Charity Begins at Home

Want to Help Green Causes? Set Up a Family Foundation!
Tom Garcia Illustration

Mark Schlesinger and his wife, Christine Russell, a board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), have been giving money to support the environment for nearly 20 years. But a few years ago, they decided to formalize their philanthropic impulses by setting up a family foundation dedicated to green causes. “I think we envisioned this would be the family business we would share with our children,” says Schlesinger, who now runs the Gaia Fund more or less full-time. He met with his lawyer, Robert Wexler of the San Francisco law firm Silk, Adler & Colvin, which represents nonprofit organizations and their donors. Together, they began the process of incorporation and gaining tax-exempt status.

Now Mark and Christine give five percent of their foundation’s $12 million endowment each year to support the work of such organizations as NRDC, the World Resources Institute and local Bay Area environmental groups. Their fledgling charitable organization is one of 30,000 family foundations in the U.S., with new ones being created every year. Overall, donations to the environment and to wildlife preservation account for five percent of all charitable giving, says The Foundation Center.

For the Select Few

For philanthropists with an interest in environmental causes and a substantial sum to give, setting up a family foundation can be a good option. Foundation status offers donors complete control over where their money goes, while creating tax advantages and promoting family unity (one hopes!). But because a foundation requires a huge commitment of time and money, donors should have more motivation for wanting to take this approach than a simple interest in supporting environmental work. “There is usually a strong desire on the part of the donor to promote their values and stewardship responsibilities to include family members, usually the next two generations,” says Winsome McIntosh, a Defenders of Wildlife board member who runs her own foundation and guides clients through the setting-up process as principal of the Florida-based consulting firm Philanthropic Strategies.

The first step is to consult with a financial planner and a lawyer, preferably one who specializes in nonprofit law. The lawyer will guide you through the process of incorporating and applying to the Internal Revenue Service as a private foundation. Next, you can set up bylaws and a board of trustees (usually family members, but it could also be staffed with, say, environmental scientists). Startup costs range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. There are tax advantages, but because the foundation retains a high level of control, they’re generally not as generous as if you’d simply written checks.

Your foundation will be required to give away five percent of its endowment each year, but many donate a larger percentage. The level of giving can be based on the performance of the foundation’s assets, which could well top five percent a year.

Should you specify which environmental causes you’re interested in supporting in your bylaws? “Your bylaws should give you as much freedom to make decisions as possible,” says Joe Pierpont, co-executive director of the Association of Small Foundations and former associate executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Your mission statement might say that you want to fund programs to protect the environment. You don’t want to lock yourself into programs, say, that are aimed at protecting certain land in Alaska. Once that land was protected, then what would you do?”

Karen Green, director of family foundation services for the Council on Foundations, advises people to consider more straightforward methods of giving first. “I’m the last person to discourage family foundations, because that’s my job. But they are a big commitment and they take a lot of administration and energy.”

For some donors, she says, better options might be to make a direct gift, to leave your IRA to an environmental group, or to fund a community foundation. “You can have a donor-advised fund where you can be very specific about where you want your money to go. There’s also something more general, called a field of interest fund, where the donor could just say, ‘I want my money to go to environmental causes.’ What’s good about a community foundation is that you’re relying on a professional staff to look at your community’s needs.”

For Schlesinger and Russell, control was the main reason they decided to set up their own family foundation. But control comes at a cost. “What you give up,” says Schlesinger, “is this wonderful back-office support. You have to do everything yourself.”