, decide which charities to support, rotating each year.

They've given to the Baltimore Child Abuse Center; the global charity Partners in Health; the Kennett Rotary and the XA Project, a charity for seriously ill children to let them interact with the arts and theater.

The couple's children, who now live as far apart as Switzerland and San Francisco, have brought their own interests into the discussion.

"They are very socially and environmentally conscious," says Howard. Their youngest daughter is active in environmental causes and wildlife conservation; their oldest daughter is a lawyer and has given to advocacy organizations.

Sylvia died of cancer in October and had HHT, a genetic blood vessel disorder. The family has decided this year that they'd support Cure HHT, an organization focused on HHT.


How to Teach Kids and Grandkids About Philanthropy

You can begin teaching kids and grandkids about philanthropy in a variety of ways.

"It can be really empowering for a child to start by learning about what they're interested in, be it animals or other children who are growing up differently from them or the environment or people who don't have enough food," says Lisa Spalding, partner with The Philanthropic Initiative, a nonprofit philanthropic advising group that helps families and corporations focus their giving.

You can even do this with children as young as three to five, Spalding says.

"At that age, it has to be very concrete," she says. "I remember there was a fire in our town, and the next day we delivered food for the firefighters. You can help those helpers."

Local community foundations can help you and your family see who could use help.

For instance, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta publishes an "Extra Wish" booklet each year, where area nonprofits note their "wishes" — the specific items they could use, such as video cameras to help parents see their children in the neonatal intensive care unit or a commercial washing machine to wash blankets at an animal shelter.

"It's an interesting way to have the conversation and help the kids be aware of the needs in the community," says Boorn.

She works with a family who has used the Extra Wish booklet to teach their three children about helping in the community since they were little. Every year during Hanukkah, the kids go through it and pick a wish to fund, explaining to the family why they chose it.

As your children and grandchildren get older, they can do more research on their own. Not only does this teach them about charitable giving, they also learn how to gather information, present their case and realize the values that are important to them.

Companies running donor-advised fund can be helpful here, especially if your family wants to assist due to COVID-19 needs.

Vanguard Charitable's free Nonprofit Aid Visualizer (NAVi) tool (available to the general public) uses mapping technology to let you see which local nonprofits are focusing on areas with the greatest need for COVID-19 relief.

"It's so visual, and it gives [families] an opportunity to do something that is meaningful, " says Jane Greenfield, president of Vanguard Charitable.

As your children and grandchildren get older, they can start teaching their parents and grandparents about their own charitable interests. That can be empowering.

Empowerment for Kids and Grandkids

"It reshapes the way people see their family roles," says Donald Greene, the national philanthropic client relationship executive with Bank of America. "You have a kid with a wonderful idea, and suddenly they're your peer, they teach you. It's fascinating."

Suzanne Wheeler, managing director for Mariner Wealth Advisors who works out of Amarillo, Texas, assists an extended family who has a Charles Schwab donor-advised fund and who (pre-pandemic) have met in a remote cabin every year to decide which charities to support. "You can see the older generations just light up because they are so thrilled that the younger generations are engaging and working together," she says.

If you can't meet with your kids and grandkids in person this year, choosing a charity to support can give purpose to your family's Zoom calls during the holidays.

"People are looking for ways to engage in Zoom in multiple ways," says Kim Laughton, president of Schwab Charitable. "It's amazing what you learn when you sit around and listen to the causes that are important to them."

Kimberly Lankford
Kimberly Lankford has been a financial journalist for more than 20 years and is the author of three books. As the “Ask Kim” columnist at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine, she received hundreds of reader questions every month about insurance, taxes, retirement planning and other personal finance issues. Her financial articles have also appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, AARP Magazine and Military Officer Magazine, and her syndicated columns were published in The Chicago Tribune and other papers. She received the personal finance Best in Business Award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Read More

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