When we hear the word “heirloom,” we generally picture a thing—perhaps a grandfather’s favorite fishing rod or a beloved family recipe written in a great-aunt’s elegant script. But what if a donor wants the treasured heirloom they leave their children to be a heart for philanthropy? What if she intends a family foundation to be the most valuable thing she leaves behind? What if he wants his children to cherish the gift of being able to give to a community or cause just as much as they do a piece of jewelry or a family antique?

We recently had the opportunity to interview just such a donor. His comments regarding his desire for philanthropy to be his legacy provides valuable insights for development professionals in building relationships with donors.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that 20% of the signers of the Giving Pledge state they participate in philanthropy because they were inspired by their parents’ example. The donor we interviewed falls into this category. His father, a quiet and reserved man, never wanted to call attention to his philanthropy, so he often kept it secret from his family and community. Even so, the donor had opportunities to witness the impact of his father’s generosity in people’s lives.

Dad never really wanted to make these things public, but numerous times—maybe we’d be out to dinner or something—people would come up to us, introduce themselves, and give him a hug and thank him. Later, we would drag it out of him that he had paid for their child to go to college or for their child’s medical procedure. He always seemed to have something like that going on behind the scenes. It was always interesting to watch Dad’s reaction. He’d be taken aback because he wasn’t expecting it, but then he would warm up to them and start delving into how, say, little Johnny was doing. It was pretty touching to be able to watch that.


When this donor was a child, his father told him that they had an obligation to help people who were less fortunate. However, in watching these exchanges the donor could sense that helping people was more than an obligation—it was something that provided deep meaning for his father. He knew it was something he wanted to do when he got older.

When he became an adult, this donor did give back to his community with his time and treasure; however, philanthropy became even more important to him when he became a father.

I’d say my philanthropic vision has changed over time—not necessarily in what we support, but in focusing on how we can instill these values in my kids. I want them to have a strong belief in philanthropy, and I want them to be engaged in it.


The most rewarding contribution he’s made is one in which his children participated. He admits the cause was one he was passionate about, but his children’s involvement in helping a child in foster care elevated the act.

The reason it was so rewarding is that our kids were involved. They really enjoyed it and, even though they were pretty young, I think they understood what not having a mommy or daddy meant and how we were helping to make a difference.


By recognizing a desire to be a role model as a motivating factor behind a donor’s contribution, development professionals can plan to steward these contributions in ways that are more meaningful to that donor—and by extension, demonstrate the impact of that contribution to the donor’s family. The work the development professional does to cultivate a relationship between the organization and a donor AND the donor’s family can pave the way for a new generation of meaningful contributions.

I want my children to have a strong belief in philanthropy, and I want them to be engaged in it. There’s nothing really stopping my wife and me from choosing something that has a lifetime of five to 10 years of focused giving, but I don’t expect my goals to be my kids’ goals. I want them to be part of the decision-making analysis of what we are going to try to move, to affect. Who will we try to help?


In what ways have you been successful in demonstrating the impact of a contribution to the family members as well as the donor? What are some ways you have been successful in deepening a donor relationship to include the donor’s family members? Please share your experiences on social media.