Is giving together the secret to happiness?

A study finds that when it comes to charitable giving, most couples find common ground. Here’s why.

Couple volunteering at a garden

As every couple knows, making a life together isn’t all about valentines and roses. Two people with different DNA attempting to agree on everything from garbage duty to child-rearing strategies to household finances can produce conflict. But the next time you find yourself suspecting that you and your partner really are from different planets, take heart: research from Fidelity Charitable conducted among nearly 700 of its donors shows that, when it comes to giving, couples come together.

In fact, more than four-fifths of respondents—who were all married or living with a partner—say they frequently or always agree with their other half on household giving decisions, such as what charity to support or how much to give. Just 11 percent of donors say that giving decisions are a source of regular disagreement, usually over how much to support particular charities or which charities to support.

Giving can create conversation about values that reinforce a strong partnership

So, what gives? Does philanthropy cast a magic spell on a relationship? Is it the antidote to what ails a marriage? Not exactly, said Elaine Martyn, vice president of Fidelity Charitable’s Private Donor Group, a program designed to assist significant donors in developing strategic approaches to giving. But giving does spark a conversation that encourages intimacy, and it can reinforce the foundations upon which a partnership is built.

"With household finances, it often feels like you make the money, you save it and you spend it—those are the only three actions,” Martyn said. “But with giving, there’s a whole dialogue around why you’re doing what you’re doing and how you got there. There is an opportunity to talk about your values and what you believe and what you share."

Martyn suggested looking over the previous year’s charitable activity as a way to kick-start conversation and cooperation for couples who are experiencing giving gridlock. Couples should ask themselves if their giving history reflects their shared values in a strategic way.

But with giving... there is an opportunity to talk about your values and what you believe and what you share.

TIP: Have a conversation about what is most important to both of you—and formalize your shared giving priorities by creating a joint charitable mission statement. Your giving will be more focused and satisfying as a result, and you’ll be able to celebrate the shared impact together.

Giving can create togetherness and shared experiences that make a couple more connected

Family matters often prompt giving conversations for couples, said Karen Heald, a senior philanthropic strategist with Fidelity Charitable’s Private Donor Group. She noted parents who give want to raise generous children and will devise a giving philosophy that sets that example. Loss also inspires discussions about values that influence giving.

"When a loved one passes away, it gets couples talking about what charities are meaningful to them,” Heald said. “You might be reminded of a grandfather whom you never met, and his favorite museum that your grandmother would frequent as a way of remembering him. Philanthropy is unique in that it’s so personal. It can be a really positive way of communicating for couples."

Martyn recalled working with a couple who took turns getting to know the nonprofits each was most passionate about by attending informational events or visiting on-site.

"They were able to actually think about a local strategy that they could do together, and to involve their kids in as well," she said.

TIP: What better way to show your spouse or partner that you care than to support a cause they find important? Whether by volunteering together or making a donation to honor a birthday or milestone anniversary, you’ll be reinforcing your commitment to what’s important to them. Don’t hesitate to contact charities directly for ideas for meaningful ways to help the charity and mark a milestone.

Disagreements about giving can be a path to both a stronger relationship and greater impact

Yes, couples do disagree about giving—even if it is only rarely. About 40 percent of the donors surveyed said they have had some disagreement over decisions such as which charity to support or how much support to provide. "No question—giving together takes work," Martyn said. While talking about household finances can be difficult, Martyn shared that, "philanthropy is not necessarily an easy conversation either, because it’s still about money. You still want it to be impactful and meaningful."

But these conversations can help couples make decisions that can connect them back to what really matters. Martyn recalls one couple she worked with who were having a disagreement about which causes to support.

"She had a strong passion around international causes; he was very interested in helping underprivileged youth in urban centers,” Martyn said. “These are pretty different things, and they haven’t stopped supporting those causes. But as they talked, they realized that they both care about social justice. Now they make their grant recommendations as a couple to education programs that prepare the next generation to effectively address those issues."

Philanthropy is unique in that it's so personal. It can be a really positive way of communicating for couples.

TIP: Create an annual giving budget as an inspiring way to set common goals for impact as a couple and come to agreement on how much you want to dedicate to giving. “It could be something as simple as mine, yours and ours—three little buckets—or it can fall along familiar philanthropic themes: for example, education, health care, human rights,” said Heald.

Download “How Couples Give” for more insights on how couples approach philanthropy together.

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