Teaching Philanthropy

My oldest child turns six today. She’s a terrific kid. Perhaps one of her best attributes is that she’s not at all materialistic. I suspect this is because the only television she’s ever watched is commercial-free PBS so partly she doesn’t even know what’s out there to want.

Whatever the reason, out of all of the presents she’s received over the past five years—dolls, doll houses, Play Mobil figurines and sets, craft kits, puzzles, games—the toy she plays with most, in fact, almost every day, is a set of 10 colorful nesting blocks.

She does all sorts of things with them. They have deep social bonds and alternating pecking orders, depending on their size and number. And while it’s a marvel to observe her playing with them, it’s also discouraging to think of all the toys and things that don’t interest her.

Several weeks ago, I began thinking about and planning for her 6th birthday. People started asking me what she wanted and it occurred to me that I really didn’t know. In fact, it’s entirely possible that she really didn’t know what she wanted herself.

Then the idea dawned on me that maybe this year, instead of birthday gifts, people could help my daughter support a cause. But what cause?

Aside from our church, where we’re very active and she sees us contribute our time and money, philanthropy in our house happens on-line or by check, usually while children are sleeping. It’s not something they’re at all aware of. And I don’t think this is atypical.

As a former fundraiser, I have been thinking a lot about how to introduce my kids to philanthropy. How should it happen? And when are kids old enough to grasp the concept of giving back?

In my life before kids, the organizations I worked for helped instill in me a deeper sense of altruism. I gained greater appreciation for the importance of social responsibility, being passionate about  organizations’ missions and supporting the greater good.

But what about my daughter, what would resonate with her?

As parents, we strive to ensure that our children feel protected, confident and secure; knowing that when they’re hungry, they’ll be fed; when they’re hurt, someone will be there to make them feel better; when they’re sick, medicine will make them well.

But it’s not this way for children everywhere in the world. Which made me think about the UN Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign. A campaign to help provide children in need with life saving vaccinations so they can live in a healthier world.

Hmm, one child helping out another child, this just might work.

So I explained the idea to DH, who in his ever sage wisdom pointed out that, despite our child’s lack of wants, still, she’s only 6 and having a birthday party where guests show up without presents—after  attending other kids’ parties that have had gift piles—might not go over well.

So I talked about kids in need with my daughter, explained my idea for her birthday, and shared this short video with her:

Then I explained a little about raising money to help kids, who have less than she does. She seemed to get it.

We set a goal of raising enough money to save 6 kids for her 6 birthday (or $120 at $20/kid).

Next, using the online fundraising site, Crowdrise, I made this page for her to track her progress.

Together, we made her birthday invitations and put this message on the back:

We agreed that giving people the option to bring a gift or make a contribution but not both, was the right balance. Then we sent them to her seven guests (we follow the “age +1” rule of how many guests our kids can invite to each birthday party).

A week ago, I composed an e-mail to just our family members, informing them of Ella’s venture into philanthropy and also posted a message about it to my friends on Facebook.

I still wasn’t sure if our daughter understood all of this but then the donations started coming in. She got really excited about tracking her progress and every time she got a new donation, I made her call and thank the donor.

Except in some cases, the donors weren’t people she knew directly. Like my good friend from high school, who lives in the Netherlands; or another good high school pal out in Chicago; or her Godfather’s sister in St. Louis. Ella’s message was touching people outside her own circle.

So to some donors, I wrote the thank you note and to others, she called her self. Listening to a six-year-old thank someone for helping reach her goal of saving 6 kids from disease is a really moving experience for me.

And then she reached her goal…and then she passed it.

As of today, she’s raised enough funds for the United Nations Foundation to vaccinate, on her behalf, 13 kids against four deadly diseases: Polio, measles, rotovirus and pneumonia.

When our daughter thanks her donors, she keeps thanking them for helping her save kids from cancer but I think it’s because she knows cancer is deadly and she’s witnessed it first-hand, whereas the vaccinations Shot@Life covers are a little harder for a 6 year old to grasp. Especially from a country where these diseases are all but eradicated.

DH and I are enormously proud of the impact this experience has had on all of us and we’re deeply touched by the people (some totally unexpected), who have supported her effort (and if you’re reading this blog post, thank you!).

So what’s my answer to “what age is a good age to start teaching philanthropy?”

I say make philanthropy, service and volunteerism a part of your life now. Make it visible to your kids and involve them in it and you’ll be leading by example. Six certainly seems to be a good age for a child to start grasping it and involved but if helping others and doing good has always been a part of his/her life, then it will be a natural understanding.

There are little things you can start doing now, like having a child put a part of the money s/he gets as gifts or earns into a special piggy bank for philanthropy. My sister-in-law just introduced me to the Moonjar, a bank that has tree parts: one for saving, one for spending and one for sharing.

You can also encourage philanthropy through service to others, by participating in charity sporting events like walks and bike rides or even through signing your child up (or having him/her pay for) memberships in organizations that support causes that are important to your child.

The only wrong step you can take do when it comes to exploring the world of philanthropy with your kids is not taking any at all.

So go on, get up, get motivated and get giving! There’s a whole world out there waiting for you to help it out.

How do you incorporate philanthropy into your child’s life or your own life? Do you talk about the causes you support openly or do you do things privately?

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Wanderlustress
    Apr 22, 2012 @ 15:50:07

    You are such a terrific role model for your children I bet that even if you didn’t guide them into philanthropy that they would still become thoughtful, generous, socially conscious adults. Still, the efforts you make with your children are amazing and inspiring and one day will have a great impact on the world. And happy birthday to your big girl. She is adorable!


    • growingmuses
      Apr 24, 2012 @ 10:17:09

      Thanks, Wanderlustress! Those are such kind things to say. I hope I’m setting a good example, though I never feel like I’m doing enough and even with this first fundraiser, it was a pretty passive experience for her, not like in the pre-internet era of raising money door-to-door or through a bake sale or lemonade stand or variety show. I’m reading Promise Me, by Nancy G. Brinker (Susan G. Komen’s sister and the founder of the Komen Foundation)…THEIR mother really lead by example, it was partially my inspiration to get my kids involved in causes sooner rather than later. Thanks for your support.


  2. Karyn @ kloppenmum
    Apr 23, 2012 @ 19:08:22

    What a great idea! Knowing we can do something to change another person’s life for the better is such a gratifying and satisfying feeling.


  3. thirdeyemom
    Apr 23, 2012 @ 22:16:05

    Awesome Kyla! How inspiring !!!!


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