To Achieve Greater Impact and Joy, Donors Need to Get Comfortable Talking About Money

By Alex Johnston
|
08 / 24 / 22

One of the biggest barriers to giving, and giving effectively, is the American taboo around talking about money and wealth.

This taboo might well be strongest among the middle class, where it’s common for children to go their entire lives without knowing how much money their parents make.

But 67 percent of the ultra-wealthy — those with a net worth of more than $30 million — moved from working or middle class origins into this level of affluence in their own lifetimes, according to a report from Wealth X. And that same report found that just 8.5 percent of ultra-high net worth individuals inherited the entirety of their wealth. This means that an overwhelming majority of wealthy people have spent at least part of their lives steeped in cultural values that discourage direct talk about dollars and cents.

This has created an unfortunate obstacle for many wealthy families on the road to greater giving: a reluctance to fully engage with others about their own wealth. They’re afraid of violating a social rule, and they’re mindful that conflict often arises when we talk about money. But by not talking candidly about their wealth with the key people around them, would-be philanthropists undermine their ability to achieve both impact and joy in their giving. 

If you want money with meaning, you have to get real about what it means to be wealthy. If you’re a wealthy individual — or if you’re someone who advises wealthy individuals about their giving — and you want to effectively leverage that wealth for good, you’re going to have to get comfortable having frank conversations about money. 

Here are three key money conversations to start with in order to unlock greater impact and joy as a philanthropist.

A Conversation With Yourself: Define Your Wealth Stance

The first conversation to have is simply with yourself, and the goal is to define your wealth stance. Your wealth stance is your perspective on how much of your wealth exceeds both the immediate and long term needs of yourself and your loved ones. It requires you to look at your current income and your expected net worth across your entire lifetime. Do you want to see your wealth constantly grow until you die so you can pass on as much wealth as possible to your heirs (and also the government)? Or would you like to fully distribute the wealth you built within the span of your own lifetime, whether by spending it or giving it away?

It’s helpful to actually draw this on a graph. You can assign a dollar value to the Y-axis, or leave it blank. What matters is the shape of the curve. Is it a rainbow or more of a hockey stick? 

Once you’ve plotted that out, then you can plot out your giving goals over your lifetime, and see whether the two graphs correspond with each other. Do you envision your giving increasing as your wealth grows? Does it increase in proportion with your wealth growth, or does it eventually grow large enough to lead your net worth to decline? 

This exercise can be surprisingly hard for many people. On one hand, it asks you to reflect on your expected span of life and your eventual mortality. And on the other hand, it may also require you to grapple with the limits of what money can do to protect you from all of life’s ups and downs. If we never get real with ourselves about how we are using wealth as a security blanket, we can preserve the illusion that holding onto the bulk of our wealth keeps us safe from a wide array of undefined future cataclysms, like unexpected illness, natural disaster, business failure, the list goes on. Saving for a rainy day is entirely rational, and deeply rooted in working and middle class values. The issue is that once you’ve achieved wealth above a certain level, a realistic assessment of what you need to save for that rainy day may actually be far greater in absolute terms than you ever would have dreamed growing up, but still far smaller in relative terms than the wealth you are actually holding onto as a security blanket.  

Ultimately, if you want to use your wealth to make a difference, the biggest risk of putting off this conversation with yourself is that you’ll reach the end of your life with a lot of excess money that you could have used to try to make the world a better place while you were still here.

With a clear understanding of how much money you want to give away, you can begin to do so in more consistent, systematic ways, without being afraid that you’re jeopardizing your own financial security by giving too much, or being troubled by that nagging feeling that you are doing less than you could to help others by holding onto more money than you really need.

In most cases, when you engage in this conversation with yourself about your wealth stance you’ll find that you have more money available to give than you thought. This realization can significantly increase your impact and your satisfaction with your giving.  

A Conversation With Your Family: Define Your Cultural Relationship to Wealth

The next conversation needs to happen with your family. 

You need to bring your spouse and your kids (or anyone else who stands to benefit from your wealth during or after your lifetime) into a room and define your family values in relation to wealth. This means openly discussing how much money you have and getting alignment about how you will spend, save, or give away that money.

Working and middle class values of frugality, hard work, modesty, and sensible spending certainly have merit, especially for people with limited financial resources, but if they’re the only values you live by once you’ve achieved substantial wealth, you’ll miss the opportunity to use that wealth for a greater purpose. 

Again, as I mentioned at the start of this article, having this conversation breaks a major social taboo. Many wealthy families are afraid that if their kids grow up knowing just how wealthy they already are, they’ll never develop an appreciation for the values of working hard toward a goal, being discerning with their spending, or appreciating the little things in life. 

But in reality, putting off this conversation may end up having the same effect. As many wealth advisors can attest, all kinds of pathologies can play out when well-intentioned wealthy parents seek to shield their children from the realities of their financial situation. Wanting to have “well-adjusted” kids with strong middle class values, parents sometimes hide their wealth from their children until they reach a certain age. And in many cases, even after wealthy individuals tell their adult children about their wealth, they still restrict their children’s access to it through trusts and other mechanisms.

As a result, their adult children never develop a healthy relationship with wealth, and often end up resenting their parents’ approach. By not talking about money, the parents’ wealth becomes the elephant in the room looming over every family interaction. 

Taking the time to define your family’s money values will pay off in healthier relationships with your family throughout the rest of your life. And as a philanthropist, having your family aligned on these values means you’ll be able to focus on your giving without the baggage and drama that often comes with unspoken struggles over the meaning of money within your family.  

A Conversation With Your Advisors: Define How & How Much You’ll Give 

Finally, you need to have an open and honest conversation with your advisors, which includes anyone whose input you feel the need to solicit before making decisions about giving. That could be anyone from a formal financial or legal advisor to your spouse or your business partners. 

Unlike the other two conversations, this one is typically not as much of an emotional minefield, but it’s still easy to put it off because it involves hard work and collaboration.

We even see this happen at Building Impact. We put a portion of our profits into a donor advised fund each year, and we believe everyone on our team should have a voice in deciding how we deploy that money out in the world. Each team member can make their own allocation from these shared funds—the only caveat is that they need to tell everyone else what they want to support. But we’ve noticed that even this minimal communication requirement with each other can mean that we put off making decisions about how to distribute these resources until an end of year deadline looms. Communicating with others about our giving decisions takes work! 

Conversations about your giving can be as formal as a strategic planning process where you determine your mission, vision, and values and set up a foundation structure with formal governance rights. Or it could be as simple as a married couple deciding between themselves that they will give away $100,000 a year, but each of them will give away half independently.

The important thing is to communicate clearly, completely, and often with anyone whom you consider to be a co-decision maker in your giving. This will help you meet your giving goals on a financial level, achieve more impact, and protect your relationships with your advisors. 

Donors Can’t Afford to Put Off These Conversations

All this talk about money can involve significant emotional labor. If your hands are getting clammy just thinking about this, know that you’re not alone.  

But avoiding these conversations will also take a toll. Your family relationships will suffer, your capacity for impact will decrease, and your emotional wellbeing will be weighed down. Getting good with your giving starts with getting good with your wealth

If you want to give in a way that makes sense for you and the world and truly make an impact on our biggest shared challenges, a key foundation is having those hard, honest conversations about what your money really means.

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