The giving gene


Alison Carter is the executive director of a charitable foundation; last year, it gifted Planned Parenthood with $25,000 to help open an express clinic in Woodbury. “The clinic helps women and men get information they need. It helps teenagers, too. Having a clinic in the suburbs makes reproductive health options more accessible for everyone,” Carter said. “As a 21-year-old, women’s rights are important to me,” she added. That’s right. Alison Carter is 21 years old.

A family foundation
How did the English literature and communications student at the University of Minnesota find herself at the helm of a charitable foundation with pockets deep enough to make such a hefty gift? The charitable foundation belongs to her family. Along with Alison, the four members of the Carter Family Foundation’s board include her 18-year-old brother, Jason, who contributes time and ideas, and parents Bob and Diana Carter, who provide the capital, along with the investment, networking and giving know-how.

The family’s foundation, created in 2005, is in its infancy. In years to come, the Carters plan to follow a pattern: Each fall the family will decide together which causes they want their foundation to support. After determining their causes, they will consider how much money the foundation has to give. This done, they will either split their available funds into smaller charitable gifts and make several donations to various nonprofit organizations, or make one lump gift in support of their cause.

While managing all of this may sound like a lot of work, Carter shrugs off her exalted title. “Executive director?” she laughed. “Well, it’s just a title. I don’t really think about the title.”

The director position is more about doing the work than pondering her status, she said. “I keep track of all the organizations where we’re giving money. I call them to find out how to make a donation,” she said. “It is kind of strange calling them up, but it’s fun. A lot of the organizations support things I’m passionate about. Besides, we’ve got money to give them, and they always want it, so that makes it easier. I’m definitely learning to communicate,” she added. “I’m interested in marketing, too.”

Last summer Carter spent a lot of time helping her mom organize the family foundation. “My mom and I went to a lawyer and I listened in,” she explained. “I went with her to all these organizations and learned how to start a charity. There are lots of skills I’m building and I can see how they fit with my majors at school. Together, all of this will help me help the foundation.”

New breed of givers
Alison’s early involvement in her family’s charitable foundation is an indication of a growing trend: By involving youth in giving, Americans are revolutionizing philanthropy.

“The commonly held view of a philanthropist is an old, white man with lots of money,” said Bill King, president of the Minnesota Council of Foundations. “But we’re really seeing a democratization of philanthropy. The size of the gift isn’t what matters so much as the engagement in the community. Whose gift is more valuable? Warren Buffet’s or a classroom of kids who collected coins for Katrina victims? If you can find things that resonate with people and tap into that, then people, children included, become extremely interested in giving.”

For example, children may find it hard to relate to the full concept of philanthropy. The word is long, and the idea is even bigger. Instead, children connect with what they physically encounter in life. If a fellow classmate is dealing with cancer, children often develop a deep interest in showing support for that friend. They might collect pennies or food for their classmate’s family. Some kids even volunteer to shave their heads so their chemotherapy-going friend doesn’t feel self-conscious about hair loss. Any of these actions, King stressed, qualifies as philanthropy. Children and young adults are capable of making charitable gifts, he added.

What older generations need to understand about youth and giving, however, is that philanthropy assumes different forms when younger generations get involved. “Youth infuse an energy into their giving practices,” King said. “This might mean they give something other than money. Youth might give more of their time and talents.” In addition, for many adults with traditional views on philanthropy, involving youth in charitable giving may force an uncomfortable shift in perspective: Younger generations may identify with unconventional causes.

When speaking about charitable giving, King reminds his audience that people give to causes in which they find value. “I really try to remain value neutral when talking about where and how to give. We all have different political values or religious values and none of them are wrong.”

Passing it on
Many families are finding ways to make charitable giving an intergenerational act, thereby passing on a belief in citizenship and the benefits of helping others. Some families give time by volunteering to prepare meals at their church’s soup kitchen; some form cleanup crews and rake yards for elderly neighbors each fall. Others pool their weekly paychecks and send money across borders to Mexico, Somalia or Vietnam. And still others donate money to charitable organizations through donor-advised funds.

You don’t have to be wealthy to start a family giving tradition. Donor-advised funds “work great for families on a moderate income and for people who don’t have the time or inclination to keep track of all the receipts and paperwork involved in donating to several charities,” explained Romaine Scharlemann, senior gift planner for the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota,

At the Women’s Foundation, you can start a fund with $5,000 or an endowed fund, which earns a higher amount of interest, with $25,000. Many nonprofit organizations offer donor-advised funds and there are different kinds of donor-advised funds. However, the idea behind all donor-advised funds is simplicity, she said.

Making it easy
To begin a fund, a donor writes one check to the sponsoring nonprofit, in this case the Women’s Foundation, explained Scharlemann. The Women’s Foundation opens a separate account for each donation and warehouses the money, so to speak, for the donor. The donor can immediately take a tax write-off for the full amount of the check. Over the course of the year, the sponsoring nonprofit alerts donors to giving opportunities aligned with the organization’s mission. In the case of the Women’s Foundation, donors are notified about opportunities to support women and girls. If a donor is interested, she or he authorizes the withdrawal of funds from the account.

Donors can also choose to give to any nonprofit organization they choose, as long as the organization doesn’t conflict with the foundation’s mission. Donor-advised accounts can be spent down each year, or a balance can carry over. In addition, noted Scharlemann, parents often express an interest in donor-advised funds because the establishment of a fund calls for a successor to be named. Parents often name their children as successors. For many families, this joint ownership of the fund sparks immediate discussions about philanthropy. Children want a say in how the money is spent because their name is on the account.

Diana Carter said that her daughter’s experience in charitable giving started with donor-advised funds. Alison’s parents had donor-advised funds through the Women’s Foundation and the Minneapolis Foundation. Each year, Alison and her brother would help their parents decide which organizations to support.

Giving started at a young age in the Carter family, Alison said. “My parents have always talked to us about giving. It started when we started getting an allowance. The first place I really gave money was to the church. I was young, I am young. I don’t have lots of money, but we did give money to church.”

Diana Carter says that the foundation has granted money to a wide variety of organizations. “We’ve given money to the Red Cross, the Minnesota AIDS Project, the Loring-Bethlehem Community Center, the Tubman Alliance, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the Casa de Esperanza,” she said. “Most years, the list is about two pages long.”

After many years of working with donor-advised funds, the family’s recent decision to establish a private foundation felt like a natural extension, Carter explained. Because private foundations are legally obliged to follow strict regulations, she and Alison met with an attorney, an estate planner and lawyers.

Nature or nurture?
Diana Carter has put a lot of thought into passing on the giving gene. “Part of it’s the old nature-versus-nurture argument. Do people give because it is in their nature, or do they give because they were taught to do so?” she asked. “For my own kids, I can see their nature. They are good people. They are kind and generous,” she explained. “But my husband and I also tell them they have a responsibility towards others. They are bright and capable. They’ve had the opportunity to go to school, to travel, to see other parts of the world. Because of all this, they have the responsibility to give back.”

It has been highly satisfying to watch her children get excited about philanthropy, to watch them get involved and develop an awareness for the greater good, Carter said. Naming Alison executive director of the family foundation was a proud moment. “My hope is really that 100 years from now, my daughter will still have money in this foundation to work with and to give away.”