THE FAMILY STORY: Recognizing Our Opportunities for Legacy Gifts

Charles W. Collier was Senior Philanthropic Advisor for Harvard University, having served the institution of twenty-five years until his retirement in 2008 for health reasons. In his most notable book, Wealth in Families, Collier talks about three important characteristics of great philanthropic families:

1) They regularly get together and tell family stories.

2) They are very intentional about mentoring the next generation.

3) They recognize and manage the tension between the family’s sense of purpose and the individuality of each member. 

Several years ago I posted a blog with a brief story of one of my great friends, Sam (not his real name). I participated in their annual family meetings for a number of years with Sam’s extended family. His family modeled Collier’s three characteristics as much as any with which I’ve ever worked.

At the family gathering, Sam would go around the room asking each one, “Where did you give and why?”

Sam’s family members had a profound sense of being a part of a multigenerational family story. Children and young adults were mentored as they “earned their way” into and up through the family businesses with each generation being more successful than the previous. Succeeding generations were also very intentional about passing on a sense of family purpose and values. Each year Sam and his wife provided funds for children and grandchildren to give to philanthropic causes. At the family gathering, Sam would go around the room asking each one, “Where did you give and why?” It was not simply a matter of putting a check in the mail. Each budding philanthropist had to do site visits and make the case for their giving. That tradition has been carried on for at least five generations. The mission-and-values statement for Sam’s family was expressed regularly: “Our family has been very blessed, but it’s more blessed to give than to receive.”

Below are three takeaways from my involvement with Sam’s family meetings.

1. Multi-generational family stories are becoming a rarity.That’s unfortunate but true for several reasons.  a) Globalization and the mobilized economy tend to scatter family members all over the world. Even in cities with an abundance of career opportunities, it’s hard for families to stay together.  b) Multi-generational legacies are the result of a family story trickling down through several generations. When families break up, the “story of us” comes to an abrupt end, often before it can gain much momentum. c) Modern media storytelling (movies and television) develop characters, introduce conflict, reveal flaws in the hero, and resolve the conflict as the story’s protagonist heroically prevails—all in 30 to 120 minutes. 

Consequently, more and more people (particularly Generation X and Millennials) think of a family story in terms of their immediately family. Fewer and fewer feel personally connected to family stories that span several generations. Even fewer still have seriously contemplated the question: What is the purpose and mission of our family?

2. “The money” aspect of the story begs for a defined family purpose. Money changes things for individuals and families. Wealth doesn’t make them better or worse; it just accentuates and empowers what is already growing on the inside—values instilled (or not) by family, mentors, and faith-based organizations. Money often enables regular family gatherings and, consequently, the ongoing story. It also empowers charitable intent.

In a 2013 blog post, I wrote about family story, wealth, and the development of a stated family purpose.

“Dr. Paul G. Schervish, professor of sociology at Boston College, documented the self-narratives of 130 millionaires. Naturally, the accumulation of wealth was a central theme of each story. Schervish observed that almost every one of these autobiographical accounts followed the outline of the classic hero’s journey. Not to imply that they thought of themselves as heroes, but as in Homer’s “Odyssey,” the stories typically began with a virtuous struggle against obstacles in order to change the fate that was dealt to them. Somewhere along the way in their journey, most of Schervish’s millionaires began to frame the meaning of their own story (and their wealth) in terms of philanthropy.”

THE ART OF THE TELL; Identifying the Heroes in Your Organization’s Story

Increasing wealth and giving-capacity gives one a sense of agency—that is, the ability to change the world. With significant wealth, donors develop a sense of hyper-agency, the ability to make radical and systemic changes by means of money, influence, and access to power. That power to change the world simply begs for a declaration of purpose for the family and the money.

That power to change the world simply begs for a declaration of purpose for the family and the money.

3. A cherished family story begs for a legacy gift. Our most powerful family stories are about my parents and our grandson who we lost in 2005. Not surprisingly, our two largest planned gifts are in their memories (though my mother is still with us).

This past year we assisted a gentleman with an estate plan that included a $100 million planned gift in memory of a coach who greatly influenced in his life. The gentleman had never given to that particular institution before or (for that matter) had never made a significant gift to any other organization. He was in his seventies, and that coach had passed away many years ago. The story the gentleman told me about his career and wealth was simply this: “The things Coach taught me about life were directly responsible for my success.”

If development professionals engage in enough meaningful conversations, donors will eventually tell the stories of their greatest tragedies and triumphs.

The motivation for most major gifts is rooted somewhere back in donors’ personal or family story. As a planned giving officer at a nonprofit, I would consider asking a group of donors, “Who’s got a great family story?” And I’d make sure all the volunteer storytellers were on my follow-up list for legacy gifts. However, there’s no need for that kind of public request. If development professionals engage in enough meaningful conversations, donors will eventually tell the stories of their greatest tragedies and triumphs. With a little probing, they’ll also tell you about those who have helped them along the way.

One of the greatest joys for me and for other planned giving officers is that we get to help donors honor the memories of the people who have impacted their lives. 

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.
Founder and CEO, Thompson & Associates
Copyright 2016, R. Edward Thompson

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