The challenge of giving away your money

By Caitlin Kelly

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Interesting piece in The New York Times recently about a college class that teaches students about philanthropy:

Vinay Sridharan must make it through microeconomic theory and the writings of Proust before the end of his senior year at Northwestern in June. But in one course, the final project is far less abstract: give away $50,000.

It is also far more difficult than it may seem.

This course in philanthropy, endowed with a grant from a Texas hedge fund manager, requires students to find and investigate nonprofit organizations and, if they stand up to scrutiny, give them a portion of the five-figure cash pot.

“I didn’t realize they had real money to give,” said Margaret Haywood, the director of work force development at the Inspiration Corporation, a Chicago charity that received $25,000 from the Northwestern students last year.

The workshop — and others like it that have sprung up in the last few years at a dozen universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Yale — offers a real-world experience of philanthropy that is rare in the cloistered halls of academia, and which otherwise is reserved for institutions and the affluent.

If you are fortunate enough to have income, and savings, beyond that needed for immediate basics — food, housing, health care, education, transportation, clothing — the question quickly arises:

How much, to whom and when will you give some of it away?

My working trip to Nicaragua in March with WaterAid, (which I blogged about here), introduced me to a terrific woman who is passionate about philanthropy and who blogs about it, Jennifer Iacovelli Barbour. Mother of two small boys, Jen lives in Maine — and the first time we met was in the Atlanta airport enroute to Managua, soon to share a small van in 95 degree heat for 12-hour days for a week. We had a blast!

Jennifer and I at Bilwi airport, after arriving in a 12-seater airplane.
Jennifer and I at Bilwi airport, after arriving in a 12-seater airplane.

It was such a tremendous pleasure to spend time with people who care so deeply about the work they are doing, and whose work is changing people’s lives for the better.

I also wrote recently about this question of legacy for the Times:

The decision-making process should begin with some philosophical questions, said Isabel Miranda, a partner in the Bloomfield, N.J., law firm Pearlman & Miranda. Ms. Miranda, a former bank trust officer, now specializes in helping clients plan their wills, trusts and estates.

“Who do I owe my success to? What values do I want to reflect? How do I want to pay back the organizations I believe in?” she said.

The subject is an interesting one, since not everyone has children to leave their assets to — we don’t and nor are we close to young cousins or nieces or nephews — and we’ll need to make thoughtful decisions about who are the best stewards of our hard-earned dollars.

In my case…I’m still not sure.

One organization I am passionate about, which supports the work of journalists who cover traumatic issues (war, violent crime, health, conflict) and helps them recover afterward is the Dart Center, so they’re on my radar already.

Sorry to say, I doubt my alma mater will get anything, as I found it sadly impersonal and bureaucratic, even if I did get a decent and affordable (Canadian) education.

One charity I now support with my time and skill is the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, which can grant up to $4,000 within a week to qualified non-fiction writers facing financial crisis. Please donate here!

Do you make charitable donations?

To whom and why?