Designing Your Legacy of Giving

When I called my daughter Carol, I caught her soaking in her hot tub with house guests. Snow was falling lightly on their heads, accumulating in white, fluffy mounds in the pine trees in her backyard. She wasn’t able to chat at the time, but it was evident from the sound of her voice that she was eager to talk as soon as she could.

I knew that Carol had invited her friend Heather, along with her family, to spend a week with them in the mountains. Although Carol had not seen Heather for several years, they had kept up through email. So, Carol knew that Heather had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer three years prior. She had undergone treatment, gone into remission, and was now struggling with a fierce comeback that the doctors said would take her life within a few months.

What Carol was not expecting was to see her friend weak and frail, stooped over, very thin, and pasty white. But she welcomed Heather and her family into her home and devoted her entire week to making it the most enjoyable vacation possible, knowing it would probably be the last time Heather would ever be able to travel. And the last time Carol would see her friend.

After we hung up, I thought about the beautiful gift Carol had given Heather and her family. She got no credit for spending these days taking care of her friend and tending to her family. Her name wasn’t listed in a brochure under “platinum donors.” There was no article in the newspaper about her compassionate deed. It was something she did quietly – out of the kindness of her heart. No one knew except those closest to her.

I realized that a pattern of this kind of selfless giving would become an important part of the legacy she will leave to her children and grandchildren. It is a legacy that embodies the spirit of giving and involves no money at all.

How You Will Be Remembered

Many of the families I consult with are deeply concerned with the legacy they will leave behind. Wealth creators plan for how they will be remembered and how the efforts of their life’s work will be held for the benefit of future generations. Their planning usually involves making sure the family business is successful, trusts are well structured, estate plans are solidly in place, and the family foundation is endowed with enough money to give philanthropically for years to come while taking advantage of current tax laws.

Less often does their planning involve the values they will leave behind. They expend less effort designing a legacy that promotes the giving of time, kindness, personal effort, and emotional energy, or making a sacrifice of convenience and comfort for the benefit of someone else.

Yet this kind of giving — from your heart and soul — is what makes the world a better place and elevates you and your family to higher ground.

There are many facets of giving and many ways to extend your abundance to others. We’re inundated with information about organizations and non-profits, all extolling the virtues of their charity. Some of them are exemplary. Others are corrupt – money being pilfered off the top, stolen by administrators, “lost” in the shuffle. Often, the money doesn’t even help its recipients because of a lack of understanding of what they really need or the unintended consequences of the gift.

In contrast, I rarely hear of an act of compassion and kindness being misunderstood or unappreciated. This kind of nonmonetary giving is valued throughout the world as one human spirit touches another. When families band together to intentionally design a plan for giving of themselves, it leaves a powerful legacy that every member of the family can be proud of.

Modeling for Your Children

I continued to think about Carol. She had demonstrated a real spirit of giving, and I wondered if it was innate. Was she just born with the instinct to reach out to people in need and give of her time, her caring, and her emotional energy? Or was there something in our family culture that engendered her desire to be bighearted? Did we talk about our core values and enact them in such a way that inspired Carol to be giving of herself?

It wasn’t the first time Carol or her sister had performed this kind of generous act. And I’m sure it won’t be the last. I began to reflect on Carol’s childhood – when she was young and impressionable.

In those days, we went to a church that offered opportunities to give money to a variety of worthy causes both local and global. And we frequently wrote checks to the ones we believed in most. Large checks, smaller checks. It was my intention to teach my daughters to be charitable, so we involved them in our giving decisions.

But my personal involvement lasted about as long as it took to fill out the check. Then, most likely, I went skiing or out to lunch with a friend. Unfortunately, even though I wanted to teach my kids to be charitable, I don’t think those checks did the trick.

We know our children learn more from watching us than from listening to us. They imitate what we do, not what we say. They absorb our values and our ethics like indelible ink on a pad. If all we had to do as parents was to give them a few lectures on how to live their lives and then step back and let them go, it would be easy. The scary part is that they keep watching us throughout our entire lives – because parents are models for their children.

The way you live out your values and act on your deeply held beliefs makes a powerful impact on your kids.

The way you give to others becomes the legacy you leave behind.

A Decision to Give

As I thought about Carol’s childhood, my memories landed on Maddy, a woman in our church who lived with multiple disabilities. She was legally blind without glasses and legally deaf without hearing aids. She had a cleft palate and a harelip that left her with a speech impediment so severe you could barely understand a word she said. She was usually depressed and often suicidal, and she had scarred much of her body with self-inflicted cuts and burns. It was easy to spot Maddy walking down the street because she trudged along, head downcast, dressed in the oddest assortment of layered clothing, carrying multiple plastic bags.

Maddy was an enigma. An eccentric woman living a tormented life in an unbearable physical and emotional pain most people knew little about. But a group of women from the church enlisted me to join them in trying to help Maddy.

I signed up. It didn’t begin out of love, although compassion, caring, and even love grew over time. I began with an intellectual decision to become engaged in Maddy’s life. To give her some of my time. To give her emotional support. And it changed my life — and perhaps the lives of my two daughters as well.

Carol doesn’t remember the donations I made to various organizations and non-profits. But I’m certain she remembers what I gave to Maddy.

From time to time, I took Maddy to a busy restaurant for lunch and held my breath as she ate with her fingers and inadvertently spit across the table – often into my plate. Sometimes, she invited me to lunch at her apartment, where she served inedible food on dirty tableware. I even tried to help clean her filthy, cluttered apartment, moving stacks and stacks of junk piled high in every possible space.

We shared some of our Christmases and other holidays with Maddy, even though she often sat sullen and angry in our living room without participating in our celebrations at all. I talked for hours on the phone with her as she spilled out her deep depression, trying to decipher her indecipherable speech and to convince her not to commit suicide. My group of friends and I painted her living room walls, went for walks with her, and drove to her apartment at night to check on her when we were afraid she was in trouble.

At the time, it seemed like I gave a lot. I admit that I sometimes dreaded it when it was my turn to show up for Maddy. It wasn’t exactly fun. Maddy was often grumpy and she forgot to say thank you. But when I returned home, I always felt a deep sense of fulfillment – even pleasure. Not the kind of pleasure you get from eating an ice cream cone or traveling to an exotic new place. But a sense that my life had been lifted up and enriched.

Giving of the Heart

That’s the kind of giving I wish I had done more of. Rather than writing checks with no spirit, I wish I had modeled with more intentionality the concept of giving of the heart.

When I was a child, a couple that lived in the small town where I grew up modeled a rare and simple kind of giving. Every day, they chose to do something good for someone else. They were known for driving older people to appointments, dropping fresh vegetables from their garden at people’s homes, doing errands for others, raking their neighbors’ leaves.

There was no fanfare. They wanted no glory. They didn’t necessarily target people in great need.

They extended their generosity to everyone in town because they understood that all people appreciate kindness. Their legacy lives on long after they have passed.

As your family continues to grow and expand, you will inevitably think about how you want to design your legacy. You will likely create the financial structures to preserve your wealth and provide monetary stability for your children and grandchildren.

Hopefully, you will engage your family in financial literacy education, so that your descendants learn to be responsible inheritors and good global citizens.

Perhaps you will create a family foundation that will support worthy causes that advance medical research, improve conditions in our own country and in third world cultures, or bring relief during a time of disaster. These efforts are valuable, appreciated, and much needed.

But the foundation of your legacy will be built on your family values. How you treat others. How you conduct yourself in your family and business relationships. How you give and extend your bounty to your neighbors, your community, and your world.

It doesn’t require a fat checkbook. You don’t have to reach the masses. If you make an impact on one person’s life by your kind act of giving, that’s a significant contribution to the world. Just ask Carol’s friend Heather.

© Joanne Stern, PhD. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Bonner & Partners Family Office Strategic Review, Volume 4, Issue 4, April 2016 •


About the Author:

Joanne K. Stern, PhD, is a family consultant with an extensive background in psychology. She helps families resolve the complex people problems that often tear families apart and destroy harmony, happiness, and sustained financial success. A frequent speaker, keynote presenter, and workshop leader, she has been a guest expert on more than 200 TV and radio shows and has contributed to various newspapers, magazines, and online media.
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