Levin: Parsing our motives can make charity more genuine

  • Article by: ROSS LEVIN
  • Updated: March 10, 2014 - 5:50 PM

The guy who walks our dog once a week is starting to annoy me. Why don’t our dog’s behavior lapses occur when our dog walker takes him? This is despite the fact that the guy has eleven other dogs with him. The annoying part is that our dog acts as if he has been through cotillion class with the walker, but with me he is auditioning for World Wrestling Entertainment. Given the dichotomy, I realize that I am the issue.

I was thinking about how this relates to money because I have had to deal with a host of clients who are struggling with how to help family members. This can often be a no-win situation. The family member — a child, parent or sibling — is at a financial disadvantage compared with the person with more financial resources.

If you are going to help someone out or be helped by someone, what are your expectations? If you are offering help, are you doing so with strings attached? I know a couple who offered their parents a gift of travel with the expectation that they would use it to come back to Minnesota and visit their new grandchild. The grandparents spent the money on a cruise instead. The couple resented their parents for how they used the money. The gesture was nice, but not selfless.

In Anne Lamott’s book “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair,’’ she quotes Thomas Merton: “The one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems [is] that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggression and hypocrisy.”

The beauty of this quote is that it requires us to look at ourselves and all of our motives, rather than at others and how they are responding. Since we only have control over our behavior and reactions, it becomes liberating to explore what we need to do to change.

In giving the travel vouchers to their parents, the clients had several motives. They wanted to make things easier for the grandparents to see their grandchild. They also wanted the grandparents in their child’s life. But it may also have been because the couple wanted their parents to be proud of their success. Rather than judge the client’s reasons, it was more important to understand them. Once we could get the unspoken out, we could explore ways to meet everybody’s needs.

Parents help their adult children for a variety of reasons. An obvious one is that they are sharing their success with their offspring. Or maybe they are worried about them. They also may be trying to direct their children into living their lives in a way that makes the parents more at ease. We tend to be good at identifying our positive motives, but not so good at looking at our less desirable ones.

Another client was struggling with how to help his sister. He had some financial resources but not unlimited ones. Once we got deeper into the discussion, we discovered that a reason for wanting to provide support was to play hero. We talked about the difference in giving support and being supportive. Only through exploring his motives could we find a way to help with no strings attached.

Before offering assistance, try to look at all of your motivations. This not only makes it easier to give, but also creates some reciprocity, making it easier for others to freely receive.

Spend your life wisely.

 

Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. His Gains & Losses column appears on the last Sunday of the month. His e-mail is ross@accredited.com.

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