More Than Money
Issue #20

How Much to Give?

Table of Contents

“Personal Stories”

The Gift of Faith

My giving is an evolving, work-in- progress. Ultimately, philanthropy is a very individual journey, something between each of us and God.

As a Christian, I had long viewed tithing--the notion that we owe ten percent of our income to church and charity--as a good target for my giving. Some years back, I was feeling pretty good that I had moved up to donating six percent of my pre-tax income. My bubble popped at a Christian business leaders' breakfast. The speaker looked us right in the eye and said his annual giving was now up to forty percent of his income and he knew he could do even better. It made me wonder if I could do better, too.

The speaker talked about how living frugally enabled him to give more. Here he was, a CEO of a successful company, and he lived in the same house he bought when he first got his entry level job thirty years ago! In the last ten to fifteen years, I've tried to live in a similar, low-overhead fashion. I've quit the country club and I no longer desire to own a fancy new car. This has been a part of my faith journey. Some philosopher I read called it "trying to grasp the concept of downward mobility" in our wildly material world.

Back when I was a church-goer only by habit, my giving was nominal and scattered. The idea that ninety percent of my assets were mine and ten percent of them were God's was still a stretch, but I liked this division in principle. But as my faith has deepened, I've come to realize that God's claim on the financial resources I control is not just ten percent. His claim is total. Everything I have is to be used as His steward. Both what I keep and what I give, including my time, are to be used faithfully and responsibly.

Every year I work up a rough plan of how much we think we can give away, what organizations interest my wife and me, and which groups we want to support with our time and money. This practice provides us a time to think comprehensively about our goals and priorities for the coming year. We are currently giving about twenty percent of our annual pre-tax income, and, occasionally, gifts out of our growing investment capital.

I'm all for planning, but I think it is important to remain open to chance opportunities for giving. The ability to give beyond what we've budgeted occasionally has brought surprising joy to me. I am chair of the endowment committee for the local United Way. After hearing a report from the staff that they needed a new computer system and software to do a good job with office systems and the general campaign, I leaned over to another family member on the board and whispered, "Why don't you and I get some of the family together and help raise the $30,000 needed for this project?" He nodded, and the matter was quietly taken care of.

I'm lucky, of course. I've got business training and have worked in financial services for over fifteen years. I understand numbers, taxes, and investments. I have confidence that my family has enough and that my giving will not jeopardize our long-term security. I've also worked with enough local nonprofits and ministries to know how much my gifts can mean to their work.

Many wealthy people don't know how to figure out how much is enough for them, or have a sense of what can be done with their money, and they vastly underestimate what they could safely give away. In my work, I try to help people see the potential contribution they are sitting on and the joy that can come from giving to projects they care deeply about. I'm not pushing guilt, I'm pushing fulfillment.

- anonymous author

Playing The Hand You're Dealt

Growing up as a child in a famous wealthy family meant that I was encouraged to give from a very young age. My parents served on boards, founded nonprofits, and talked excitedly at the dinner table about the organizations they supported. They were my role models. As a kid, I was also expected to give ten percent of my allowance to organizations I cared about. In my early years, this meant putting money in the church collection plate; by high school I was sending money to civil rights organizations.

Yet, when I came into my first wave of family money at the age of 21, I felt confused and insecure about how to use the resources I now had. I didn't want to be different from my friends, and was embarrassed to be associated with a family whom some of the activists I admired called "capitalist pigs." During this time, my relations with my parents were very strained.

Anyone who got to me with a request would get something. I didn't have a plan, a clear sense of mission, or even a handle on my own finances. I also didn't know how to say "No." In my guilt and confusion, I just wanted the money to go away. I wanted the contribution I made in the world to be my work--not my money or family connections. I gave a good part of my principal away in those years, but in an unsatisfying and haphazard way. My satisfaction came from my work running an alternative high school for six years.

Slowly, however, I began to see that by learning to play the hand I was dealt by birth, I could make far more of a contribution than pretending I didn't have the resources I did. I remember meeting Oliver Tambo, the president of the African National Congress in South Africa, during the 1980s. I told him I wanted to help end apartheid and was considering joining the civil disobedience campaign against it. He replied, "Don't get arrested outside the South African Embassy. We have plenty of people who can do that. What we don't have is people with connections to the business community in the United States."

Since I had started working with my father at the New York City Partnership, an organization of philanthropic business leaders, I was able to organize a meeting with some of them and leaders from the ANC. I realized then that I was at a choice point. I could continue to do gratifying grassroots work, or I could plunge in and use my family connections and access on behalf of people and issues in which I believed. Ultimately, after lots of life experience and therapy, I chose the latter path and have since tried to use my resources to help open doors for people locked out of the system.

For me, this has meant starting the Synergos Institute, which supports projects to overcome poverty in six countries--Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and India. I give 30 percent of my income each year, and over half of this goes to Synergos. I raise funds to meet the remaining ninety percent of our budget, and work full-time without pay as a further contribution. I also serve on a variety of boards and contribute money and fundraising contacts to these organizations as well.

Synergos, and most of the nonprofits I support, work with people and organizations trying to extend their access to the information, skills, or resources they need. During college I lived for several months in a squatters' community in Brazil and I saw first hand how hard people work to solve their own problems. Poor people have an amazing capacity to make something of their lives with almost no material resources by working in close association with each other in various community organizations. At Synergos we support such efforts by connecting this creative local energy to the resources of the government, foundations, and interested individuals, as well as the local and international business community.

We call this "bridging leadership"--an approach that brings disparate groups together to solve problems. This investment in the world's future is in the best interests of everybody, including the wealthy. I know that as I inherit more money, or do even better in my business dealings, I'll give even more to these groups because I really believe in this approach.

- anonymous author

I Never Wanted To Be A Philanthropist

My grandfather put shares of his newspaper business into a modest trust fund for his children and grandchildren. It was worth maybe $7,000 at the time. However, my uncle turned the family business into one of the world's largest media empires and our family has become very wealthy.

As a fiery, moralistic eighteen year old, I felt uncomfortable being offered such privilege just because I was born into a particular family. Nor was I comfortable with how the money was made. While I've become less zealous in the last sixteen years, I still feel basically the same. I've chosen to live the kind of life my peers and neighbors live. I don't want to drop my community ties to my friends and colleagues or my work at the grassroots level.

I have never lived off my trust money, a decision which has always given me a great feeling of independence and self-confidence. Yet, I'm also aware that I haven't done much else with it either--outside of making some relatively small donations to environmental organizations--one of my great passions. I've just assumed that I would figure out what to do with it all later. In one sense this has only made my "problem" bigger. In the last five years, the value of my trust share has doubled. I am now looking at what to do with over twenty-five million dollars!

Recently, I've stopped running away from my money like a wombat (as we say in Australia), and have begun to network with other wealthy people. I've joined a wealthy women's support group and helped start another group of wealthy people seeking to fund social change efforts. I've needed to talk about my money to people outside of my family, and it hasn't proved all that helpful to my poorer artist friends--or to me--to talk about my financial situation beyond a certain point. Turning to other rich people has been fantastic.

By reaching out to them, I've become clearer about what I want to do with my untapped fortune and have decided to create a foundation by next year and put all my trust shares into it. My big challenge is how to balance my already-packed working life as an actor and musician with the demanding task of becoming a philanthropist--a rewarding occupation to be sure, but one whose job description just doesn't make me feel as alive as being a working artist.

My first solution was to give away all the money to conservation groups in just two or three years and then close down the foundation and get back to my regular life full-time as quick as possible. I now think, though, that giving so much money away so fast would be unwise and irresponsible. Still, I don't want to leave a lot of money behind in perpetuity. I think it is wrong for wealth to be centered in the hands of just a few people. And, I just don't want to be a philanthropist for years and years.

My goal now is to pay out the foundation's assets completely in about ten years. I also hope that after establishing a good governing team for the foundation I can step off the board in four or five years, leaving the key giving decisions to people with a stronger knowledge of the conservation field and from a wide range of economic backgrounds.

Coming to terms with how to claim and give away my wealth has enabled me to see I just might be able to preserve myself as a working artist, while still using my resources responsibly.

- anonymous author

Giving to Ourselves and Others

The historical legacy in my family has been one of accumulating wealth, not giving it away. Even though I became passionately committed to feminist causes in my twenties, and had already received a significant inheritance, I never wrote donation checks for more than $500 back then--and that felt like a big stretch.

Recently, my spouse and I made a $100,000 multi-year pledge to a single organization. We also made other multi-year pledges for general support to a few organizations and are backing up our pledges with a commitment to do fundraising for these organizations. I often accompany staff on donor visits to help increase the pool of major donors to these groups and inspire current donors to increase their annual giving. Over the last dozen years, my wife and I have increasingly come to see ourselves as "social change philanthropists."

Why the change? The easy answer is that we now have more money at our disposal due to the stock market, my wife's success as a cancer surgeon, and my receiving a further inheritance from my father's estate. Yet we know people with more resources than we have who give far less. What I really think makes the difference is being able to sit down and ask yourself, "How much is enough?" You have to be able to look at your assets in the light of your needs and desires and say this is "Enough," this is "Surplus."

For us, finding this elusive line is an ongoing discussion and an occasional source of friction. Once, Kate commented "If you didn't give so much of our money away, I wouldn't have to work!" We were both surprised by this previously unexpressed feeling. We agreed that if she really wanted to stop work, we could change our financial plan. The fact is she loves her work, but when she is tired or overwhelmed she sometimes feels trapped.

In truth, she had approved all of "my" giving, which I do in both our names. Money definitely provides opportunities for learning and growth in a relationship.

I was certainly the stickler when my wife began to push for us to buy a beautiful house and remodel it to our complete satisfaction, regardless of the cost. Coming from a family of spenders who never seemed to enjoy what they bought, I don't do well with big and expensive. My wife persevered and taught me the joy of having beautiful things and in investing thoughtfully in our own comfort and enjoyment.

For all of our differences, we seek a balance between our giving and our spending. On a recent funders' tour to South Africa, we were both moved to tears when we realized that the money we spent on remodeling our home could have built hundreds of housing units! Experiences like these haven't prompted us to sell our beloved house, but they do help us forgo our fantasy of buying a BMW instead of investing in our 100,000 mile VW so it can last another 5 years. They also make us look regularly at our income and assets to see if we might be able to give more this year, and the next.

- anonymous author

Spreading The Deductions Around

For the past 15 years, I have received more income than I could ever need, and I have had no legal way to lessen the amount. Giving has always seemed like the best way to use this extra money well.

In recent years, I've given away between 60 percent to 90 percent of my annual income. It has always bothered me that I receive no tax benefit for the excesses over the allowed 50 percent deduction. The law says the excesses can be "carried over" as a deduction in a future tax year--for up to five years. But since my contributions exceed 50 percent every year, I've never been able to use the "carryover."

Recently, when finding myself with about $8,000 more than expected to give away, I offered the money to a close friend with the suggestion that she choose worthy organizations to receive contributions. She wasn't that keen on this until we both realized that if she made the contributions, she would realize the tax benefit I could not.

This got me to thinking and I began to envision creating a "community of giving." The plan is simple. I'll stop making contributions directly for awhile and make annual gifts of $10,000 (the current maximum amount one can give without being taxed) each to several friends instead, with the understanding that they will give the money to organizations they believe in. They will then get the tax deduction and I can use up my "carry- over" from previous years. Depending on their tax bracket each of my friends will enjoy the benefit of a reduced tax bill on the order of $1,500 to $2,800. The money will also be going to a wider range of worthy causes, and I won't have to give philanthropy so much time and thought. It's a win-win solution.

- anonymous author

Children or Charity?

At some point in the 1970s, I reflected on the state of our world, which increasingly looked like the last days of the Roman Empire, and I was no longer content to be a novelist. I wanted to be a writer and a philanthropist.

My giving began to skyrocket after that. I first gave away all income from my inherited stocks, then about five percent of my net worth a year, and finally up to 10 percent of assets a year. Most people balk at giving away capital, but the growth rate of my income-producing assets was well over 10 percent during all these years, so I never "lost" any money. My principal grew, even at this rate of giving! I saw my contributions, particularly to conservation land trusts and intentional communities, make deep dreams come true, and was motivated to keep giving more.

As I moved into my 50s and started doing serious estate planning, my big question was how much of my wealth to leave to philanthropic causes, and how much to give to my six children. I worried that having too much wealth would not be good for them. I believe that the best things I can give my children are a strong work ethic and a sense of noblesse oblige. Without these, any wealth they might gain in their life will either be squandered or hoarded, wasted in either case.

What I ultimately decided to do was to set up trusts for each of my children that would get them through college and give them an annual base income between $30,000 to $40,000 a year--something comfortable, but not really a rich person's standard of living. As it turns out, the children will be wealthier than I planned, for they will also receive money from additional trusts unexpectedly set up by my parents and grandparents. Because of this, my wife and I have stopped gifting our older children an additional $10,000 to $20,000 a year and put that money towards our philanthropic giving. Believing in the value of giving, we've also set up a family foundation that our children will direct after my wife and I are gone.

My wife and I see eye-to-eye on all this, yet we both revisit the decision occasionally and sometimes struggle with doubts. Our children vary in age from 15 to 48. Will they be hurt that we didn't leave more to them? Will they resent the responsibility involved in giving the remainder of our estate away? Will they make philanthropic choices in accord with our values? None of this is certain. All of it, like everything important in life, is an act of faith.

- anonymous author

Between A Gesture and A Sacrifice

Back in 1983, I was forty-seven years old, and a financially successful partner in a large food processing company in California. One morning, as I was sitting in my office at work, I read a story in the Wall Street Journal about a businessman who had begun working with poor people in his community. I was fascinated by how this man had taken up the cause of the homeless, spending substantial time and money in helping people acquire decent housing. Some of his friends thought the guy was "losing it." But, to many people, he was a hero.

After finishing that article, I put down the paper and stared out the window. My mind seemed to stop. Suddenly, an idea came over me: "I want to be my own hero!" I didn't know exactly what that meant, but I was excited. In that moment, the question of how much to give became real to me, and my intuition told me that I needed to go far beyond what seemed "normal."

I kept this idea to myself for several months, but it became more firmly lodged in my psyche. Sometime that fall, my business partner stuck his head in my door and asked to chat. We talked about business matters for awhile and then he asked me, "Bob, how are things in your life?" I replied, "They're going pretty well. Wendy is a marvel and the kids are doing okay. But you know, Dino, I've been thinking about things a little further down the road."

I paused, considering what I wanted to say. I finally told him, "I want to get involved in some sort of service project--you know, helping other people. I want to spend real time at it, like half my time. I would love to still be able to work here the rest of the time, but I don't know if that would work out...." My voice trailed off and I anxiously studied Dino's face.

"When?" he asked. I mumbled back, "Beginning in '86. I'll be fifty then." Dino lapsed into silence. After a while, I saw his face lighten. "So, it's 50-50 at 50, eh?" He couldn't suppress a chuckle over his clever turn of phrase. Greatly relieved, I echoed his words, delighted with the image they created. "Yeah, it's 50-50 at 50!"

I began to search for a project to get involved in and became increasingly interested in international development. I had traveled in Central America in 1974 and had been haunted by the plight of Mayan Indian farmers ever since. I decided to investigate what US nonprofits were doing in Central America by identifying four of them and sending each a $1,000 contribution and a request for information. With one exception, all I received in return was a computer generated thank-you note and a newsletter. Slim pickings. The one exception came in the form of a phone call from Ed Bullard of Technoserve, a development support group based in Connecticut. Ed was about my age and had left a large family business fifteen years earlier to begin his nonprofit. He soon became my mentor and my service partner.

I won't bore you with all the details of our work in Central America, but it took hold of me and engaged me in a way I never expected. In the years that followed, I decided I wanted to contribute significant amounts of my financial resources as well my time. Mind you, I believe that giving time is a greater expression of one's commitment than just giving money. When you give time, it's you. When you give money, the amount may or may not be the real you. Still, money--if spent wisely--can make a big difference in the lives of others. I've seen this over and over.

I like my friend Lynn Twist's advice, "The right amount to give is somewhere between a gesture and a sacrifice." I've found my own point along this spectrum mostly through intuition and experiments that test my internal money barriers. I try stretching my gifts to "just beyond" my emotional comfort level, and then stretch again, and again. I've learned a lot from people who offer a more systematic and rational approach to determining their capacity to give, but for me the big pull has always been seeing the work itself flower, and imagining what could be done with just a little more. Relying on inspiration, intuition, and a little rational analysis, I've become convinced I can give up to 50 percent of my wealth, still be financially secure, and do what I most want in life.

- anonymous author


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