One predictably wet evening last week, my doorbell rang.

Outside were two well-dressed, smiling young people, wearing dark blue pinneys with the name of a third world charity on it and laminated ID tags around their necks.

Both asked if I’d be interested in signing up to their good cause.

For as little as €16 a month, said the dark haired boy, who was just a few years older than my own son (“this is our summer job”), I would be supporting schools for deaf children in developing countries.

With just a flimsy umbrella over their heads they were sopping wet, but still smiling.

I was interested enough to ask for some literature first; I make it a point to check out the subscription charities I support before I sign up.

But they needed me to fill out the form then and there, though the bank direct debit wouldn’t kick in for a few days, “a cooling off period”, he said.

I asked if they could leave me some literature to read first – a brochure and DVD as it turns out – but they were reluctant to do so.

And they even came back a couple of hours later for them, before I even had a chance to look at them. I declined the subscription.

I was impressed by the cheerfulness of this young pair in spite of the ferocious weather, but their approach, and that of their charity is all wrong.

It is, however, quite typical of the way we Irish conduct the business of charitable giving: deeply sentimental, often guilt-driven and nearly always reactive.

We’re well-versed to dig deep into our pockets to help earthquake and tsunami victims and to send millions to famine stricken countries, some budgeted from the wider Exchequer takings, topped up further by our own disposable income.

But while giving is laudable, it isn’t always particularly well directed or administered; reports about corruption and waste can damage the reputations of really well-run agencies and can discourage donors.

Our tradition of supporting religious and developing world charities has also meant that wider philanthropic activity isn’t particularly well-supported in this country, though there have been a number of singular education and peace-type bequests over the years.

This is something that The Community Foundation for Ireland, an expert donor services and grant-making organisation that was set up in 2000 (and is itself a registered charity), is working to change.

The Community Foundation helps individuals, families, businesses and other institutions set up their own charitable funds under the umbrella of the Foundation and by connecting donors to the most deserving causes.

It currently has permanent donor funds of about €25 million and has so far given out €5 million.

President McAleese is its patron and the board has a number of distinguished members of the business community and social sectors, such as Sister Stanislaus Kennedy).

What often surprises many people is that you or your family doesn’t have to be multi-millionaires to set up their own charitable trust or foundation.

Many families use inherited wealth to make their on-going donations or bequests to the organisations they favour, which can be worthy social, educational, cultural as well as humanitarian causes.

This kind of philanthropy is vast in the United States in particular where 34,000 family foundations have assets of $233 billion.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on AIDS research and treatment and has added working to eliminate tobacco addiction in the developing world to their range of activities.

Foundations that support the arts and sports are also hugely popular in the US and have high standards of administration and governance, something that private donors demand.

But with the exception of some very rich business people, ours is a mainly reactive, charity based giving tradition. Unfortunately this doesn’t have the staying power or impact that proper philanthropic trusts and foundations can provide.

A recent survey of financial advisors by the Community Foundation found that nearly 80 per cent, said their wealthy clients don’t understand the difference between charity and philanthropy.

It added that nearly 59 per cent have never discussed the subject with their clients and 22 per cent would feel uncomfortable even raising the subject.

Just over 30 per cent had no idea of the scale of giving by their client and most believed that the client would need at least €1 million in assets (not including the family home) before they should consider setting up a family or business philanthropic trust.

Not so, says Tina Roche, director of the Foundation who says they can be set up with much, much less.

Surprisingly, in 60 per cent of cases of charitable donations from the wills of some of the wealthiest people in Ireland, the amounts range from zero to just €10,000.

Leaving all your money to immediate heirs is not always the wisest thing to do and even in the case of a business, it is no guarantee of the survival of the enterprise past that generation.

The Foundation is lobbying to have tax limits liberalised here. The idea behind a properly set-up family or business foundation, is that your legacy keeps working long after the principals are gone to the benefit of the wider community and the family that is still at the heart of its administration.

If you, your family or your business is interested in setting up or giving to a philanthropic activity, check out