Asking Askin

A nonprofit leader ponders volunteerism, philanthropy and the art of raising generous kids

Chris Askin is head of the Community Foundation of Western Nevada.

Chris Askin is head of the Community Foundation of Western Nevada.

Chris Askin is president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Western Nevada, an organization connects willing donors with a number of causes in the area, including ones that help local children and young people in need. It's tied to broader efforts, too, and at the time of this writing, the foundation was seeking (among other things) help for earthquake victims in Nepal via Soroptimist International Truckee Meadows.

Askin’s own children are in their 20s now. He didn’t mind a few questions about their upbringing and about volunteerism and philanthropy in general.

So how does the foundation work with philanthropists and volunteers?

At the Community Foundation, we provide opportunities for people to get engaged with philanthropy. We're not so much on the volunteerism side, but we know the organizations that are. [Choosing them boils down to] everything from going on the website for Nevada volunteers, which lists volunteer opportunities throughout the state, to calling United Way, to getting involved with a local organization like Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful, which does the river cleanups and things like that.

Volunteerism is a great way to get involved with philanthropy initially, and to not think about money. You’re giving of your time. And if you’re going to give of your money, of your treasure, you’re going to give something incredibly precious to you that you worked really hard for, so you want to make sure that it’s meaningful. If you give an organization a check, let’s say for $100, and you get a nice thank-you from them, you may or may not be connected to the type of impact your gift is making.

What about the nature of generosity itself? Do you think we're born selfish?

We all know the toddler who's saying “Me, mine,” or “My toy!” And you have it between siblings; we all know if you give a bright shiny toy to the younger sibling, the older sibling who typically sees himself as being in control of the younger sibling at all times gets incredibly jealous—going, “Why don't I get that? I should get it! Why? Because I'm me; I deserve it, because I just get everything!”

And if the parents are always looking at that shiny new car, if they aren’t happy with what they have, that sends messages to the kids, too. Why should the kids be happy? They need more. So there’s an incredible amount of modeling that goes into that.

You know what’s interesting, though? If you start getting involved with charities, even if it’s not really in your heart, and you go through the motions … well, let’s say you’re visiting the food bank, and you go down to the food bank, and you’re volunteering to help pack up food. At first, you didn’t want to go. You weren’t feeling particularly generous, and you’re thinking that some of the people there to get food should really just get a job, but now you go down there, and now you’re going to hear about it from the source.

That would change things, wouldn't it?

Yes, because they take that food, and they deliver it to people. They don't just blindly hand out the food; they keep statistics, and people have to qualify. They do this incredible about of due diligence to make sure the food only goes to those people who really need it.

So you learn more, and you also say, “OK, they’ve got all the cereal and all the canned beans they need, but they don’t have the fresh produce,” which you think is really important, or maybe they need more formula, more diapers or whatever. There are very, very few times a volunteer will get involved with a charity and not think that charity is important. If you give it a try, it changes you.

What about people who have no free time, or who really believe they don't? Is that an excuse to be disengaged? (If so, I've been guilty of using it.)

Let's go back to the situation where you're modeling for your kids, and you've got a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, and you have no time, because you work all the time, and are you just kind of immersed in that world. Well, if you make some time to get involved with a charity-and it could even be joining a charity board-you will learn more about people in need, you will become more empathetic, and that will change how you interact with your own family. In lots of subtle and different ways, your family will become more empathetic and more caring about their fellow citizens. But you have to put yourself in that position; you can't live above it. You can't just go from your house to your car to your job, and then from your car to your house to the super-nice restaurant, and never interact.

[In that case] you’re basically insulating yourself from a huge part of society that is engaged with helping each other, and you’re also denying yourself a part of engagement in your community that can make your life much more meaningful. I would say for the families, it’s important to get involved early, because it changes the household culture. … Everyone does have some time; it’s just that everybody has their own personal priorities. I don’t like to ever live with regret, so it’s hard to look back and say, “Last year, did I spend time doing something that ended up not being meaningful to me?” If you can somehow become wise and figure out when you’re doing that, maybe there is time.

How do you teach this sort of thing to your own kids?

One thing we did with our kids is we would take them Christmas shopping, so they would buy clothes and things for certain ages, and then we would take them over to the Kids Kottage, because they always need clothes. Another time, we took some toys up to the pediatric playroom at Renown. … There are organizations that always need things replenished like that.

For the kids to see the parents first of all modeling like that, not just dropping the kids off; but actually doing it themselves, then the kids can participate in a way they feel is meaningful, because they’re going to want to do it if the parents are doing it.

How did your children respond when you brought them to the hospital?

Very well. They were pretty excited, actually. Even going down the hallway, we're going past the pediatric rooms, and you can see all the kids in the different beds there with visitors, and that made it all the more real, too. But we didn't want to try and push it to where they were taking toys to the kids [directly], because then you're getting this immediate thank you, and really it's not about that. It's about picturing them after you're gone, walking into the room and finding these toys—a kid playing with a stuffed giraffe or a train set or something else that would help brighten their day.

How old were your kids at the time?

They were in elementary school; 6 and 8, or maybe 8 and 10.

So is there an age that's too early, or one when young people are especially open to observing the experiences of others?

I don't think there's any time to not be involved, but to varying degrees there are times when you just really buckle down.

In terms of getting kids involved, I think the earliest experiences are the best, so it becomes part of what they’re ingrained with. A number of parents give their kids an allowance, and they separate it so part of it goes into donation money, and part of it goes into savings, and part of it they can spend. It’s trying to teach kids budgeting.

I’m not quite so sure about that approach myself, because when kids are willing to do it on their own, I think it makes a bigger difference. In a lot of these situations, the giving precedes the engagement, and I would be much more excited about kids getting engaged with some cause.