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When Financial Advisors Become Philanthropists

To Give or Not to Give?

(As reported in Barron’s Magazine, June 2015)That has been the question faced by people of means for many millennia. It’s also one we help our clients address here at Optivest Wealth Management. CLICK HERE to check out this interview with Optivest CEO Mark Van Mourick on Barrrons.com.

June 6, 2015
By: Steve Garmhausen

Within the next few days, as soon as the weather in Omaha, Neb., clears, an elderly, impoverished, and terminally ill man will experience a hot-air balloon ride for the first time — and likely the last — time in his life.

Foot the bill for this dying wish is financial advisor Ron Carson and his wife, Jeanie, whose philanthropy over the years has brought them great satisfaction. “The return on psyche for me, Jeanie, and our family has been immeasurable,” says Carson, the CEO of Cason Wealth Management Group, in Omaha.

Financial advisors long have served as charitable facilitators — helping their wealthy clients decide how, when, and where to allocate their philanthropic dollars. But many advisors also donate their own money, and their experiences with their personal charities can help inform the way they advise their clients.

Mark Van Mourick, the CEO of Optivest Wealth Management, in Dana Point, Calif., donates 10% of his firm’s revenue to charity through the Optivest Foundation. And he encourages wealthy clients to become philanthropists themselves. “At some point with larger accounts — call it $20 million or $50 million — the couple’s got to realize that it’s no longer just about them and their family,” he says. “I push them to think outside the box.”

Van Mourick provides practical advice about how to use various philanthropic vehicles. He also takes aspiring philanthropists along on trips abroad to review the charity operations that his foundation supports. The close-up view can help clients decide which kinds of causes they favor.

Advisor-philanthropists like Van Mourick and Richard Brown, the CEO of JNBA Financial Advisors in Minneapolis, tell clients that they should consider giving money while they’re alive, rather than just providing for giving in their estate plans. “I enjoy the fact that my kids know what we support and why we support it,” says Brown. “Your legacy starts when you share with your children and grandchildren so they begin to understand who you are and what values you believe in.”

Brown’s own causes include the Starkey Hearing Foundation. Starkey donates more than 100,000 hearing aids around the world each year, and Brown has traveled with the group to more than a dozen countries, teaching patients how to use their devices and often witnessing their first moments of hearing. “The impact that’s made in my life is hard to measure,” says Brown. He also sends kids to college through a scholarship fund in the New Jersey community where he grew up. The fund is named after his fourth-grade teacher, who inspired him to grow from an average student into an excellent one. Scholarships are awarded to students who have followed a similar upward trajectory.

Brown is well versed in the different modes of giving. Over the years, he and wife, Kim, have made donations directly from a bank account, through a donor-advised fund, and through a family foundation. Each approach involves a tax benefit, but each also carries its own set of pros and cons, he explains. Private foundations can signal families’ seriousness about giving and allow them to leave an enduring legacy. And their structure can prompt families to focus more deeply on a number of causes.

Donor-advised funds, administered by financial firms like Fidelity Investments, Charles Schwab (ticker SCHW) and Vanguard Group, allow donors to make a tax-deductible contribution and then recommend grants from the fund over time. They’re often used to stash sudden windfalls while their recipients figure out the causes they wish to support.

For all of the benefits of donor-advised funds and private foundations, sometimes simply writing a check is the best way to give. Van Mourick, for example, makes direct donations once his gifts to the Optivest Foundation hit the tax-deductible threshold. Guided by Biblical principles, Van Mourick and his wife, Trish, have given away 10% of their earnings for decades. They started giving through their checking account, and later started a family foundation and the corporate one. Optivest donated $600,000 to the corporate foundation last year.

For other advisors, philanthropy started later in their careers, after they’d become very successful. As a young advisor many years ago, Carson marveled at clients who told him they planned to give their money away. “I thought to myself, ‘Are you crazy?'” he says. “But not I understand why.” In deciding to give away a substantial portion of their wealth, the Carsons were careful to factor inheritance for their three children into the equation. “We decided to leave them enough so they can do anything, but not so much that they do nothing,” says Carson, paraphrasing Warren Buffett.

Advisors with firsthand experience making donations emphasize the importance of using accountants and lawyers to help navigate the complexities of the tax code and regulations surrounding charitable giving. Though helping clients to give their money away seems counterintuitive to advisors whose fees are usually based on the amount of client assets they manage, Brown says it is anything but. “I have always believe you should help clients fulfill their dreams,” he says. “In the long run, it will pay off in your relationship with them.”