“Instilling empathy and generosity in future generations is a topic that comes up quite often during client discussions,” said Alisa Shin, a senior wealth planning strategist with Vanguard Advice Services. “It’s more than simply caring about the cause at hand.”

One way you can pass that legacy on to children and grandchildren is to share volunteer and giving experiences, according to a study by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and Vanguard Charitable.

“Philanthropic behavior starts as early as 18 months old [according to some studies]. It’s wired in us,” said Una Osili, Ph.D., a professor of economics and director of research at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “That means parents and grandparents don’t have to wait to get youngsters involved in giving.”

But she stresses waiting until children are older is fine too. “Inflection points can happen at any age,” she said. “Volunteering is an excellent way to teach empathy.”

Parents who volunteer with their kids pass on the habit of generosity

Giving your time as a family to a cause you care about sets a pattern that carries through generations. The study finds that, for each one-percentage-point increase in parental volunteering, the odds of a child volunteering with and donating to charities increases by almost the same amount (0.8% and 0.7%, respectively).

“The most important takeaway of the research to me is how volunteering—that physical experience—has such a great impact. We believed it was so, but the academic research confirms it,” said Jack Brennan, chairman of the board of Vanguard Charitable and Vanguard’s chairman emeritus.

“While much is written about generational differences, the similarities don’t get as much focus,” said Osili. She notes that when parents and children volunteer together, it helps boost the connection to the charitable mission—and also to members of the family who share the experiences.

Grandparents who share arts and culture increase their influence

Grandparents can have a big impact on their grandchildren’s generosity when they share arts experiences, such as museum or live theater visits, the study confirmed. “My own grandmother played that role for me,” said Osili.

Grandchildren tend to mirror their grandparents’ giving patterns for arts organizations, particularly in higher-net-worth families (those with $200,000 or more in annual income or with investable assets of $1 million or more). For a one-percentage-point increase in arts donations from grandparents, grandchildren’s arts donations increase 1.6%.

Conversely, grandchildren don’t tend to follow their grandparents’ lead by donating to organizations that cover basic needs, such as food banks. The study found for a one-percentage-point increase in these donations from grandparents, the likelihood their grandchildren will donate to the same type of organization actually decreases by 0.4%.

Conversations, combined with actions, spur generosity

Osili credits conversation—along with role-modeling and shared experiences—as one of the important ways parents and grandparents can influence future generations. “The particular structure of the conversation makes a difference [in its effectiveness]. It’s important to explain the why of giving and to create empathy,” she said.

Brennan stressed the conversation needs to be candid, with a good time being young adulthood. “It can also help to use an intermediary—an estate planning attorney or financial professional,” he said.

You make a difference, even generations out

As people live longer and are more likely to play multiple roles—parent, adult child, grandparent, adult grandchild—in the family, the opportunity to share experiences grows.

“There’s a 360-degree influence,” said Brennan. “We influence our kids as their parents, they influence us, and as parents and grandparents, we both influence the grandchildren.”

That circle of influence can lead to a legacy of generosity and caring for others that many of us long to leave.


The information provided here is for educational purposes only and isn’t intended to be construed as legal or tax advice. We recommend that you consult a tax or financial advisor about your individual and family situation.