Laura Roser’s Q&A with Jan Ridgely, CEO of United Charitable

Jan Ridgely, CEO of United Charitable, aligns mission and passion with sound financial and estate planning partners to create integrated, approachable plans for clients and donors who want to create their LegacyTODAY.

I met Jan at a charity awards event in San Diego, California, last year. Shortly afterwards, we had a call about her work and the advantages of Donor Advised Funds. I knew I had to invite her to be interviewed for Legacy Arts. Whether you have millions of dollars to give away or much less than that, Jan and her organization have worked with givers of all sizes and with all kinds of visions.


LR: What personally got you started in this business and why is it so important to you?

JR: My parents were social pioneers. Both my mom and my dad have their PhDs — my mom’s is in early childhood education, and my dad’s is in economics. Mom was a trailblazer in the early days of child care for low-income, working families. Dad focused on philanthropy, and he created what would eventually become United Charitable. Dad spent innumerable hours walking the halls of Congress during the 1970s, pushing for legislation that would allow ordinary folks to create philanthropic initiatives, instead of allowing old models of private foundations from reserving such activities for the mega-wealthy.

After a career in the early days of the IT/tech boom, I spent the 1990s raising my two children, earning a master’s degree and living overseas for several years. Settling back into life in America, I started helping in the family business, which at that point was a comprehensive philanthropic services charity bringing in $20MM per year. I literally learned the business from the ground up, supporting the myriad operational challenges of running a complex, national organization. It allowed me to combine my early career in marketing and communications and product/brand management with the mission orientation of a thriving non-profit.

When Congress created the Pension Protection Act of 2006, I was in the right place at the right time. For the first time, Congress strictly defined donor advised funds and required a separation of fiscally sponsored programs and donor advised funds. We were one of the few national independent charities to offer both. Taking quick action to conform to the new rules, I became an expert on this aspect of the Pension Protection Act and took on a more prominent leadership role in the organization.

One thing led to another and, with the retirement of my parents and a re-organization of our business plan following the Great Recession, I am now the CEO of a national, public charity devoted to helping philanthropists and charitable program managers to grow and thrive.


LR: Why is a philanthropic component so important to someone’s legacy?

JR: I believe strongly that the world is a better place when we give, rather than hold and horde. So much has been written about the personal, communal, and even spiritual benefits of giving that confirms my own view that people have an inherent need to “do” something to try to make the world a better place for others. And I am in a position to help make that happen in very practical, do-able ways. It very much is a personal mission for me.


LR: How do you involve family or the younger generation in your philanthropic vision?

JR: I know from experience about the power of learning philanthropy at the dinner table. It was our family business and our family mission at the same time. With five family members working together for decades, we saw everything — the ups and downs, shared (and sometimes differing) values, fights and make-ups — and it played out through all the intergenerational dynamics at home, in the office, down the block, and at every family gathering. This experience truly helps me in counseling our donors and program managers about their personal mission, values, and family dynamics, which can be fraught with emotion, and ultimately one of the best tools to inform one’s philanthropy. Getting along in the world is, after all, learned from family. So, to me, it makes sense that helping others through philanthropy also may be informed by the family experience. With so many families engaging multiple generations in giving, it raises some interesting needs. Being a business woman, daughter of a founder, manager, mother, and nonprofit executive with fiduciary duties, I bring it all to the table — board table or dining table — to help our donors and program managers do their best, find their niche and excel in it, and engage those they care about in a shared vision.


LR: Do you have to start big with philanthropy? How do you start smaller and baby-step your way to something bigger?

JR: United Charitable has one of the most accessible platforms available in the market for practicing philanthropy. We have very low thresholds for our donor advised funds: $1,000 to open a donor advised fund in cash and $25,000 for your donor advised fund to be invested in the market. And you get to keep your existing financial advisor! We have always believed that philanthropy is for everyone, and we are uniquely capable of helping folks to create their philanthropic legacy from the ground up — we call it LegacyTODAY and we created it as a flexible tool that can be customized for any age and any stage of life.


LR: Do you have an example or two of a family or private wealth holder who has used a donor advised fund to do something exceptional?

JR: We have so many examples that come to mind. Most recently, we met with a family that came into a windfall of several million dollars — it completely changed their lives. They had distinct ideas for the philanthropy they wanted to practice, but didn’t know where to start. They figured out quickly that they did not want the burden and expense of a private foundation. We educated them about the flexibility and low cost of a donor advised fund, and we are working with them closely to ensure that their goals are met in an effective and efficient manner that will also involve their children and grandchildren.

For donors farther along their philanthropic journey, we recently created a unique hybrid program out of a donor advised fund within a charitable remainder trust that, while it is more complex, will allow their chosen advisor and multiple generations to actively engage in both targeted giving and program management that they are finding truly rewarding.

And, finally, there is the poet who came to America searching for adventure and ended up a celebrated scholar of Spanish language literature both here and back home. After successful academic careers, he and his wife, a noted artist in multiple media, came to United Charitable to help create and manage a scholarship program for future poets, writers, and artists to share and promote the beauty and wisdom of Spanish language culture to all the countries of the Americas.

These are just a few of the many stories of impact that inspire us among our donors and program managers. These examples speak to the importance of creating a legacy during your lifetime – a LegacyTODAY, because it’s not about leaving a legacy, it’s about living your legacy!

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Jan Ridgely, CEO of United Charitable, aligns mission and passion with sound financial and estate planning partners to create integrated, approachable plans for clients and donors who want to create their LegacyTODAY. United Charitable is a public charity that manages donor advised funds and charitable programs, enabling people of all ages and stages of life to have a charitable impact, locally, nationally, and globally. To find out more about LegacyTODAY, please visit