The Third Third

If Charity Begins at Home, Where Does it End?

Charity – to quote someone (like my mother) – begins at home. 

At the time, she probably meant “Be nice to your sister!”  Or perhaps she was thinking like on the airplane, when you have to fasten your own oxygen mask before grabbing one for your child or anyone else who might need help; you feed, clothe, educate, and enlighten yourself in order to be able to feed, clothe, educate, and enlighten others. I don’t know, really; but, as usual, I’m discovering that she was right.

Charity does begin in our home – and right about this time of year when our church asks for its annual stewardship pledge.  All the other requests for financial support that show up in the mail each fall get filed in my “Year-End Charitable Requests” folder and tackled, literally, at year-end; but the church sets its own date and since we’ve been trained to respect its need to know how much money it will have to work with in the budgeting process, we comply.

“How much do you want to give this year?” my husband will ask when I leave the stewardship materials out on the kitchen counter.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I demur.  “What are you thinking?”

It’s a delicate little dance we do now, one that exposes our conflicting loyalties to the Jesuits who “raised him up” on the one hand, and the Episcopalians that embrace us both now, just as later in the year, in that week between Christmas and New Year’s, we waltz around the relative merits and needs of my college on the one hand and his on the other.  I am usually inclined to be more generous than he, but he has already shown extraordinary generosity of spirit in sharing his earnings with me throughout our marriage.  “We have a partnership,” he insists.  “We make the money; we decide how to spend it.”  But the truth is, he makes the money and “we” spend it.

Anyway, this year, in addition to all the normal politics of disbursing our charitable shares, we have added challenges:  not only has the economy self-destructed and created the worst recession of our lifetime, but “we” are actually giving serious thought to retirement at year-end and confronting an additional downward “trend” in our income.

Under these circumstances, what is the responsible, charitable soul to do?  I had no idea.

So I Googled “retirement” and “charity” and “seniors” and “giving” and “philanthropy” and “aging” and a multitude of like combinations and came up with Zip.  Zero.  Nothing.  Conventional financial counsel for retirees shifts immediately into estate planning mode;  if you have provided for your heirs (Remember, Charity begins at home) and wish to leave something, in addition, to charity, there are a number of effective tools, including charitable remainder trusts and charitable annuity trusts, and a variety of ways to avoid income and estate taxes with planned giving to charities. 

But before I die –  and for what I hope will be a fairly extensive period of time and perhaps a full third of my life – how, and at what level, do I continue to contribute to the community?  What role can I expect to play?  What kind of financial support is expected?

The absence of literature and statistics on charitable giving from people in this cohort (younger retired professionals) suggests we can’t be counted on for much.  Or, perhaps, that we have not yet been defined as a discrete donor base, one quite different from much older, financially more frail retirees.  For even though our income will decline, we cannot honestly claim to be too poor to give.  Besides, there is some sense of obligation.  After all, we are members of our church in much the same sense that one is a member of a golf club.  I doubt that anyone even considers sending back the club’s monthly statement with words to the effect that “Having retired, we are unable to pay the expected amount this year and will be remitting only  $XXX instead.”  I mean, Good Luck.  Why, then, would I contemplate short-changing our church? 

Because it’s tempting.  Half the people who claim membership in our church do not support it financially at all!  And most give less per week to the place that feeds them spiritually than they spend eating out.  While two-thirds to three-quarters of all Americans claim to make some charitable contributions, their average annual gift totals range from $1800 to $2200, hardly a meaningful tithe at any above-the-poverty-level income.  So one could say we’ve done our duty, my husband and I,  that, over the years,  we’ve paid our fair share – and then some – and earned the right to cut back or decline altogether in our retirement.  But what if a whole bunch of baby-boomers retire early and cut back substantially on their charitable giving?  What of the organizations that depend on our participation at one level or another year after year after year discover, suddenly, that the check is not in the mail this year just because we’ve reached a certain age and lost a little income.  And what of our sense of ourselves as contributing members of the society?  Are we willing to let that be diminished, too?

(This is where I jump up and down and wave my arms in the air like a spastic cheerleader and shout “NOOOOOO!!!!”)

(This is also where we work on re-defining aging, or growing older, with emphasis on the “growing” part.  And where, because there are so few role models for charity-after- retirement, we realize we’ll have to make it up as we go.) 

Game on!  One suggestion:  Look beyond the money, the same old, same old donation.  Make it count. Revisit your charitable priorities. Make them matter.  And think about your potential to make gifts of your time and talent as well as your treasure.  Relatively young, healthy, and active, and still fully engaged in life, we have opportunities to move beyond mere Charity to what the Jesuits and my daughter call Justice.  Or, having done well, we have a chance, now, to do good, too.

Richard Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute, talked about this type of doing good on NPR’s Tell Me More recently.  He said, “We need to recognize that while charity is important and allows us to give of ourselves and give to other people that we also need concerted efforts in our communities to solve the kinds of challenges that we face. We need to come together. We need to bring our resources together. And it's not simply about writing a check. It's not simply about going online and clicking a box that says I'll give to this group or that group. It means that we have to pay attention. We have to engage on the issues. We have to work together. We have to come together to solve some of these issues.”

I think he’s on to something.  We have a place at the table.  Let’s say Grace over it.  And get to work. 

btw:  In case you’re wondering, we eventually found a relatively simple solution to our stewardship quandary.  We pledged to give the same percentage of our income as we have most recently – a decision that reflects, we hope, our ongoing commitment to keeping charitable giving a budget priority and the church our top charitable priority.  At the same time, unfortunately, because we expect our income will be less, the actual dollars donated will likely be fewer this next year, and that was hard to admit. 

Because this Transition to Retirement is a work-in-progress, despite innumerable calculations and best-case and worst-case scenarios, I’m still open to other suggestions going forward.  Please share your thoughts.  (Generously, of course.)




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