Ellie Wiener and Maya Wiener Berkowitz
Privilege and Responsibility: Young Cousins Learn to Give
Four boxes. That’s what cousins Ellie Wiener and Maya Wiener Berkowitz remember as their first philanthropic lesson.
As young girls, they divided any money they received – as an allowance or as a gift – amongst four categories: short-term savings, long-term savings, spending and tzedakah (the Hebrew word for charity). Once or twice a year, the girls sat down with their parents and decided where to give their tzedakah money.
With the support of their parents, cousins Maya Wiener Berkowitz and Ellie Wiener embarked on an introspective journey to discover what it means to have financial privilege and pooled their resources into a joint donor-advised fund at Headwaters Foundation for Justice.
“From a young age, we were taught that whenever we have money, we give a portion to those who don’t have as much,” Wiener recalls. “Our grandparents and parents – strong philanthropists and social justice activists – helped us understand that financial giving is integrated into our family’s vision of improving the world.”
As the girls grew up, not only were Wiener and Berkowitz involved in their parents’ giving decisions, but their parents also gave them increasing amounts of money to donate on their own. The freedom to choose where to give brought a daunting sense of responsibility.
“At first, it was incredibly challenging. I wanted to give to everything,” Wiener explains. She started meeting with David Nicholson at Headwaters Foundation for Justice, where her mother had a donor-advised fund. “He helped me think through how to narrow down the many issues that were important to me and decide who and what to give to.”
Another landmark on Wiener’s philanthropic education journey occurred when she was a college sophomore. She attended the annual “Making Money Make Change” conference coordinated by Resource Generation, a nonprofit that works with young people with financial wealth to leverage resources and privilege for social change. “I spent four days with people my age talking about strategies for stepping up my knowledge and coming to terms with the responsibility of being someone with financial privilege, and then using this effectively.”
The Power of Giving Together
Committed to learning how to give responsibly and thoughtfully, Wiener and Berkowitz, now in their 20s, decided to pool the money their parents gave them to donate and start a joint donor-advised fund at Headwaters. In 2009, they awarded their first grants. “It was wonderful to work through the grantmaking process with Maya and to discuss our values,” Wiener says. “Our impact was larger. Just like we are taught with community organizing: There is power in numbers.”
The cousins developed a giving mission statement. Part of it reads:
As young donors and activists, we strive to use our financial privilege to support efforts that address our common values, including:
Social justice: We give to organizations that go beyond the traditional modes of advocacy work and are critically approaching, challenging and engaging with social issues, their impacts and root causes. We believe that to make the most effective change, we need to go beyond superficial solutions, while also supporting efforts that address the basic needs of all people.
Youth: As young donors, we believe it is imperative to engage young people both as leaders in organizations as well as within their communities. We prioritize the involvement and education of youth in social justice work and acknowledge that supporting and empowering young people is a positive way to impact the future.
The statement also elaborates on their support of community engagement, empowerment, environmental justice and health.
With the support of their parents, the cousins have substantially increased their giving – doubling in 2010 the amount they gave away last year.
The “Why” of Giving Is More Important Than the “Who”
Berkowitz and Wiener want the nonprofits they select to receive grants to know that young people are interested in their work. But, the cousins do not want personal recognition, so they give anonymously. They send a letter with each grant stating that the contribution is from young donors and describing why the organization was selected, often specifically pointing out the organization’s support of youth and its inclusion of the younger generation in its leadership.
Berkowitz envisions that she may always want to remain anonymous. Although she acknowledges that being recognized by name may encourage others to give, and she could be highlighted as a young philanthropic leader, she quickly notes, “There are many ways to be a leader; being acknowledged by name is just one way. My goal is to figure out how to be a leader while still maintaining my anonymity.”
Wiener believes, “As people who were given access to money, it is our responsibility to spread it. We don’t need or want personal recognition or excessive thanks for an act we view as a responsibility. Being anonymous donors is one way to defer some of the power dynamics that can come with philanthropy.”
Inspired to Follow Family’s Footsteps
Berkowitz and Wiener were children when their families received the money that has fueled their philanthropy. “I watched our parents educate themselves about what philanthropy means and how to do it,” Berkowitz reflects. “I’ve also watched how it has given them a different kind of connection to the community. They’re very involved in social justice activism, and through their giving, they enable others to have the same opportunities to participate.”
Wiener adds, “I’ve come to appreciate how open my parents have been about money, privilege and giving. Growing up, we talked about how the vacations we took were a privilege. We discussed why we wanted to give money to an organization and what our values as a family and as individuals are. These daily-life discussions have helped me grapple with the huge responsibility that comes with financial privilege.”
“Ellie and I have learned that giving money can be overwhelming and somewhat isolating,” Berkowitz continues. “We’re fortunate to have parents who lead by example. They give with such grace and poise, holding on to their goals and ideals. This inspires me.”
This article was published in the Fall 2010 issue of Giving Forum and is reprinted with permission from the Minnesota Council on Foundations. To see the issue or sign up for a free subscription, visit www.mcf.org/mcf/forum