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How much should clients give to charity?

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Leigh Bivings characterizes the situation of her Boston-based firm, Artemis Financial Advisors, as "weird but fortunate." By that, Bivings, the firm's CEO, means that most of her clients, who have on average $5 million to $10 million in net worth, have the resources to give to charities.

But Bivings is acutely aware of the thin line between advising and intruding. She doesn't ask her wealthiest clients to give more, nor does she try to persuade those with more modest portfolios to pull back.
Sometimes, her discreet approach has meant that extremely wealthy clients, whom Bivings estimates could afford a $500,000 gift, have instead given only $20,000.

Instead, Bivings says, "I think about charitable giving as another line item in their budget." She lets clients choose if and what they want to donate, and helps them understand the consequences to their larger financial pictures. Bivings says: "I tell them to throttle back when the market is having a bad run and show them that they can afford to give more when it’s doing better."

Other advisors agree with her approach. "We measure it in terms of what are clients' nest eggs and what are their legacy dollars," says Kristine Hartland, the president of Peace Wealth Management in Largo, Fla., which manages about $90 million in assets. But Hartland doesn't tell clients what amount they should give.

More controversially, perhaps, she never tells them that they can't afford to give anything. "You are destroying your relationship if you tell a client who wants to that they can't tithe to their church," she says. If a client is charitably swayed but has limited resources, Hartland shows them how they can reduce other spending to compensate.

Thomas Lawson of T.W. Lawson Financial in Ann Arbor, Mich., agrees that clients' resources, or the paucity of their resources, often bears little correlation with their charitable impulses. An advisor has to accept that, he says, and follow the client's lead, letting them know clearly the consequences of their choices.

Says Lawson, who is semi-retired but still manages about $40 million in assets: "It's not math, it's not logic; it's emotional."

Miriam Rozen, a Financial Planning contributing writer, is a staff reporter at Texas Lawyer in Dallas.

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