News & Politics

Why Don’t Affluent Baby Boomers Give More Money Away?

People between 51 and 64 donate less than three-fourths of one percent of their investment assets, on average -- significantly less than those either younger or older than them.
Why don't affluent Baby Boomers give more money away?

We ask this question not to guilt-trip, as Boomer slang would put it, but because solving some urgent social problems hangs on the answer.

People between 51 and 64 donate less than three-fourths of one percent of their investment assets, on average -- significantly less than those either younger or older than them, according to New Tithing's analysis of 2003 IRS data.

These numbers gall us because we're Baby Boomers ourselves. We'd like to believe that as a generation, we are living up to our '60s ideals. How could we lag behind both the Gen-Xers and the WWII "Greatest Generation"?

But there's another reason to care besides petty generational rivalries. The popular perception of Baby Boomers as more socially active than other Americans is rooted in fact. According to the Pew Research Center, we volunteer more, join community groups more, and vote Democratic far more often than other age groups. So if we donate less money, it's mostly our own liberal and progressive causes that experience the shortfall.

According to the United Nations, it would take $50 billion more a year to provide everyone on earth with healthcare, nutrition, clean water, education and a clean environment. Baby Boomers with incomes between $200,000 and $1 million a year could donate that amount by giving just two percent more of their investment assets. Just two percent: We're not talking about simple living here!

When the Baby Boomer generation passes from this earth, what will our legacy be? Will we leave a world poisoned, hungry and war-torn? Or will we put the unprecedented wealth of our generation towards solving those crises before we die?

We know which answer we want. That's why we launched the Bolder Giving Initiative. It starts with two assumptions about what people need in order to give more boldly, drawn from our own experience with wealth and our 20 years working with donors.

First, people need inspiration. We are all affected by what's normal around us, and what's normal is to give 2 percent to 3 percent of income -- or at most, to "tithe" 10 percent. To inspire greater giving, we have gathered stories from more than 85 people who have busted the lid off this norm. We call them "The 50% League" because they have each donated half or more of their income or business profits for at least three years or half of their assets.

What motivated the 50% League members to give so much? Many wanted greater impact on a cause they were passionate about. As Carol Newell explains, "I wanted my $25 million inheritance to have as much impact as possible towards a more just and sustainable economy in the region I love, British Columbia."

And we found more super-generous Baby Boomers:

Marji Greenhut thought globally and acted locally: She applied the Jewish value of tzedakah to donations that shifted her native Maine away from a sweatshop economy and towards a local organic economy.

Lawyer Brad Seligman poured the proceeds from selling his law partnership into a nonprofit that supports class-action suits such as the historic Wal-Mart sex discrimination case.

Are you thinking, "I wish I could do what they've done, but I'm not rich"? You might be inspired, then, by Richard Semmler, a community college professor who donates over half his pay to Habitat for Humanity and scholarships. You don't have to be rich to be a bolder giver.

Our second assumption: to give more boldly, most people need individual support. They need help to think through how much to leave their children, how much of their money is truly discretionary and what difference they want to make. The good news is that the web has tremendous educational resources for givers that didn't exist a generation ago.

Giving 50 percent may be way out of reach, but many of us could, without hardship, double our giving -- for instance, from 5 percent to 10 percent of our income, or from 1 percent to 2 percent of our assets.

Imagine for a moment that a new wave of generosity spreads among progressive Baby Boomers and we start giving at our true potential, whether that is 5 percent or 95 percent. We could turn the future around if we applied our full resources -- money, talent and love.

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Anne and Christopher Ellinger are the founders and directors of Bolder Giving in Extraordinary Times. They co-authored the award-winning book We Gave Away a Fortune and served as co-directors of the national peer education network More Than Money for over a decade.