Molly Thorpe was 13 years old when she was given $500, told to research charities and pick one to get the money.

As she got older, Thorpe received more money from the family fortune to give away, lessons in philanthropy and, eventually, board-of-directors training.

Now 25, the Minneapolis advertising analyst belongs to a generation of Americans receiving the largest transfer of wealth in our nation's history. An estimated $43 trillion is predicted to change hands from baby boomers and their parents to the younger generations over the next 40 years.

That includes an estimated $48 billion in Minnesota in the next two decades. Philanthropic leaders see an unprecedented opportunity to capture a chunk of the money to improve the lives of Minnesotans and the nonprofits that serve them.

"We think this could change the face of philanthropy in Minnesota," said Bill King, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations. "There is wealth in every county in this state."

King continued, "If just 5 percent of the transfer of wealth goes to the nonprofit sector, including philanthropy, there will be major growth."

The possibilities are exhilarating for philanthropy leaders. The number of family foundations could take off. Family donor-advised funds, which are charity funds overseen by community foundations, could soar. Nonprofits could see a boom in "legacy gifts."

A lot of "ifs" remain, however. Do the children even want to learn about philanthropy? With careers and kids, do they have time for the volunteering and board meetings? Do they live in Minnesota and want to invest here?

Thorpe's advice?

"I don't think it's for everyone," said Thorpe, who got her philanthropy training through one of her family's foundations and has gone beyond giving her money to volunteering her time at a Minneapolis day care.

"But if the older generation provides information to the next generation — about their experiences, what they're doing, the process — hopefully it will spark a continuation of the family tradition."

Passing the torch

For decades, Minnesota's philanthropic leaders were synonymous with names such as Dayton and Pillsbury. In 1997, key leaders formed the One Percent Club, pledging to donate 1 percent of their net worth to charitable causes.

Peter Heegaard, a retired Wells Fargo executive, was among the founding members. On a recent evening, he stood before a group of young professionals who were part of a philanthropy training program offered by the Minneapolis Foundation, and told them that the One Percent Club legacy now rested in their hands.

"Tonight, the One Percent Club is really passing the torch," Heegaard told the 30-somethings sipping beer at the trendy Fulton Tap Room in downtown Minneapolis.

The club made a special collection to fund the foundation's Fourth Generation training program, he said, because the younger generation is the future of giving. The club's old guard will mentor and meet with budding philanthropists in the project. But the club has now disbanded, he said, and is making way for new leaders.

"I find their spirit and energy inspiring," said the silver-haired Heegaard, who watched the young philanthropists present checks to three nonprofits.

Tim Manning, a 28-year-old Minneapolis lawyer in the audience, was among the graduates of the Fourth Generation program. His family has a small foundation in South Dakota, and he will become more involved in the years ahead. "I feel a great deal of responsibility," he said, "because the transfer of wealth puts my entire generation in a position to do so much good."

Ripple effect

The transfer is on the radar screens of charities, nonprofits, estate planners and foundations across the state. It first made headlines a decade ago, when researchers at Boston University documented the transfer of an estimated $43.5 trillion from 1998 to 2055.

Two years ago, the West Central Initiative Foundation in Fergus Falls crunched county-by-county numbers for Minnesota and estimated that $48 billion would transfer through 2030 from folks ranging from corporate CEOs to large rural farmers. Community foundations across Minnesota are trying to tap that money even before folks pass away. The West Central Initiative, for example, is working with area nonprofits to encourage their top donors and volunteers "to leave a legacy."

Already, private family giving is climbing in Minnesota. The number of family foundations, for example, jumped from 522 to 1,200 over the past 25 years, King said. The number of donor-advised funds nearly doubled at the St. Paul and Minneapolis foundations over the past decade, reaching 1,200 and 675, respectively.

Across the state, wealthier philanthropists are grappling with inheritance issues.

"How much is enough — and what do you do with the rest?" King said. "How much is enough for the kids to have stable lives but not so much that they become lazy? How do we help people make the choice to become charitable?"

Bill Sternberg, a vice president at the Minneapolis Foundation, said baby boomers and their parents aren't leaving charitable legacies to chance.

"It used to be that the transfer of wealth just happened when people died," he said. "That is still happening. But more and more, it's when they are living."

Family meetings

Rick and Suzanne Pepin, for example, created a donor-advised fund about 15 years ago. The Minneapolis couple, both attorneys, are active in Twin Cities area philanthropies. They wanted to share that spirit of giving with their children, but not be too pushy.

About seven years ago, they convened what turned out to be the first annual family meeting on Dec. 26. With their adult children and spouses present, they discussed their family fund, how they use it, how the children would inherit it, other estate planning issues. They then gave the children $1,000 each to donate where they wished.

Daughter Annie Heitzmann, a teacher from Edina, gave that first $1,000 to the Minneapolis Crisis Nursery. She wound up doing some fundraising for the group, even asking guests at her baby shower to give gifts to the nursery instead of to her.

Without the initial donation and family discussion, "I don't know if I would have been more involved," she said.

John Larsen, a Minneapolis architect, got involved in philanthropy when his parents' Larsen Family Foundation received a large inheritance from his grandmother. John, then 30, and his sister were invited to serve on the board. With their parents, they created the mission statement, set priorities, researched nonprofits and funded them.

An unexpected bonus, he said, was the intimacy that grew in the family discussion over values and charity choices.

"I didn't know that we were going to have such deeply meaningful conversations," he said.

More and more of those discussions will take place in family living rooms in the years ahead, philanthropy leaders predict.

"We haven't seen an opportunity like this before, and we don't know when it will happen again," said Jeremy Wells, a vice president at Minnesota Philanthropy Partners in St. Paul. "Everyone wants to know how to engage the next generations."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511