Davina Weinrob (name anonymized) can recall the heart-sinking moment during the reading of her father’s will when she realized there was no one to inherit her own estate. While her father’s fortunes were divided among various family members, Davina was single, forty-something and “child-free by choice.” She couldn’t help but wonder: What would happen to all her stuff?
Parenthood isn’t for everyone, yet for many people without children, the desire to leave a legacy is just as powerful as it is for those with offspring. And therein lies the rub. All too often, would-be benefactors find themselves adrift, unsure even where to begin the process of establishing a different kind of legacy for themselves.
Today, the situation is dramatically different than it was decades ago. There are more Americans than ever before who are childless by circumstance or by choice, and the national birth rate is at a historic low.
This cultural shift toward childlessness is especially significant given what looms on the not-so-distant horizon — namely, the greatest transfer of wealth in history. According to a study from the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, an estimated $59 trillion will be passed down from baby boomers by 2061, divvied up between heirs, charities, estate taxes and estate closing costs. This will create a staggering number of ultra-wealthy, socially engaged millennials, many of whom will opt to remain child-free.
These intersecting trends toward childlessness and inherited wealth have profound implications for society, not the least of which is an unprecedented opportunity for the world of philanthropy. Studies have shown that childlessness is the single strongest demographic predictor of including a charitable bequest in one’s estate plan; in addition, people who establish private foundations are more than three times as likely to be childless as the general population. Clearly, the desire to leave something behind to benefit future generations is particularly compelling for these donors.
Consider the far-reaching philanthropic endeavors of billionaire mega-donor Jeff Skoll as a compelling case in point. The first president of eBay, he seeded his eponymous private philanthropic vehicles — the Skoll Foundation and the now-sunsetted Skoll Global Threats Fund — with an initial $1 billion in company shares. (As of December 31, 2021, those combined assets were nearly $2 billion, and giving that year totaled $132 million.) Skoll was an early signatory of the Giving Pledge, the movement of billionaire philanthropists led by Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, who commit to give the majority of their wealth during or beyond their lifetimes.
Presently unmarried and child-free, Skoll is not waiting beyond his lifetime to act. Since he established his charities in 1999, they have awarded more than $1 billion across a wide range of issues and around the world. The Skoll Foundation funds “transformational social change by investing in, connecting, and championing social entrepreneurs and other social innovators who together advance bold and equitable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.” A tall order, for certain. The spent-down Global Threats Fund was seeded with $100 million to make progress against five global challenges: climate change, pandemics, water security, nuclear proliferation and conflict resolution in the Middle East. And each year, the Skoll Global Forum is a pre-eminent, multiple-day convening of the best and brightest minds in social innovation who gather to share their knowledge and ideas.
While the sheer scale of dollars given by mega-donors like Skoll and the nearly 300 other Giving Pledge signatories can be eye-popping, the vast majority of the wealthy without children fall into rungs far below that cohort, raising the question: How can those without the resources to create a private foundation to cement their legacies leave an equally meaningful imprint?
In lieu of heirs, many of today’s childless philanthropists are electing to support their favorite causes through endowment funds, donor-advised funds and other means of planned giving, both during their lifetimes and as part of their estate planning. They find meaning and purpose in a wide range of causes, including education, children, hunger, international crises, social justice and the arts. The positive and lasting impact such generosity will ultimately have on the world may be nothing short of remarkable.
The problem is, too few voices in the sector are really talking about how to specifically promote charitable giving to people who lack heirs of their own. There is currently no formal structure in place to educate and cultivate the change agents of tomorrow, individuals who seek to leave a legacy that doesn’t involve their own DNA.
What’s needed is a way to transform abstract visions of “making the world a better place” — the Jewish precept of tikkun olam — into practical applications. We need experts to consult, advise, ask probing questions and offer guidance to aspiring childless donors as they embark upon some heavy-duty soul searching. And we need to create this philanthropic roadmap sooner rather than later, before the boomer-to-millennial wealth transfer windfall to come.
One solution might be local community foundations, which are grantmaking public charities dedicated to improving the lives of people within a certain geographic area. These organizations bring together the financial resources of individuals, families and businesses to support worthy nonprofits in their communities.
The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, for example, has a Center for Designed Philanthropy that helps donors — including many childless ones — create customized giving strategies geared to maximize their charitable dollars. The center identifies nonprofits with missions, activities and goals that match donors’ areas of interest, and offers a flexible, informed and financially savvy way to envision and establish an enduring legacy.
The legacy-building process typically involves three essential steps:
Identify causes the donor cares about most. A community foundation can be helpful with vetting specific organizations and facilitating strategic discussions with them while providing research and strategic opportunities that match donor needs and interests.
Pick the right partner. Finding the right partner to implement a donor’s vision is crucially important. Partnering with a community foundation can be a great way to go, as these institutions manage individual donor funds and engage in community grantmaking for a magnified, community-wide impact.
Explore the best means of giving. Determining how best to make an impact can be a tricky undertaking. Community foundations can help evaluate goals and navigate giving options, such as gauging the benefits of a lump sum gift versus incremental support from a private endowment fund.
Generosity is not something exclusive to parents, of course. Perhaps the primary task of those without children is to choose the path that offers the best opportunity to make a difference, not through their descendants but through their actions.
In Davina Weinrob’s case, her longtime passion for human rights and social justice inspired her to make provisions for the bulk of her estate to create an endowment that sustains in perpetuity local and national nonprofit organizations focused on those areas.
“I found the whole experience incredibly empowering, as I planned exactly where and how my bequest will be allocated,” she said. “It feels great knowing I am doing something good for the world by taking charge of my own destiny.”
Dan Rothblatt is the executive vice president of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, which manages charitable assets of approximately $1.3 billion and has distributed almost $1 billion in grants to thousands of nonprofits over the past 10 years.