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In Giving to Others, You Don't Have to Be a Billionaire
Every day we are confronted with choices: what we wear, what we eat, how and with whom we spend our leisure time. These choices reveal something about us, our priorities and our personal values.
The same is true for our charitable giving. How much (if anything), where, and to whom we give is a reflection of who we are. We can support a community foundation, a donor designated fund, a nonprofit organization, a community service program, a religious institution, an entertainment benefit, or even a race for a specific cause. We can give $5 or $5 million, depending on our budget and our good will.
But there's another option that allows the donor to have a bit more input in the giving process: family foundations. To dispel a popular myth, you don't have to be a Rockefeller or a Bill Gates to start one. You don't have to give away millions. But you do have to have sound financial and legal advice. And you have to have secured enough of a nest egg so that it can provide the capital needed to sustain itself.
My family has such a fund, started nearly 16 years ago. It was the logical extension of the values by which my parents raised my sisters and me: If you can, you should give. Both my mother and father participated in civic activities, supported numerous charitable organizations, and encouraged their children to get involved in local community programs. I was raised to give back to the community the same way I was taught to be kind and honest; it was just something that was expected because it was something my parents valued.
So it was no surprise when my mother approached my adult sisters and me some years after my father died with the idea of creating a family foundation. For her it was a way to foster closer family ties between us and her nine grandchildren and to extend, for future generations, the tradition of giving. My sisters and I had all been giving independently for years, but doing it as a family seemed like a logical progression.
It didn't happen overnight. The first step was to look at other family foundations and determine which model, if any, was most appropriate for us. We had to make sure there was enough capital to enable the foundation to award grants on an annual basis. We also had to obtain the legal status, and agree on a focus. As a family of women we decided to solicit grants from innovative programs and projects focusing on educational and economic equality for girls and women and/or enhancing family stability.
Over the last 15 years we have given away more than 50 small grants. They have been modest amounts -- $5,000 and under. We believe that sometimes less is more. Small dollar amounts can provide the seed money for projects that otherwise might be overlooked and go unfunded. My mother, who received grant money to help in her professional career, knew first hand the impact that small amounts can make in planting the seeds for growth and development of worthwhile projects. Some of the programs our family foundation has funded have taken hold and several have become self-sustaining.
For the first 10 years we awarded grants that met specific published guidelines to organizations with which we had no prior ties. But because all the founding trustees were connected to different worthy causes in the geographic communities where they were living -- Florida, Ohio and California -- we are now working proactively in those areas. We have ongoing relationships with community organizations, educational systems and healthcare agencies to assist in the development and support of their projects as they relate to our foundation's guidelines.
Our family fund fits well for our family dynamics. Its evolution has paralleled that of the founding trustees. With the next generation now participating in the funding process, there may be other changes, too. But the foundation has achieved its objective of fostering charitable giving and promoting a philanthropic philosophy. It has added another dimension to familial bonds as well as cultivated lasting and worthwhile relationships with organizations and people in the community. Perhaps it will serve as a model and an inspiration for others to create a foundation that best reflects their personal and family values.
Reprinted from the Miami Herald with permission by Kathie Klarreich. Klarreich is the author of Madame Dread, a book about her experiences as a reporter in Haiti for NPR, the Christian Science Monitor, NBC News, and Time magazine.