Consider the parade of couples whose names show up on any list of today's great philanthropists. Besides Bill and Melinda, there's William and Flora (the Hewletts of the Hewlett Foundation), John D. and Catherine T. (the MacArthurs), Michael and Susan (of Dell computer fame), Sandy and Joan (that's Weill of Citicorp), and more recently, Pierre and Pam Omidyar (whose big bucks came from his helping build eBay).
There's a saccharine note to the claim that love makes people better—more generous, more open-minded—but there's truth to it, too. And couples will tell you that contributing to charity is a way of communicating to each other and to the world that they share values.
Leesy T., who in her late 40s has well-worn giving habits, would be shocked if the causes she cared about didn't match up with her husband's. "I can't think of an example when John and I disagreed on a charity," she says, "because our basic values are so similar." But if they did, she would probably respect his thinking.
"My parents were both rabidly against abortion," Leesy recalls, "but when my mother died, I found out that she had been a supporter of Planned Parenthood." When her father took over the task of handling the family donations, a task long assigned to her mom, "he continued to support Planned Parenthood with a modest amount for about five years, just because it was something my mother had cared about."
The act of giving offers all sorts of nuanced possibilities for expressing, squaring, and acknowledging our values, and for generally defining our relationships. Elizabeth G., who recently bought a first home with Sergio G. after being with him for five years, tells the story of seeing her name without his on a list of contributors.
"I'd been involved with the Women's Building," she says of a nonprofit in San Francisco, "and they were having a big anniversary event. They put the names of the people who had supported it in the program: Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So, and the So-and-So family, and then—me. It's not that I'd need it in order to feel validated, but I thought it would have been nice to see his name with mine; it would be showing that in partnership we believe in something."
This impulse is driving a new trend in philanthropy, championed by a charming, astute nonprofit executive named Bethany Robertson. Several years ago, "I was at the age when everyone started getting married," she says, "and I was constantly going to weddings."
In an era when the average cost of a wedding in the United States is upwards of $25,000, and more than half of all couples are paying for part of that, she noticed that many of her friends were uncomfortable with the extravagance. Plus, they didn't really need the material support traditional weddings engender.
"On average, brides are 27 and grooms 29, and their homes are already established," Robertson explains; 60 percent have already been living together. So Robertson came up with a way for them to incorporate charitable giving into their weddings; in 2002, she launched the I Do Foundation.
The organization has been a huge success. (This year, 10 percent of the 2.1 million couples who get married will consult www.idofoundation.org.) A gift registry, a wedding-favors service, and offers from travel and other event suppliers allow brides and grooms to direct some portion of their costs or their guests' costs to the charity of their choice.
Elizabeth D., for instance, is using I Do's gift registry. By signing up with participating stores—like Macy's, Sur La Table, Cooking.com, or REI—she and her fiancé, Michael M., will direct up to 8 percent of the cost of their gifts to the Child Welfare League. There's no added burden for the guests or for the couples—the stores take the hit—while, as Elizabeth puts it, "[we] harness the goodwill that comes out of weddings and put it toward a good cause."
For Elizabeth, working with the I Do Foundation is also a way to remember her father, who died just a month before she and Michael were engaged. Giving to an organization devoted to kids will honor her father's great love of children and his work as an elementary-school counselor. "This way we can take note of him—he can be there," she explains. "Michael kept saying, ‘Why wouldn't we do it?'"
Tracy H., who at 25 is two years younger than Elizabeth D., has deployed another I Do service for her wedding: charitable donations in lieu of favors. "I was looking through magazines for gifts," she says, "and finding all these little tchotchkes that people would take home and throw away." Instead, she decided to give simple cards with a statement on them: "In honor and appreciation of our guests, we have given a donation to the American Cancer Society."
Of course, you don't have to get married in order to give to charity. Nor do you have to be in absolute harmony.
Plenty of couples don't even agree on whether or not to give away money to begin with. Margaret Shapiro, the founding director of the Couples Communication Program at the Council for Relationships, mimics a typically fraught dispute:
"What are you, crazy? You're giving money away?"
"My family always tithed; it's what you do."
"But we can't even send the kid to camp!"
Like so many other patterns, contributing to charity—or not—is often built into family traditions and reveals deep, intergenerational values. While one partner might feel living well and spending on his own family is a tribute to his parents—"it's what they worked so hard for"—the other might interpret that stance as stingy or morally wrong.
"It's really about understanding why both positions are important, in a calm setting," Shapiro explains. "If it matters to one person, it matters." And then it's about making a deal. One couple Shapiro worked with agreed that if the wife spent lavishly on throwing a party, the husband could donate a matching amount to charities that year.
But whether couples do it in unity or through negotiation, parting with their dollars is an act freighted with feeling, from the wedding onward. "In the midst of figuring out how many tiers the cake will have," says Bethany Robertson, "it's great to have a conversation about this other sort of thing—your values and what matters."
David Bach, author of Smart Couples Finish Rich: Nine Steps to Creating a Rich Future for You and Your Partner, describes this effort as "having a greater purpose beyond the two of you. For some couples, it's a religious calling. For others, it's a charity or some community project." This kind of outward, shared focus is one of the hallmarks of "really solid couples," Bach believes, "the ones who seem happiest and most fulfilled."
All that, and you get to help people, too. If troubled couples can spend hours looking inward, criticizing and debating and agonizing, it seems logical that happier ones spend time looking outward. I bet it's working for Bill and Melinda.
Martha Baer is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. She is coauthor of Safe: The Race to Protect Ourselves in a Newly Dangerous World.