Bruce and Polly Behrens
Bruce and Polly Behrens

The Behrens Family And the Value of Giving Across Generations

Getting Started

Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Bruce Behrens’ family didn’t have the means to be philanthropic. It wasn’t until he moved to Baltimore to work with Alex Brown and later Brown Advisory that charitable giving entered the picture. “I started to volunteer when our kids were in school,” he says. “I became president of the PTA and then my wife, Polly, got involved in Junior League. As you get involved, you start to see the needs out there. We were just beginning to appreciate the need for volunteerism when halfway through my career, I was able to make enough to give some away.

Finding Focus

Given that volunteering at his daughter’s school sparked the philanthropic bug, it’s not surprising that Bruce and Polly’s giving is primarily focused on education. Baltimore was a great place to raise a family, says Bruce, but with three young daughters, they were always concerned about disinvestment in the public school system. “Education has been one of our key priorities for many years. We focused on private schools where our children went, but increasingly we see that funding public schools is vital. If we’re going to do anything about racial discrimination, it has to start with the schools. There has to be equal opportunity.”

Among the charities the couple supports is Teach For America, which places teachers in low-income, under-resourced public schools and nurtures their leadership potential with the goal of providing an excellent and equitable education to every child. Bruce also serves as board chair of Mentoring Male Teens in the Hood, which has provided academic support, cultural activities, peer counseling, and field trips to educational institutions like Harvard University, Howard University, and Morehouse College for more than 3,000 Baltimore youth over the past 25 years. And, he previously served on the board of the Woodbourne Center in the Greater Govans community. Under the auspices of Nexus-Woodbourne Family Healing’s residential substance abuse treatment programs, the school provides therapeutic education; specialized, intensive instruction; and hands-on vocational training for students in grades 5-12.

“The ties to Baltimore are strong and [the region] has a lot going for it,” says Bruce, noting that the appeal is not limited to those who are longtime residents. “Once a year, when the new Teach For America corps members come in, they have a big meeting. In talking to those people and ones who have been here, they really like Baltimore. They think it has great authenticity, and that it’s a great city to be a part of. Many request Baltimore because of what they had heard before. Baltimore has tremendous promise, it’s just going to take a while.”

“I like the flexibility of our funds, and [Baltimore Community Foundation]’s smart investment strategy. You’re very well managed with the right tools to make it easy for people to funnel their donations through you.” 

The Next Generation

Fortunately, Bruce and Polly are invested in fulfilling that promise, making regular gifts to causes they care about and passing on assets and a passion for giving back to their children. Like many donors, the Behrenses initially tried to set up a family foundation with the vision that their kids would take it over in time. But the mechanics of managing it were a nuisance, says Bruce. “The donor-advised fund route was much easier and as a former employee at Brown Advisory, I was able to set up a stock transfer to fund BCF every year at a certain amount.” Brown Advisory is a privately held company and when Bruce’s prior firm was sold to Brown, he and his partners received equity units. These units are not liquid, but thanks to a strong partnership between Brown and BCF, Bruce can redeem the securities he receives once a year with BCF, receiving a charitable contribution benefit and later the ability to redeem for cash. BCF has built similar arrangements with other corporations—one of many ways that we help companies create philanthropic giving opportunities with personal benefits for employees.

In keeping with their goal of engaging their children in philanthropy, and impressed by the flexibility and ease of BCF’s online fund management tool Donor Central, the couple recently set up donor-advised funds for each of their three daughters. “They’re at the age when they’re starting to focus on philanthropic interests, so I thought this would be the time to get them in the habit of giving. They’re taking that to heart,” says Bruce. “Rather than having to meet around one fund, it made sense for them to each have their own to give to the organizations they are uniquely connected to. In our estate planning, I’ve made provisions that will ensure each of those funds will carry forth when the time comes, and whatever residual we have would be split three ways to theirs.” With two daughters still living in Baltimore and one in Boston, Bruce and Polly also appreciated that donor-advised funds allow gifts to be made in Baltimore and beyond.

A Foundation of Trust

None of this would have been possible without Bruce and Polly’s confidence in BCF’s staff, programs, and policies. “I like the flexibility of our funds, and [Baltimore Community Foundation]’s smart investment strategy. You’re very well managed with the right tools to make it easy for people to funnel their donations through you.” That trust also inspired a generous gift to BCF’s COVID-19 Evolving Community Needs Fund. “We trust you to jury those funds to good causes where they will have great impact,” Bruce says, again returning to his commitment to education equity. “COVID brings attention to so many things–air conditioning, facility upgrades, the need for computers…. These are things that will really step up helping kids in the city and now is the time.”

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