Giving as a Couple

This brief guide is for emerging and experienced philanthropists. Part of the Philanthropy Roadmap series, it sets out key considerations for donors who give as a couple. It also poses questions to help donors examine how they might approach this particular form of partnership —and adventure.


Giving together not only allows partners the chance to work on issues they care deeply about, it also provides an opportunity for their relationship to grow. Some couples say their joint philanthropy is one of the most meaningful shared experiences in their lives.

In addition, couples who give together can increase their effectiveness by combining their financial assets and dividing their philanthropic responsibilities. They can extend the range of their giving program by capitalizing on each partner’s individual perspective and talents even as they unite around the shared values that inspire their work.

Of course, there are pitfalls. Some point to the challenge of working directly with a spouse or partner —saying old habits of miscommunication and existing power imbalances can hamstring attempts to be effective in philanthropy.

Yet couples who have created a strong record of joint giving over many years say there’s no need to worry —the first step in giving as a couple is often just to relax. Because there is no mistake-proof approach, couples should feel fine about following their intuition to make initial gifts and adjusting their giving strategy as they go.

Giving as a couple can evolve just like any aspect of a longterm relationship. For that reason, “learning by doing” is a motto many philanthropic couples adopt successfully.

This brief guide is for emerging and experienced philanthropists. Part of the Philanthropy Roadmap series, it sets out key considerations for donors who give as a couple. It also poses questions to help donors examine how they might approach this particular form of partnership —and adventure:

Motivation and Values

Why are we choosing to give together?

Power and Control

How will decisions be made?

Time and Energy

How will the philanthropic work be divided?


How much should be set aside for philanthropy?

Individual Giving Styles

How will different sensibilities be balanced?

Family and Legacy

How will the couple involve or not involve children, step-children and their spouses? How will the philanthropy evolve into the future?

See our checklist for Giving as a Couple at the end of this guide.


Both of us were fortunate to grow up with parents who taught us some tremendously important values. Work hard. Show respect. Have a sense of humor. And if life happens to bless you with talent or treasure, you have a responsibility to use those gifts as well and as wisely as you possibly can. Now we hope to pass this example on to our own children. We feel very lucky to have the chance to work together in giving back the resources we are stewards of.
- Bill & Melinda Gates

Getting Started

Getting Started

Giving as a couple offers great opportunities to explore— on both philanthropic and personal levels. Partners and spouses can investigate different ways to address important problems and do good, and, in the process, they can learn new things about each other. The first step for many donor couples is simply to sit down and have a discussion—exploratory, naturally—about the values and motivations that inspire them to give together.

In this sense, getting started is straightforward. It requires only time and patience to listen and talk. And numerous donors report their discussion and the ensuing philanthropy have brought them closer as a couple.

On the other hand, of course, this isn’t true for all donors. Long-term relationships tend to have long-term relationship dynamics. And these tend to flow into philanthropy. Still, couples who explore philanthropy together can find new focus for an existing relationship and the chance for fresh understanding.

Motivations & Values

Why are we choosing to give together?

In philanthropy, the range of values and motivations can seem as extensive as human experience itself. Donors cite everything from religious commitments to feeling a responsibility to “give back” to tax considerations (“I would rather give it away than give it to Uncle Sam”). Two guides in this series (“Your Philanthropy Roadmap” overview guide and “The Giving Commitment: Knowing Your Motivation”) go into more detail on how donors can achieve clarity in this area. But for this guide, it is enough to know that the “why” of giving can help guide key decisions such as determining funding interests and goals, the level of giving and whether the couple wants their philanthropy to be public, anonymous or somewhere in between.

Trusted family advisors and professional philanthropic advisors can help couples here. But the most important work is up to the couple. Here are questions which can be used to begin the discussion.

Have either of us found fulfillment in giving; if so, where is it greatest for each of us?

What life experiences—or epiphanies—have inspired us, individually, to give?

What motivations and values do we share—what is our common ground for giving?

Where and how do we think differently?

Has anything has held us back from giving in certain ways or to certain areas? If so, what are those limitations and can they be addressed?

Is legacy important to us? What shape should it take? How would we like to be remembered?

Power & Control

How will decisions get made?

Equality is part of U.S. law and culture. But when it comes to relationships and finance, inequality is common —particularly around the control of assets and other decision-making.

When couples form a giving strategy, they may want to consider setting out just how their philanthropy will be directed and who will do the directing. This may mean making some understandings explicit in philanthropy.

How will the couple decide on their philanthropic goals and approach? How will they decide on what organizations to support or which social impact businesses to invest in? How will philanthropic money be invested and how much will be dispersed? Will other family members be involved in the decision-making?

Facing these questions together might be difficult, but such an approach is often beneficial. A giving strategy that’s truly appropriate for a philanthropic couple must reflect the process that suits them as well as the goals they want to achieve. And though each individual in a couple usually takes on some responsibilities independently, the overall approach to giving remains a team effort.

As in any partnership, engagement is driven by personal and emotional involvement. When spouses or partners share decision-making or discuss and agree on how to divide these responsibilities, their mutual engagement in philanthropy often deepens.

Time & Energy

How will the work be divided?

Depending on family and business commitments as well as personal preferences, couples often differ in how much time they can or want to devote to their philanthropic activities.

Unless paid staff or advisors take care of operational duties, the way a couple delegates authority and divides work in their philanthropy can have a huge impact on how much enjoyment they get from their giving.

Seen from one perspective, splitting up tasks can be simple common sense. Responsibilities can be divided according to inclination and talent. There can even be some completely separate areas of interest, including individual gifts.

One enlightened approach is to develop two separate individual funds as well as a common pool of money. That way couples can give together where there is agreement —say, education — and give independently where they have separate philanthropic interests —say, art museums and conflict resolution.

In short, couples don’t have to do everything in philanthropy together. Individual activity can even make the giving experience more vibrant as partners have a chance to report back and learn from each other.

However, a division of labor that is not mutually accepted can breed resentment around inequities of workload and lack of shared decision-making and recognition. Some donors can even feel cheated. (“Hey, I’m doing all the work and you’re getting all the glory.”)

There is no single wrong or right answer here. But experienced philanthropic couples say that it’s worthwhile to discuss the issues to find clarity around workload and roles and then to schedule regular reviews of this understanding to allow for the nearly inevitable changes in circumstances, finances and giving preferences.

We are among the converted having committed to give all our net worth to philanthropy starting with a grant of $1.3 billion in 2006 to our spend-down Foundation. When you think about it, no other approach seems to make sense. Passing down fortunes from generation to generation can do irreparable harm. In addition, there is no way to spend a fortune. How many residences, automobiles, airplanes and other luxury items can one acquire and use?
- Herb and Marion Sadler


How much should be set aside for philanthropy?

Most couples don’t consider philanthropy until they have achieved a considerable degree of financial independence. So they may believe they need not worry much about money as long as they are giving within their comfort zone.

If their giving is informal and based mostly on replying to requests for donations, they may not need to concern themselves.

However, couples who set out to be strategic in their giving— creating a foundation or a donor-advised fund and seeking to achieve certain social outcomes—are wise to consider money issues more carefully.

Deciding how much money should be used for philanthropy involves working out budgets not only for gifts but for other costs as well. These can include the setting up of a giving vehicle like a foundation and paying for professional advice.

Donors are also wise to remember that financial decisions about philanthropy are not made in a vacuum. Strategic giving is part of a larger discussion, including, among other things, inheritance for children, how to budget to take care of the family’s needs, investment strategy, whose money it is and how the couple shares—or doesn’t share—the control of that money. Differing views about any of these areas can have a major impact on giving. Couples often benefit from taking time to reach clarity about their overall financial picture before they begin their joint philanthropy in earnest.

Individual Giving Styles

How will different sensibilities be balanced?

Partners sometimes see the world through different lenses. When donors give as a couple, these varying views can be complementary, adding perspective. They can help to refine what the couple wants to achieve and the way they want to achieve it.

Of course, sometimes partners see the same circumstances so differently that tension and conflict can result. Which organizations get grants? How much public recognition of a gift is appropriate? How should family members be involved in the philanthropy? These significant issues can turn into obstacles to progress unless differences in approach are accommodated.

Yet, even in such difficult situations, transparency and respectful discourse can be of great practical value. Treating differences openly can start a process which can turn a perceived problem into a tool for approaching philanthropy in a more nuanced way, including doing at least some giving separately.

Couples may want to consider the following points as they develop —or refine —a giving strategy with their loved one. The statistics come from a 2010 survey of 800 high-net-worth households. The survey was carried out by the Center on Philanthropy at the University of Indiana. (Please bear in mind these points are meant to encourage discussion of a couple’s own particular understanding and approach and are not meant in any way to be prescriptive.)

The survey found less than half (41 percent) of wealthy donor couples conferred about their giving and then made joint decisions about their philanthropy.

A quarter of respondents said they conferred but then most of the time, one person made the decisions.

About 16 percent of the couples did not talk at all about their giving —one person making all decisions.

Other couples, 15 percent, made charitable giving decisions separately all the time.

These numbers demonstrate the variety of approaches couples adopt to deal with different giving styles. Other figures —such as the survey results on how couples decided what causes they would support —also suggest considerable independence.

About half of high-net-worth couples surveyed (51 percent) gave to causes both partners supported, whereas 35 percent gave to causes that just one partner —the philanthropic decision-maker —thought was important. About 12 percent of gifts went to causes important only to the partner of the decision-maker.

Family & Legacy

How will the couple involve – or not involve – children, stepchildren and their spouses? How will the philanthropy evolve into the future?

In this age of blended and nontraditional family units, just defining who participates in a couple’s family philanthropy can be challenging. Who should be at the philanthropic table? Children? Stepchildren? Spouses of children? Divorced spouses of children? The decisions will affect not just how a couple goes about its present giving, but how the couple’s philanthropic legacy should be managed by future generations.

Some couples choose to forego traditional philanthropic legacy. Instead, they set an end-date on their giving. Bill and Melinda Gates are perhaps the most prominent examples. They, together with trustee Warren Buffett, have pledged to spend all the resources of their $36 billion foundation within 50 years after Bill and Melinda’s deaths. They say they are determined to do as much as possible, as soon as possible, to achieve progress in the areas where they work.

Yet, there are other couples who are drawn to philanthropy in perpetuity for personal reasons. Some also feel that continuing foundations build on past lessons learned and develop institutional capacity and knowledge that can inform future giving.

(Couples may want to consult our guides Talking with Your Family About Philanthropy).

Whether couples want to create a family legacy or just want to involve their children, one idea worth considering is also a simple one: Ask family members how they might like to be involved. Donors who seek meaningful engagement of adult children while dictating terms can find themselves in complete control, but philanthropically disengaged from their offspring.

Moving Forward

Moving Forward

The way a couple’s career begins in philanthropy—or reaches a new level—is often very personal.

It can be as simple as when one partner or spouse asks the other to have a cup of coffee or tea so they can have an openended chat, so they can discuss those things they each really care about. Once, that conversation starts, the journey of philanthropic exploration has begun.

Thoughtful, effective philanthropists have made their mark through the years by following their intuition and compassion while also being guided by observation and analysis.

Professional advice will help in this process. But even the most experienced of advisors is dependent on donors to supply the inspiration, focus and goals of giving.

That’s where philanthropic couples have a great advantage. By working together, they bring not only a dual perspective, but a potentially balanced one.

In the end, a couple’s best resource for creating or refining their philanthropy is usually themselves.

There’s a point at which it doesn’t make any difference to earn more money. We are much more interested in doing things in the community … We have never particularly liked the expression about ‘giving until it hurts,’ but rather suggest the better standard might be ‘give until it feels great.’ - Joyce and Bill Cummings


Checklist for Couples

Shared motivation & values

Couples who give together often start their philanthropy— or take it to the next level—by examining their motivations and values, looking for philanthropic common ground.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Thoughtful, effective donor couples usually communicate about how philanthropic decisions will be made, especially when those decisions concern the structure and strategy of their giving.

Divide and conquer

Finding clarity around how the work will be divided can be beneficial for couples who give; this can include providing for separate areas of interest and even individual gifts.

Look at big financial picture

Decisions about how much money should be set aside for philanthropic projects can be a part of a larger financial discussion, including inheritance for children, how to budget to take care of the family’s needs, investment strategy, whose money it is and how the couple shares—or doesn’t share—the control of that money. New philanthropic endeavors can offer an opportunity to renew understanding of the big financial picture.

Accommodate different styles

Couples are not clones when it comes to giving style. Individual approaches can be accommodated. In fact, a 2010 survey found more than half of high-net-worth couples make at least some of their decisions about giving independently of their partners.

Talk about the future

Legacy issues and decisions about how long a couple’s philanthropy should last influence a couple’s entire giving strategy. Consider open discussions about these big questions and, if appropriate, ask family members how they might like to be involved.

Listen, give, grow

Two perspectives on philanthropy are often better than one. Honor your intuition, your compassion, your observations and your analysis. But consider listening to your partner’s insights as well. A cup of coffee and a chat about “changing the world” could be the beginning of something beautiful —as well as meaningful —in your relationship.