Philanthropy Blog: Building a Family Legacy One Story at a Time

November 15, 2017

At the start of the holiday season, we pause to give thanks and to focus on what Is important to us. Behind the glitter and commercial nature of the Thanksgiving to Christmas run – sprint really – are stories that move us. We are affected by the struggles that others face and we want to reach out and help. The public stories deserve attention of course; there is much sadness in the world. In addition to these, I am compelled to look for the story behind the story – the one that doesn’t make it to the newspaper. In fact, the story may not be current at all, but instead may be part of the fabric of your family history. In conversations over the years, I have seen that the gifts motivated by personal stories and the family values that emanate from such stories are the most meaningful. A successful investor sponsors a scholarship at his alma mater because he received such a scholarship and it transformed his life. For sure, the donor’s children and grandchildren will not have experienced the same hardship, but they will appreciate the family legacy more if they know the story behind it. We tend to remember things when they are attached to a story. Family lore exists because of our hunger for stories. Did grandpa really fight in the Pacific during WWII? Was uncle Chris really at Woodstock? The meaning can continue from generation to generation if the story is retold.

When my children were little, there was a starter batch of sour dough that was passed around from house to house – divided and subdivided, wherever it was kneaded. From it, many loaves were made. This is also true of the stories we tell. We all come from somewhere and a piece of that stays with us. These experiences inform our giving. Sometimes, it is hard to share. We don’t want to remember our troubles, or impose them on others. Yet telling even a part of a story, distilling the values that our experiences have instilled, can add power to any gift, no matter the size.

At this time of year especially, I encourage people to share their stories. Some people over share and others are reticent. Here are a few strategies that have worked:

  • Write letters to your children or grandchildren. Tell them stories you want them to know. Writing helps if you are reluctant to talk and also helps make the record more permanent.
  • Keep a family tree. The old family bible where such things were kept is a distant memory, but families long to know where they come from. The personal record often says more about family stories than genetic testing that is currently in vogue among some.
  • Even if you don’t want to share the details of your story, try to let others know what is important to you, what values matter to you. Call it whatever you’d like– a values statement or just a list of what matters. Don’t let your concern about how it looks discourage you.
  • Travel with your family to show them the story. The journey doesn’t have to involve a major trip. Is there a local monument to a family experience? Is mom’s childhood neighborhood at all far away? Would a drive by the old elementary school convey your values to your family. Don’t be embarrassed if the story is too sad, or happy or seems “dull.”
  • Feel free to edit your story. I am not recommending fantasy, but remember that legacy, like giving, is personal and in no small way also a creative process. In this season, the story may be one of the most important gifts that you make.

About H&B's Sustainability Blog

A blog about sustainability of the multigenerational family. Sustaining family wealth and prosperity, unity and legacy, family enterprise and family office, philanthropy, and family lands. Now more than ever, meeting the challenges of sustainable family prosperity and unity requires great thought, care and planning. Our hope is that this blog will inspire creative thinking, underscore significant issues, offer perspective, encourage communication and embolden you to take action toward sustaining your family’s legacy.

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