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Finding Meaning in Philanthropy At Every Age

Fulfillment Is Closer Than It Seems and Need Not Wait
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July 12, 2023
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In pursuit of well-rounded and meaningful lives, many of us feel the pull of home and family, career responsibilities, a sense of community, and our own health and well-being. This search for meaning – and the often-elusive steps on how to attain it – became more pronounced during the pandemic when the world was forced to “hit the pause button.” For many, it triggered a reappraisal of values, taking personal inventory of what really matters and finding a gratifying path forward.

As a career nonprofit professional, including the past 16 years with the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (The Foundation), I have the distinct opportunity to interact with hundreds of individuals and families as they discover that meaning through their philanthropic endeavors.  It occurred to me that many donors with whom I am privileged to work seem to already hold a key to fulfillment.

I was struck how these individuals – irrespective of their net worth – enjoy a meaningful life that is tethered by a shared joy of philanthropy, of giving back both their time and treasures. As Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Charitable pursuits provide these people with equilibrium, serving as a ballast between the forces that batter everyone’s lives, while bringing a sense of meaning and higher purpose.

One great misconception is that philanthropy is reserved for high-net-worth individuals. Another fallacy is that charitable involvement is a mid-to-late-life pursuit, taking shape only as estate plans and legacies come into focus. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, we need to embrace philanthropy as part of a lifelong journey.

Considered that way, charitable endeavors can become a manifestation and embodiment of a person’s or family’s values – something that can shape the course of their lives while bettering the world. Organized by decade, the below suggestions are meant as a guide for discovering meaning in philanthropy at every age:

Twenties. Likely still in or just out of school, the goal for individuals at this stage of life is to sample, to become acquainted with the broadest range of nonprofit causes and organizations, and to tap into personal interests. Seek organizations that may appeal; these may span social justice, arts and culture, human services, education, or something else. With obligations such as student-loan repayment and saving for the future, financial resources may be scarce, but it’s a great time to give small monthly donations and also to volunteer and give generously of your time. Many organizations have junior boards and programs to engage and train future leaders while providing social and networking opportunities with like-minded peers.

Thirties. This is, in many respects, a transformative period when careers take flight, life partnerships root, and families are started. Professional and personal obligations evolve and, as salaries and net worth rise, new financial considerations move front of mind: initial home ownership, investment and retirement planning, life insurance policies and a litany of related matters, including drafting a will. Even as greater demands are placed on thirtysomethings’ lives, their charitable commitment need not take a backseat and can play a pivotal role in a balanced, fulfilled life.

At this busy stage of life, one of the easiest ways to be philanthropic is by opening a donor-advised fund, or DAF – one of the fastest-growing giving tools in the country – essentially a charitable account at a sponsor such as The Foundation, the largest manager of such assets for Los Angeles-area Jewish philanthropists. I often refer to DAFs as the charitable-giving equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife for their utility and flexibility. Established with a modest initial donation of cash, stock or real estate, DAFs afford maximum tax advantages, with each contribution to the fund qualifying for an immediate fair-market-value deduction. They are also convenient, allowing donors to centralize their charitable giving from a single point and support the causes they care about on their own time tables while leaving the administration to others.

Forties. This is the decade when personal paths begin to diverge. For some, it is the stage when child-rearing is central to their lives. Others by choice or circumstance remain child-free and attain fulfillment through other pursuits either independently or with a partner. For those raising families, this is a time of life where we can instill values by providing children their first exposure to giving. Intergenerational philanthropy experts encourage involving offspring in age-appropriate ways, for parents to lead by example, and to make giving a collective family experience. A shared cause to which children contribute a portion of their allowances (experts espouse teaching kids the three-jar, “save-spend-give” model), volunteering together at a local nonprofit and establishing tribute funds for life cycle events (such as b’nai mitzvahs) are tried-and-true activities. As one Foundation donor expressed about inheritance: “Passing along values is more important than passing along money.”

Fifties, sixties and beyond. Even as life-expectancy rises, these are inevitably ages at which we begin to ponder our own legacies: How do I want to be remembered? How do I ensure that the causes that bring meaning to me continue to enjoy support perpetually? How can we instill the same joy and fulfillment from giving to our children and grandchildren regardless of whether their chosen causes diverge from our own?

At any stage, some will experience “liquidity events” through the sale of a business or real-estate holdings – a portion of which may enable fulfilling philanthropic ambitions. These philanthropists can elect to support their favorite causes by establishing endowment funds, building their DAFs and other means of planned giving, both during their lifetimes and as part of their estate planning. Some of my greatest professional satisfaction comes from assisting donors to create DAFs for their children and grandchildren, an increasingly popular way of involving offspring in family philanthropy . To that end, this work is often conducted in consultation with The Foundation’s Center for Designed Philanthropy whose advisory services include working with families on their multi-generational giving strategies.

Certainly, the preceding isn’t intended as a “be-all.” Instead, it should be considered a first step. Philanthropy, much like a well-lived life, is multi-faceted and deeply personal. What this can offer is a window into the virtually limitless spectrum of possibilities on how charitable giving can infuse fulfillment today and for years – if not generations – to come.

 


Dan Rothblatt is executive vice president of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, which manages more than $1 billion in charitable assets for 1,400 donor families, and in 2022 directed grants of $160 million to about 2,500 nonprofit causes.

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