5 Charitable Surprises about High-Net-Worth Families

They might be out of the spotlight, but smaller family foundations are stepping up their giving in this time of need.

A hand holds out a red heart made of felt.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Family philanthropy is a key driver of social change and a great way for high-net-worth (HNW) families to clarify their values, commit to a mission and work collaboratively across generations to build and protect their legacies.

We recently analyzed the grantmaking activities of more than 1,000 private foundations over the past 24 months to understand how and where wealthy families are focusing their giving. Our findings provide a benchmark for affluent philanthropists and the advisers who support them.

Here are our top five discoveries about HNW donors:

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They don’t just give the minimum

If you think affluent families only use their foundations to park assets and get tax benefits, think again. While foundations are required to give away 5% of their assets every year, those in our research sample gave away an average of 7.4% – a trend that has been constant in the 12 years we’ve conducted this analysis. Even more impressive, the smaller foundations, or those with less than $1 million in assets, were the biggest heroes in 2020: They gave an average of 15% of their assets.

They’re increasingly generous

The foundations we studied collectively funded approximately 1,000 more grants and dispersed $15 million more in 2020 than in 2019, an average of $339,032 per foundation. They also doubled their grants to individuals (GTIs), a giving capability unique to private foundations that enables donors to issue emergency funding directly to people in need instead of granting to a public charity.

They will answer the call

Judging from their actions in 2020, foundation donors will move swiftly to help in times of urgent need. After the United States declared a national emergency in March 2020 due to COVID-19, foundations nearly doubled their year-over-year grant volume in April from 5.6% to 9.7% of total activity. They also increased their giving to human services and public/societal benefits charities, which experienced the highest year-over-year increases of all the charitable sectors tracked.

Additionally, the dollars that donors granted to charity exceeded the funds they invested in their foundations for only the second time in 20 years (the first being in 2019), demonstrating a pronounced commitment to philanthropy during a time of heightened need.

They're loosening the reins on how their dollars are spent

Typically, philanthropists carefully define how they want their foundation dollars to be used by issuing “specific-purpose” grants. However, as they endeavored to meet the onslaught of urgent need in 2020, they eased their restrictions and gave more “general purpose” grants to afford charities maximum flexibility in how to use the funding. At 46% of all grants in 2020, it’s the most balanced split we’ve seen since 2010 when general purpose grants represented just 32% of giving.

Their resources are growing

Foundation endowments experienced double-digit growth in both 2020 and 2019, helping to fund the 2020 increase in grants and set the stage for future giving. Part of the growth was fueled by investment returns (roughly 55% of endowment assets are allocated to equities) and part was a factor of new contributions from funders who replenished an average of 57 cents for every 83 cents they disbursed in grants and expenses – a sure sign of ongoing charitable intent.

Despite the headlines that are given to megadonors, such as the Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation, 98% of the roughly 100,000 private foundations in the U.S. have endowments of less than $50 million and 63% have less than $1 million. Great work is being fueled by people out of the spotlight who are quietly and persistently pursuing their philanthropic missions and effecting change.

To view our full study on HNW giving, visit here.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Hannah Shaw Grove
Chief Marketing Officer, Foundation Source

Hannah Shaw Grove is the chief marketing officer of Foundation Source, founder of "Private Wealth" magazine and author of 11 data-based books and hundreds of reports and articles on topics relating to the creation, management, disposition and transfer of wealth. Hannah has previously been the chief marketing officer at Apex Clearing, iCapital Network and Merrill Lynch Investment Managers and is a cum laude graduate of Harvard University. She holds the FINRA Series 6, 7, 24, 26 and 63 licenses.