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Charitable Giving May Be in Your Genes

In high-net-worth households, women are more likely to make their own decisions about where to donate.

Marlo Thomas says that her father, comedian Danny Thomas, never explicitly prepared her to take on the task of supporting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the institution he founded in Memphis. “Dad made it clear to all of us kids that we didn’t have to pick up the torch,” Thomas told me recently in an interview. So after he died, she figured she’d get on with her career as an actress and author.

But it turns out that her father was “psychologically brilliant.” The first time she visited the hospital after his death, she says, she caught the St. Jude fever and elected to carry on his legacy. “It’s in my DNA.” Thomas, who is now the national outreach director for St. Jude, shared her inspiring story at a symposium sponsored by Auburn University’s Women’s Philanthropy Board. The board has raised more than $635,000 to date to support the university’s College of Human Sciences. Through its program on gender, wealth and philanthropy, the college hopes to cultivate future generations of women philanthropists.

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That’s an achievable goal. Women increasingly have the wherewithal to give—and the inclination to give it. Research at the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, located at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, shows that single women at all income levels are more likely to give to charity than single men, and that they contribute more. “Women are socialized early in life to take care of others, so they’re more motivated by empathy and altruism,” says Debra Mesch, director of the institute. “And they tend to spread their giving among a number of causes.” Men are more likely to have personal and practical reasons for giving—to get a tax deduction, for example. They’re also more likely to focus their giving on fewer causes and to write a check. Women tend to get involved. Thomas says she notices those differences in her fund-raising efforts for the hospital. “Men ask financial questions about how much goes to administration and research, and women want to know how we counsel families,” she says.

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Among married couples, about 75% make joint decisions regarding charitable giving. But that proportion drops to about 50% in high-net-worth households, where women are more likely to make their own decisions and to be more strategic.

Make an impact. Surveys also find that women investors are more interested than men in doing well by doing good. At the Parnassus funds, which emphasize socially conscious investing, women make up more than 70% of visitors to the firm’s website. So how can women make the most of their giving? First off, remember that charity begins at home—or, as Thomas puts it, “you need to get your life in order before you can afford to give to others.” Keep track of your giving, and take advantage of tax breaks. If you want to entrust your retirement savings to a socially conscious fund, pick one with a top track record, such as Parnassus Mid-Cap or Vanguard Health Care, members of the Kiplinger 25, our favorite no-load funds.

To ensure your giving has a more direct impact, consider opening a donor-advised fund with a company such as Fidelity, Schwab or Vanguard. You donate cash or other assets to the fund and decide later which charities to support.Or do what my cousin Pauline Nist did and join a giving circle. Pauline, who retired last year as a general manager with Intel, belongs to a group of about 50 Silicon Valley women, each of whom contributes $1,000 a year to Hope to Health, which is affiliated with the El Camino Hospital Foundation, in Mountain View, Calif. Every year, the women vote on how to spend the money; this year’s focus will be on mental health programs. “Some people really want to be active” in a charity, says Pauline. “But if all you want to do is write the check, that’s okay, too.”

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