Small Hands, Big Hearts

To engage young children in philanthropy, embed little acts of giving in your home

One bitterly cold night last winter, my family was driving home when we stopped at an intersection where a man stood with a sign asking for help. My eight-year-old daughter was distraught. She was freezing in the car and could not fathom how cold the man must be. She became increasingly upset about what would happen to him. “We have to help!” she implored us.

As a Philanthropic Advisor, part of me wanted to jump right in and have the same conversation with my daughter that I’d have with one of the adult donors I work with at The Minneapolis Foundation. My first thought was that we could support an organization that works to prevent homelessness or move people out of the cycle of poverty. Maybe we could write a check or give online when we got home, I thought. I could even use this opportunity to teach her about fundraising overhead or program evaluation.

My daughter

That was my first reaction—and then I caught myself. I may be a Philanthropic Advisor at work, but to my daughter, I’m Mom. My daughter wanted to help right then. She needed to do something tangible that she could feel with her own hands and heart. So instead of recommending a list of nonprofits, my husband and I started a conversation with her. We asked, “What do you think this person needs? What do you think would help?”

When we got home, my daughter (an adept “Googler”) went online and we discovered examples of Caring Kits filled with items such as chapstick, warm socks and small amounts of cash. She recruited a friend and spent time over winter break creating kits. Now we keep them in our car, so when we’re on the road and see someone in need, our family has a way to help.

I tell this story not just to brag about my daughter—she is pretty great—but as a reminder of how simple “family philanthropy” can be. Sometimes we can overthink what it means to be philanthropic. Many families at The Minneapolis Foundation do have robust processes for involving multiple generations in their giving, going on site visits and reviewing proposals for funding. But that’s not how those families started their giving journeys. They started by having conversations with their children and grandchildren, and by embedding little acts of giving in their daily lives.

If you’re looking for ways to plant the seeds of generosity in your home, here are some tips to get started:

  • Let the kids take the lead: Run with their interests, even if they aren’t exactly what you’re passionate about.
  • Start with gratitude: Not every kid is ready to fight injustice in the world. Start by asking kids what they are grateful for and how can they share those things with others. Do they love playing soccer? Consider supporting scholarships for a soccer camp. Do they like going to the library? Find out if your local library has any needs.
  • Lead with empathy: Ask questions that focus on caring for others. Over dinner, ask, “Who helped you today? How did it feel to get help?” Also, “Who did you help today? How did you know they needed your help?”
  • Model the behavior: Kids are much more likely to become philanthropic if they see their parents and grandparents giving back. So even if your kid doesn’t jump on board right away, don’t stop showing the way. Not now does not mean never. When they are ready, they will remember the examples you set.
  • This is a marathon, not a sprint: The holiday season often sparks conversations about giving and volunteering. This time of year is also incredibly busy. Don’t pressure yourself to squeeze in lessons on giving before year’s end. This is a life lesson. Find ways to integrate it into your lives through the year.

If you want to jump in and create your own Caring Kits, here are some ideas of what to include. And if The Minneapolis Foundation can help your family continue to have these conversations, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at or 612-672-3824. I’d love to hear from you.

If you’re interested in supporting a local organization that works to address homelessness, here are a few I recommend: