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What a philanthropic advisor should (and shouldn’t) do

The duty and strength of a good advisor is to reflect the values of the family – and say no when needed

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From Carnegie to Thomson to Buffett, it’s difficult to think of a wealthy family without being reminded of their philanthropic endeavours. Perhaps it’s natural for those who’ve been fortunate in financial matters to want to give something back to the world – and to build a legacy at the same time.

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But no one is born knowing how to make the most of their giving dollars. Who can a family turn to for advice on putting together a philanthropic action plan?

“I like to quote Warren Buffett, who said that giving money away is easy; giving money away well is fiendishly difficult,” says Marvi Ricker, the Toronto-based managing director of Family Philanthropy and Legacy for BMO Family Office, which helps families chart a course.

The idea of philanthropy has changed over recent generations. Wealthy families are no longer content simply to portion out baskets of money for worthy causes. Instead, they crave a more holistic approach, building a strategy that will target their chosen cause at many levels and often choosing to contribute their time and skills, too.

“Philanthropy is not charitable giving; it is something much more than that, and quite often, when people turn to philanthropy, they don’t know what they are getting into,” Ricker says. “Philanthropy begins with your values, aspirations and interest in that sector. You are trying to have an impact on something that is important to you so you can make a difference.”

The idea is not to tell people what to do, but how to do it for themselves. The whole point is that you’re a coach.

Marvi Ricker, BMO Family Office

There’s also been a far more open spirit of collaboration between charities and families, says Danny Ritter, a partner with the Richter Family Office in Montreal, which advises business families in Canada on their wealth planning, investment structure and estate planning and, by natural extension, assists them in developing a philanthropic plan.

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“The strength of a philanthropic advisor is that they are a third-party advisor, so they can say no; they can create a distance that one would need in certain situations when they’re asked for way more than they can give,” he says, “but they also reflect the values of the family so there’s no misalignment.”

Mission statement needed

Family Enterprise Canada is a national non-profit organization representing business families that builds community and facilitates peer-to-peer networking to ensure that family enterprise succeeds across generations. It runs a designation program for Family Enterprise Advisors (FEAs). The program candidates generally start with a core specialty such as law or finance and learn how to work effectively with business families. Of some 400 designated FEAs, about 30 specialize in philanthropy.

“A good philanthropic advisor is one who takes a holistic view of a family and their needs, and applies their knowledge and skills to help them with their giving and community-impact goals,” says Bill Brushett, Oakville, Ont.-based president and CEO of Family Enterprise Canada. Before they hire an advisor, however, “the family needs to have a sense of where they want to go and what their aspirations are; then it’s a matter of finding someone to help them work through the process, as opposed to telling them what to do.”

Among the decisions to be made, Marvi Ricker says, are which family members will be involved and how much time and money will be allocated.

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“But the very first thing they need is a mission statement for their giving,” she says. “It has to be as focused and specific as possible to make it easy to implement and to measure results.”

As an advisor in family philanthropy, Ricker helps family members understand their own priorities and develop a philanthropic mission, then she works with them to formulate an implementation strategy. She has a background in the charitable sector, which, she says, is a requirement for this type of work.

Should be independent

Professionals with the right skill set are somewhat rare, but “there are people who do this or have worked for charities,” says Danny Ritter. An ideal advisor will also be independent, “meaning they’re not affiliated with any group and without commitments or loose affiliations that might skew their support.”

Affability is another desirable trait, he says: “I would want them to have a connection, so that there’s a chemistry, because failing that, it won’t be fun; it will be more transactional.”

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The role of the philanthropic advisor should not be to recommend particular beneficiaries but to define the most effective way to bring about the impact that the family hopes to make. An advisor should also “look towards the most tax-efficient ways to expand the ability to give,” Ritter says.

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People often don’t realize they can grant money only to registered charities, Marvi Ricker says, so part of the task is to identify the avenues for giving. For instance, she says, for a health cause, money might go toward a research institution, clinical drug trials, a hospital, a public-awareness campaign or a support group.

How are advisors paid?

An advisor’s services can be packaged in multiple ways, and fee structures can vary. “Some FEAs would work within large institutions, and [their services] might be built into the fees that they would otherwise charge,” says Brushett.

Ricker says, “At BMO, we have a flat fee for the initial service, and if it becomes more complex, we can talk about the needs people have as they get organized and able to cope on their own.”

Independent consultants may charge an hourly or daily rate, or may work on retainer to carry out a specific stage of a project. While some philanthropic advisors may assist only in setting up the giving infrastructure, one who is a good fit with the family’s values may stay with the project over a protracted period.

“The idea is not to tell people what to do, but how to do it for themselves,” Ricker says. “The whole point is that you’re a coach: You help people understand who they are and how to be the best of themselves.”