Developing children charity champions

May 30, 2011

Developing our children into charity champions isn’t rocket science. What it takes is a decision, direction and discipline.

Decision
The first step is to decide when to introduce the concept of charitable giving to your children. “A child of about four- or five-years-old can begin to understand the concept,” says Melissa Berman, president and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Inc. The exercise of cleaning out a child’s room and then taking them, with their old toys and clothes, to a shelter can be an educational experience. It shows that other kids need stuff that they take for granted.

Also understand why you’re trying to teach them to be charitable. “We want our kids to understand compassion and empathy,” says Kate Atwood, founder of Living By Giving blog. It is also about passing down values and commitment to public service. With that understanding, it will be much easier to explain why it is important.

Direction
Perhaps the most important part of developing a strategy is to model the behavior for your kids. How can you ask your kids to become involved in charitable actions if you’re not doing it yourself?  Talk about the charities you donate to and why you contribute. Get your kids to talk about what interests and inspires them. The homeless? The environment? Food for the poor?

The charity strategy will change as your child ages. For elementary school-aged kids, let them raise money with a lemonade stand or bake sale. Then have them donate the money to an organization they care about. This is a good way to get them engaged. You can also make sure a portion of their allowance is donated to a charity of their choice. One strategy is to set up the 1/3 plan — your child is allowed to spend 1/3 but must save 1/3 and share (give to charity) 1/3, recommends John Graves, managing director of the Renaissance Group.

But charity isn’t just about donating money — it’s also about giving time. “Family volunteering is a big trend,” says Atwood. “If you build it into the family routine, it will be in their paradigm,” she says. Cleaning up a local park, collecting clothes for a tornado-struck community or walking to raise money for a cause are all good examples of family outings.

As your kids get older, you can encourage group activities with their friends. “I know a family where the older generation matches volunteer time with money,” says Berman. “So if the teenagers are volunteering time, then the parents will donate money,” she says. Another strategy might be to do matching — whatever the child contributes to an organization, the parent can match. Some helpful resources include kidscare.org, dosomething.org, and kidsareheroes.org.

Discipline
It takes discipline to develop good habits. If you consider donating to charity a habit you want to instill in your children, you’ll need to make sure that the plan you create and communicate is actually followed. Perhaps have an annual family sit down and discuss where the kids want to donate time and money for the year. That way the kids are engaged and there is some accountability for the family charity plan.

Whatever you do, don’t force or pressure them to become more involved than feels comfortable for them. “Philanthropy is not supposed to be painful, but voluntary,” says Berman.

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