- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 3, 2006

My husband recently assumed public office, and I have moved with him to the District from another state. I am not working at this time, nor am I seeking employment. Our children are all grown and living in other cities. The upshot is that I have a bit of time on my hands and would like to get involved with a philanthropic endeavor in which I can make a real difference. I have never really done much of this sort of thing and have to confess that I am at an impasse about what to do.

Although my husband says he doesn’t want to influence my decision, I suppose it’s logical to do something that complements his area of expertise in some way which is, broadly speaking, non-defense-related domestic policy. (I had better not get more specific than that.) Any suggestions where to start?

A: There are myriad organizations that would be eager to have your time, ideas, skills, money and influence — not necessarily in that order. The best way to decide which one (or ones) to support is to take a long look at your own interests and preferences and then start a selection process.

Take your cues from several first ladies of the modern era, who faced much the same situation as yourself when they first came to Washington. Laura Bush, for example, is a former school librarian who is passionately interested in reading and literacy. It was only natural that she would continue to support these causes in the White House (as did her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, the founder of a foundation that promotes family literacy throughout the country). Jacqueline Kennedy drew upon her lifelong interest in the arts to spur interest in restoring and preserving the White House and other historic sites throughout the land.

You said that your husband does not wish to influence your decision but that you nonetheless are considering something that might be at least tangentially related to his policy area, which sounds to me as if it could be in an area such as education, housing or health care.

If that is truly the direction you wish to take — and you wish to be active in a way that makes a “real difference” — you are going to have to discuss any likely organizational choices with him at length to ensure that there is no possibility for conflicts of interest or misunderstandings to occur. With the ethics of public servants much in the news these days, it is incumbent on you both to discuss the matter together with appropriate legal counsel.

Once you affiliate with a particular group, you also need to be careful if you get involved in any direct fundraising on its behalf, especially if prospective donors have any business whatsoever with the branch of government your husband serves. You don’t want any appearance of undue influence or pressure — subtle or otherwise — to arise, no matter how worthy the cause.

Address your questions on etiquette and protocol to Kevin Chaffee, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002 or send e-mail to civilities@washington times.com.

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