A wedding not only celebrates the union of two people in love. For some couples, a wedding can also bring a unique chance to acknowledge and support a charity or cause close to their hearts.
For couples who are already well-established financially — and may not need traditional wedding gifts — or those who have a shared altruistic passion, asking guests to make a donation to celebrate their marriage offers a remarkable opportunity to both establish a meaningful legacy and involve loved ones in a special cause.
“Traditionally, wedding gift registries were created to help a newly married couple set up their new home," said Kristin Watkins, owner and event planner at Stephanie Rose Events in San Diego. “With more couples marrying later, or for a second time, many people today already have a home with items they love. They don't want their wedding guests to buy them more stuff. So they're using this time as an opportunity to collect charitable donations rather than gifts."
Patricia D. Hausknost, senior wealth planner for City National Bank, has experienced the trend firsthand.
“When my husband and I got married we were both well established and didn't feel we needed a lot of things. We were both on the boards of local not-for-profits, so we decided to give our guests the option to make a donation to a non-profit we cared about," she said. “We were pleasantly surprised by how generous people were. It was really nice to see and added something special to our wedding."
If the option of supporting one or more causes in lieu of a wedding registry appeals to you, there are two main things to consider: what organizations you're going to support and the best method for collecting donations.
For many couples, philanthropy is an ongoing component of their relationship.
Financial professionals like Samantha Virdin-Smetana, a trust officer at City National, advise couples to hone in on the causes or organizations they'd like to support in an ongoing capacity if they haven't already.
“I think the most important thing as a couple is to define what you have a passion for, because that will drive your ongoing commitment and help make the biggest impact for organizations you choose to support," she said.
When choosing what to support, experts first recommend finding causes that are important to you. Next, validate that the organizations you plan to support are credible and will use your funds - and any additional money your wedding guests contribute - in an efficient and responsible manner.
Deciding to use your wedding as a way to practice philanthropy provides a unique chance for you and your partner-to-be to discover what particular causes each of you is passionate about.
Watkins said that the strongest connections to causes come from what you're involved in regularly or something that has personally affected you.
“One couple I worked with asked their guests to donate to a local children's charity since the groom had served on the board and knew the good work that was being done," she said. "Others have selected national organizations, such as the American Cancer Society or Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, because a loved one had died from the disease and they wanted to help find a cure while honoring their loved one."
Virdin-Smetana noted that you don't have to limit yourselves to one organization. In fact, it can be beneficial to promote more than one charitable cause when you're trying to get your friends and family to contribute for your nuptials.
“Once you and your partner have established causes you care about, don't be afraid to offer people more than one choice," she said. "That way your guests can potentially choose something that is also meaningful for them."
Whether you choose one organization or several, the most important way to guarantee success is communicating why someone should support it.
“Personalize things by explaining why you like the organization or cause and why you feel that it's worth your guests' donations," said Virdin-Smetana. "It gives your guests a feeling of involvement, helps them understand you as a couple and, most importantly, will help encourage them to make a donation."
Hausknost highlighted the importance of ensuring any funds you donate are indeed going to a reputable organization.
“It's critical to do your due diligence and research the reputation of the charity you want to donate to," she said. "A good site is Charity Navigator. It's a great platform that says it provides data on 1.8 million nonprofits in the United States. The site objectively rates charities based on their financial health, how much they spend on administration and several other factors."
Once you and your partner have decided on the organizations you would like to support, the next step is to set up a way to collect donations from your guests.
There are numerous ways couples can approach accepting donations. In general, the three main ways are via a family foundation, via a donor-advised fund or simply through direct donation.
Wealthy couples may have an existing family foundation they can use to accept donations or they may want to consider establishing one when they marry.
“One of the nice benefits of a foundation is that it's a good way to get the whole family involved in your cause and then, if you have children, you can pass on your charitable tendencies," said Hausknost, noting that a wedding is a particularly special time to set up a foundation together.
"Family members can be on the formal board or the advisory board. Thus, those you love can be involved in the decision making about what charities are going to benefit from the foundation," she said. "A foundation can provide a family with a lot of 'teachable moments.'"
However, there's a lot of work involved in running a foundation. And you'll need staff to help administer it, so it's not a viable option for everyone.
A less work-intensive option, from a preparation standpoint, would be creating a donor-advised fund.
“If you're expecting donations of $100,000 or less, you may want to look at a donor-advised fund or direct donations," said Virdin-Smetana.
A donor-advised fund is a gift to a charitable entity, but the funds are aggregated and earmarked to be distributed to the charitable organizations of your choice in the future.
Another reason people choose this option is to be able to make regular donations to their favorite charitable causes even if their income changes during a period of time.
For example, you may currently be able to make an annual donation to a cause. But if you're planning a family and one spouse intends to take off work for a few years to stay home with the child, your ability to give that same amount could be curtailed.
Since charitable organizations rely on consistent, regular donors, a donor-advised fund allows you to give during those years even if your income wouldn't fully support it.
Soliciting direct donations from your wedding guests simply involves giving the collected funds directly to a charity without any intermediary.
Hausknost and her husband included details for their guests on their invitation.
"With the invitation we included a card that said, 'In lieu of gifts please consider a donation to [organization a] or [organization b] in our name,'" she said. "We provided the address and Tax ID on the card, and we notified the organizations that they would receive donations."
If you are going with that method, Virdin-Smetana advised that you prepare the nonprofit ahead of time and give specific instructions about where you want the funds to go within that organization.
"Most major charities have a donor relations team who the bride and groom could reach out to and set the plan for their donations," she said. "Some organizations will create funds such as the “John Smith Fund" which is then tied to a specific set of guidelines."
Establishing a philanthropy strategy can help you cultivate your family's legacy.
City National Bank's investment professionals generate proven solutions to structure and implement a customized, flexible and comprehensive charitable giving plan that effectively meets your needs and vision.
To learn more, contact us.
This article is for general information and education only. It is provided as a courtesy to the clients and friends of City National Bank (City National). City National does not warrant that it is accurate or complete. Opinions expressed and estimates or projections given are those of the authors or persons quoted as of the date of the article with no obligation to update or notify of inaccuracy or change. This article may not be reproduced, distributed or further published by any person without the written consent of City National. Please cite source when quoting.
City National, as a matter of policy, does not give tax, accounting, regulatory or legal advice. Rules in the areas of law, tax, and accounting are subject to change and open to varying interpretations. You should consult with your other advisors on the tax, accounting and legal implications of actions you may take based on any strategies presented, taking into account your own particular circumstances.