Caritas, the Real Deal
Private Equity and Small Businesses in Transition

Conducting the Philanthropic Dialogue

Randy at InKnowVision, a planning back office for high level financial advisors:

GenSpring Family Offices just released its most recent study, entitled Men & Wealth. You can read all of the pertinent data by downloading the study, of course, but there are some things I find particularly interesting and puzzling.

What puzzles Randy is that his client base and that of Genspring are about the same, successful entrepreneurs, but Genspring's survey shows that most are philanthropic, while Randy, working with clients through their financial advisors, finds that most such clients express little interest in philanthropy. My experience is the same as Randy's when working with client goals  via other advisors.  Here is my interpretation.

Most frontline advisors fail to quicken the client's latent philanthropic or civic passion. The advisor asks macho questions and gets macho answers. Most top producing, commission based advisors, particularly in the insurance industry (with whom I assume Randy works) are in fact men. Most of their clients are self made men. Remember, tough guys don't eat quiche; they don't dance, and they don't do touchy feely. At least they don't want another tough guy catching them at it. Philanthropy is (apparently) gendered female. Here is how a real man asks another man about a sappy topic like giving:

Q. Age?

A. 56

Q. Net Worth?

A. $10.5 million

Q. Year started in your business?

A. 1978

Q. Business form?

A. S Corp

Q. Married?

Y. Yes

Q. Wife a foreign nationals?

A. No

Q. Real Estate owned out of state?

A. No

Q. Health problems?

A. No.

Q. Philanthropically inclined?

A. No.

Q. Want to reduce taxes?

A. Yes

An effeminate, touchy feely, humane,  and entirely appropriate and even necessary conversation might go like this:

Q. Do you have a plan to take care of yourself, family, and business?

A. Yes.

Q. Been reviewed lately?

A. Yes.

Q. Does your family really understand the ins and outs of it all?

A. Maybe not.

Q. Would it be helpful if our firm diagrammed it for you so you could explain it to them?

A. Yes.

Q. In your planning, are there any things you love or care about that go beyond spouse, children, and your business?

A. What?

Q. Do you want in any way to have an impact on something beyond self and family?

A. I am not sure what you mean.

Q. Are there things in the world that get you upset, or you want to fix? Things left undone that you may have wanted to do earlier in life? Do you want to make an impact, say, in your community. country, or in the larger world, if you could?

A. You mean, like, through my church?

Q.  Is that of interest to you?

A. Well, at one time I wanted to be a minister, actually, or a missionary, believe it or not..... I was raised that way. I grew up poor in the inner city. My father left when I was a kid. My mother raised me in the church. I always thought I would be the minister one day and help kids like I was helped.

Q. Do you still plan on getting back to that dream?

A. Yeah, well, sort of. Been thinking of cashing out and doing something new..... Not a minister. It is a little late now for that.  But do something for the kids. But I also want my family and business to do ok.

Q. Would you do more for the at risk children, if you could, if it did not interfere with your other goals for your family and your business?

A. Yes. Yes, I would.

Q. Do you have any idea of when?

A. Not sure. Not sure what is possible.

Q. Would you enjoy getting started sooner rather than later if you could?

A. Yes, I would love it. I have always wanted to to do that.

Q. Would you want your project for the kids to be something you do alone? Team up with others? Start a venture? Give?

A. I don't know. Who do you talk to about this stuff? Can you help me think this through? I mean, am I crazy? Could I actually make this work? I would love to make this happen in my lifetime, if I can....

Q. Yes, I believe I can help. Let me ask a couple of more questions. Does your spouse share your vision?

A. Yes, I believe she will, or does. We need to talk more about it.

Q. OK, what about your children? Have you thought about how much is  enough for them? How much might be too much?

A. Sort of. Yes. I mean we want to do something for them, but they are both doing well on their own. We don't have to leave them rich.

Q. Do they share your vision of helping the disadvantaged? Would they participate?

A. Well, maybe, but not likely, not at this stage. They are still in their twenties. Maybe as they grow they will grow into it. I don't know.

Summary Close:

  • OK. So lets summarize my understanding of what you want.
  • You want us to review your existing plan and diagram it so you can explain it clearly to your spouse.
  • You want us to explore what you might be able to do for the disadvantaged children.
  • You want to do that without shortchanging your other goals for your spouse and your own life style.
  • You want to determine if now is the right time to begin your project, whether it is possible.
  • You want to leave your kids something, but not a lot.
  • So, are we in agreement as to goals for our engagement?
  • As a next step, then, let me collect your documents, see your CPA to get the financials, and let me run some numbers.
  • I will be back with a mini-feasiblity study to see if you can likely afford to take on the project for the disadvantaged at some point in the foreseeable future. I can also introduce you to some people through the community foundation who work with disadvantaged children, so you can begin to scope out what a meaningful project might entail.You might also want to talk to your minister and see if he has projects you might volunteer for in the meantime, to get a feel for the work.
  • Is this process in line with what you want?
  • Would it make sense to meet next time with your spouse present?
  • Should we think about getting the children into the conversation at some point?


The second conversation above is open ended; exploring for purpose, for buried passion; for things the client might not dare discuss with a hard headed accountant, or tax advisor, the things he or she might more likely discuss with a trusted friend. Out of that conversation of purpose comes a new financial plan, a new plan for the business, a new estate plan. In that plan money is freed up for a noble purpose, so is time and life energy. Such clients become passionate advocates for the advisor.When money moves to or through a nonprofit, maybe in this case, the projects done through the client's church, the nonprofit too becomes a passionate advocate for the advisor, and referrals may flow.

So, what does Genspring do differently? I am not sure, but I'll bet someone there has mastered the liberal art of asking open-ended questions, listening with empathy, and following the emerging theme where it leads.

Imagine that a client like the man above dies with his dream buried in his heart. How well served was he? Sometimes there is no dream. But more often, in my experience, a human being yearns to fulfill some larger intention. We are called, as advisor, client, citizen. Don't let the long distance call go into voicemail.