The Working Waterfront

Learning to give as a family lesson

Weighing competing donation requests is a teachable moment

Rob Snyder
Posted 2016-10-25
Last Modified 2016-10-25

When I was young, my experience of giving was watching the circular bottom of a wicker basket as it passed above my forehead, hand to hand, down the aisle at church.

A few years back I became interested in figuring out how to engage my children in discussing giving, based on the issues we care about. I had been hearing about various ways of having these discussions from people I’ve come to know and admire through my work.

Our family decided to begin in early fall, around harvest time. In this case, we would be “harvesting” the sizable flow of solicitation letters from local, national and international charitable organizations.

By Thanksgiving the pile would include many interesting and important causes. My kids were intrigued by the stacks of colorful envelopes, some with impressive faux hand-written notes, others with a penny enclosed, or pages of address labels inside.

We had received letters seeking support for local youth groups, after-school programs, school fundraisers, military veterans, land trusts, bringing an end to pesticide use, ending global poverty and providing medical services to children in war zones.

And animals—lots of organizations supporting animals of every shape and size with every conceivable need. My kids are always angling to support animals!

You get the idea—lots of letters. We discuss these letters together as a family over the weekend following Thanksgiving. We set an amount of money to donate and work from there.

Working through these letters as a family prompted us to discuss issues that are important to us, and to decide which ones aren’t. We talk about giving locally versus outside of our town. We talk about meeting basic human needs and how the different letters propose going about meeting them.

We talk about micro-lending. We talk about the needs of people who lack homes and clean water, about those who suffer discrimination, and yes, we talk about the list of items needed by the local animal shelter.

Given our financial limitations, we have to discuss whether we should give it all to one organization or a little to each one. We’ve talked about other forms of support like volunteering and donating goods and services. We’ve talked about my board service with organizations and what that entails.

Each year the discussion evolves toward a discussion of family values. How do we feel about justice, equity, basic human rights, the rule of law and who has a hopeful view of the future we can support? We talk about the importance of caring for people who are not in a position to care for themselves. How does this happen in our society? What organizations in our community help people in these situations? How do they help? We talk about climate change and its effect on oceans and communities.

Last year, we had a great discussion about social enterprises that add to the wealth and character of a community. Don’t get me wrong, these are not formal lectures; they are simple, heart-felt responses to letters expressing real needs.

Someday—we hope—our kids will carry these discussions and our concerns forward. Learning to talk about the wide range of issues facing our world is a start.

I hope that my kids are learning to weigh the needs of their community and the world with those of cats and dogs, and to feel that they have a responsibility to participate in meeting these needs. In this way, we are having the same discussions as those from many different walks of life and belief systems who sit down around kitchen tables this time of year to plan their giving.

Last year we made fewer “larger” gifts; four gifts of roughly $35 each. We made gifts to local organizations with one exception. We lent money to a weaving cooperative, and because it was a loan, we added it to the amount we gave.

We extended our giving by making gifts in honor of family members rather than buying them holiday gifts at the store. What kid wouldn’t enjoy giving a truckload or two of cow manure to their cousins for the holidays?

We gave where we knew our gift would be matched by challenge grants so that every dollar we gave turned into two dollars at the receiving organizations. We looked up each of the charities to which we donated on Charity Navigator to be sure they operate transparently.

Giving is one of the oldest forms of human social bonding. We give for many reasons, but primary among them is that we receive the satisfaction of contributing to causes where our gifts can make a difference. It is far from a purely economic motivation. We give locally to give back, and we give to issues that compel us.

I look forward to sorting through the stack of letters building in our kitchen. The kids are preparing their arguments to give it all to the animals.

In my role at the Island Institute it is also important to say thank you. Please know that I am grateful to everyone who will take our organizaton’s letter out of the stack of worthwhile causes this holiday season and make a generous gift to support our work. It is one important way you can invest in the future of Maine’s coastal and island communities.

Rob Snyder is president of the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront. Follow Rob Twitter: @ProOutsider