Daphne and Stuart Wells both grew up in New York – she in Brooklyn, he in the Bronx – and have been together since the day almost 60 years ago when they went to see the original West Side Story movie and he gave her an ankle bracelet.
Stuart moved to California in 1968 for graduate school at Stanford, and Daphne followed a year later, when they got married. In their nearly 53 years of marriage, they have never lived anywhere else. Their partnership has encompassed their mutual interests in education, the environment and human rights. And today, those values drive their philanthropy.
“Did we stay together because we had the same values, or did we develop the same values because we were staying together? Either way, any philanthropy we do flows from the values we share,” Stuart said.
After fulfilling careers — Daphne in elementary education and Stuart teaching college and graduate school — they started discussing what would ultimately happen to their money. Daphne suggested that they start donating money while they could still take an active role in giving — so about eight years ago, they did just that.
Making the leap to larger gifts
For decades, the Wellses had made regular donations to well-known national and international organizations that worked on issues they cared about, often using a donor advised fund they had set up with a financial firm. But they did not know how to get started making more strategic gifts.
“We were neophytes in philanthropy,” Daphne said.
Their lawyer suggested working with Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Around 2014, when they created their trust, they started a donor advised fund with SVCF and began to learn about other opportunities. One of their first insights was the difficulty — and the importance — of choosing which causes to support.
“There are more good causes than one could ever donate to,” Daphne said. “For us, the hardest thing is to stay focused. Just because we choose not to donate to something doesn’t mean it’s not really valuable.”
They settled on four areas of giving: children’s education in the arts and music, the environment, human rights and global aid.
Some of these interests stemmed from their own experience. For example, Daphne’s teaching career had shown her that arts, music and nature are often missing from K-12 education. Stuart had worked in developing countries during his career, spurring their interest in global aid. And the year before they were married, they took a camping trip all over the lower 48 states, visiting almost all the national parks.
“We had never been in that kind of nature before,” Stuart said. “It played into underlying values that we had, and expanded them.”
An advisor at SVCF put them in touch with two donor circles, one for the environment and one for the arts. They enjoyed participating in them, though over time they realized that their interests were more narrowly focused on education in those areas.
A variety of giving strategies
SVCF helped the Wellses choose several vehicles for current and future giving:
- Donor advised fund: Their donor advised fund at SVCF has made grants to support the environment, the arts, children, human rights and global aid.
- Field of interest endowment fund: The Daphne and Stuart Wells Fund for the Arts is an endowed field of interest fund benefitting pre-K through 12th grade programs in art or music.
- Estate/legacy gift: The Wellses’ letter of intent for their estate plan describes many new funds that will be established through their estate gifts, supporting specific fields of interest and designated charitable organizations.
- Retirement plan distribution: The couple have used their annual required minimum retirement plan distribution to add to their endowment fund.
A deepening relationship
As they continued their philanthropy journey, the Wellses realized they needed to put a structure in place for whoever would be managing their trust once they were no longer making the decisions. With the field of interest fund, for example, ultimately a representative from SVCF will choose the organizations that receive the grants.
They rewrote their trust multiple times to make their wishes clear – but they also have used a letter of intent to explain how they would like to see the funds used. The letter of intent is more flexible than the trust, Stuart said, and allows them to make changes as their goals evolve.
“This is really important: It’s not a trivial matter to change a trust,” Stuart said. Writing a new letter of intent and sending it to SVCF is a lot less complicated. For example, they want to explore the work of SVCF’s Early Childhood Development strategy and see if it matches their goals. If it does, they may send a new letter of intent asking that it be included in the funding.
Relying on SVCF to carry out their wishes requires trust — something Daphne said is “based on the people and the financial stability of the organization – the size of it, and the values expressed by it.”
Stuart said they have been impressed by the people at SVCF and their commitment to making the community a better, more equitable place.
“Daphne taught for many years,” Stuart said. “In the teaching profession, the vast majority of people are dedicated to what they do. We see that in the people at the community foundation. It feels like more than just a job.”
Supporting local groups
It’s relatively easy to find and vet large national or international organizations – but finding small, local groups working in specific fields is more difficult.
“We want to give more to local organizations that meet the criteria that are important to us,” said Daphne. They don’t plan to stop donating to larger organizations but rather are branching out as they expand their giving.
“We want to rely on the community foundation and their expertise to identify organizations so we don’t have to do that work locally,” Daphne said. They hope their field of interest fund will continue to work to find organizations that align with their values. Though their current field of interest fund is focused on arts and music education, they are considering expanding it to include environmental education.
Their association with SVCF has already paid off in the form of exposure, through events for donors, to local organizations involved in K-12 education. They learned about Kids for the Bay through SVCF, for example, as well as EPACENTER Youth Arts & Music Center.
They are particularly interested in supporting programs that have students actively involved in the creative process.
“We like them to take something they learned and produce something together,” said Daphne, citing as an example a San Francisco Opera program in which students produced their own opera. The Wellses have also designated the San José Museum of Art in their estate plans in recognition of the museum’s art education programs.
“It’s not just supporting arts or music or nature education,” Stuart said. “It’s that we think that by supporting those things for a broad number of children, it’s helping them develop their critical thinking skills, their creativity, their ability to collaborate, and the way they’re able to engage with what might be called traditional academic subjects.”
Sharing the joys of giving
Donating to small, local organizations means more opportunities for personal contact with the groups’ leaders. Daphne said she has realized that donations don’t just provide financial support – they provide a morale and confidence boost for the people doing the work.
“The people we have direct contact with, they feel like they’re tapping into our energy – that our enthusiasm for what they’re doing enables them to keep doing it,” Daphne said.
This personal contact is part of the appeal of working with SVCF to find small, local organizations to support.
“We do have an impact, and we know other donors would have an impact too,” Daphne said. “It’s more than the money – it’s the energy behind it.”
Stuart said SVCF is uniquely situated to help donors carry out very specific plans — as well as steward the donations of donors whose wishes are less defined.
“If you’re very focused, the community foundation will carry out your wishes,” Stuart said. And for donors who know only that they want to help the community, SVCF will allocate resources to address critical issues. In either case, he said, the donors can feel good about the plans they have made.
“Until you give money away, you don’t realize how fabulous it is,” they said.
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To learn more about establishing a legacy gift or a field of interest fund, contact SVCF at firstname.lastname@example.org