Is giving back your next chapter? Avoid these common mistakes.

Photo of retirement-age man with his adult son discussing philanthropy

According to the Pew Research Center, there will be 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day until 2030. As these boomers begin to shape their lives after retirement, many anticipate spending more time giving back. “They may look to things within themselves that they want to accomplish and didn't have a chance to,” says Lauren K. Shenfield, founder and principal of Philanthropy Advisors. “Or they may want to use the skills that they learned, earned, and honed in their career in a different environment, to blend their business skills with social impact.” Shenfield says that today, nearly all her new individual clients are coming from the ranks of early retirees. Planning to step up your own involvement in philanthropy? She has tips and advice on common pitfalls to avoid.

Why spending more time on philanthropy is a great second chapter

Philanthropy is a great post-career activity that can enrich life in many dimensions and open up potential collaborations with family and friends.

First and foremost, you have the opportunity to address personal and/or family goals, whether that's through tutoring, sailing races, climate change activism, whatever. You're also meeting and learning from life-changing individuals—whether they're participants in a program, staff, or leaders—and creating a new circle beyond your work to find new activities to engage in. Sometimes, just learning about programs you never knew existed can be exciting and gratifying. In fact, I introduced one struggling philanthropist to bereavement groups for children after learning he had lost his mother at a young age. Once he knew these groups existed, he jumped on the bandwagon and knew he'd found his place. Now he's the most knowledgeable person in New York City about bereavement programs for children.

Cherish spontaneity and enjoy

In addition to planning, never forget the opportunity to do something spontaneous. One of my favorite stories is about a gentleman who helped fund new baseball equipment for the New York Police Department baseball team after hearing on the news that their uniforms and gear had been stolen at a tournament in Texas. A spontaneous thing done from the heart can be incredibly remarkable and rewarding.

Common pitfalls to avoid

Not having a clear mission. One of the biggest mistakes I find the recently retired making is giving to too many organizations without really understanding how those organizations support their interests. This is what I call a checkbook style of giving. Instead, carefully select organizations that represent the kind of impact you'd like to have, for a more meaningful and rewarding philanthropic journey.

Imposing your own objective without understanding the nonprofit's needs or culture. Some donors make the mistake of thinking that by making a gift, they're “hiring” the nonprofit's staff to implement their goal. This can cause frustration for both parties. Look for organizations that are already doing work or are involved in a project in your area of interest rather than offering a gift solely to see your particular vision through.

Treating nonprofit staff like employees. Another mistake is attempting to negotiate with the same style and techniques used in business. The corporate world and nonprofit world operate differently, so I suggest reflecting on your own style in dealing with people and the different relationships within the organization. It's important to remember that many activities can take longer than donors were accustomed to in their work lives, whether the organization is large or small. Philanthropy requires due diligence, flexibility, and patience.

The number one thing people can do to give more effectively

Take time to explore what’s out there and really understand what you want to support. Look for alignment between your philanthropic mission and those of the organizations you support, and then develop a strategy that is consistent with your philanthropic budget.

Are you thinking of getting more focused on your giving? Discover resources to help you develop your own charitable mission statement.


Lauren K. Shenfield
Founder and Principal
Philanthropy Advisors LLC

Lauren K. Shenfield is the founder and principal of Philanthropy Advisors LLC, one of the firms participating in Fidelity Charitable's philanthropic advisor referral network, which can provide extensive sector knowledge and assist with a broad range of services, such as creating a detailed strategic plan for philanthropic impact and providing sector-specific research.

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