Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, although I am not sure we should really call it one.  To be sure, it is a time to give thanks for the blessings of the past, but it also is an opportunity to look ahead as we guide ourselves and our loved ones.

I recently came across an article by Betsy Brill, contributed a decade ago to Forbes.com, titled, “Five Ways to Improve your Family’s Philanthropy this Thanksgiving.”  Although the article was intended for families of great wealth, her suggestions struck me as applicable to us all.  Here is a summary of her five points:

  • Establishing family giving rituals is a great way to instill philanthropic values in children. Consider giving a donation together as a family.

The chosen donation should be appropriate to the age of the children.  Supporting your local zoo because your children like elephants is one suggestion.  Giving to a missionary family because that family has a child the age of one of your children would be a helpful reminder of the importance of their mission work.  There are a host of opportunities available.  The point, of course, is to get the whole family involved, and teach the children (while reminding ourselves of) the importance of giving.

  • Share your legacy plans, noting how you want to be remembered in the world.

We are often not vocal to our own family about our legacy and what we want to see happen with our resources after death.  Sharing our current thinking about our legacy will allow the family to understand what is most highly valued and what is desired for your estate.  At first it might seem awkward to talk about the future in this way, but it is important.  It is worth pushing through the discomfort.  This will teach your children that death is inevitable and that preparation must be made for our passing.  None of us knows when we will die.

  • Develop a family mission statement.

This statement can be extremely simple, such as “Helping to alleviate poverty,” or “Enhancing leadership for the Church.”  Or it can be much more complex, depending on the age of the children.  Entering into this exercise helps the whole family think about your collective legacy.  For many families, a steadfast belief in giving has been passed down from generation to generation.  Just like building wealth over time, a legacy of philanthropy can be handed down through a family.  Like many “habits,” giving is best started at a very young age so that it becomes natural and normal.

  • Reinforce positive money messages, especially during holidays which, in our culture, are consumer-oriented.

We and our families must continually be reminded that Thanksgiving and Christmas are not primarily about the possessions we have and what we get.  Both of those holidays concern what we have graciously received and, therefore, what our thankful response enables us to share with others.

  • Be open with your family about the places you invest your time volunteering as well as the money you give.

We need to remind ourselves that we give time and talent, not only dollars.  Share with your family what excites you about your service to others.  Service to others can be “caught.”  If your children (and others) see your excitement for a project, they might also become enthusiastic.  As you spend time as a volunteer, however, remember not to neglect your own family.

All of us understand that habits are important.  The more we do something, the easier it is to do it again.  To a large extent, the sum of our habit patterns makes up our personality.  Training ourselves and our families to be people of generosity is one of the most important habits we can instill in ourselves and others.  That would be a great personality trait to foster in our entire family.

As an alumnus of Perkins, or friend to the Institution, you know the importance of theological education in this extremely unpredictable time.  Leaders who know how to think theologically are necessary to guide the Church through turmoil and turbulence.  Executives of non-profit organizations must be organizationally astute, and theologically perceptive, in order to navigate in our society.  This is where a culture of philanthropy comes in: leaders in the Church and other good works must be supported by generous families who will stand behind the work that is being performed.  That kind of training is part of the education offered at Perkins School of Theology.

During this month of Thanksgiving, I challenge you to reevaluate your giving in a thankful response to what you have received.

I can be reached at johnma@smu.edu or 214-768-2026 to discuss how you can create habits of giving that will benefit you, your family, and the causes you hold dear.

With a thankful heart,

John A. Martin
Director of Development