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The legacy you leave: Meaningful philanthropy in your lifetime
In this fascinating article, new author Bruce DeBoskey delves into the issues of family legacy and the inter-generational transfer of values.
By Bruce DeBoskey, The DeBoskey Group
Everyone wants to leave a legacy – some proof that they lived on this earth and made a difference while they were here.
Some people leave an obvious legacy that affects all of us. These include people who lived decades ago like prominent politicians, scientists, inventors and historic figures including Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, Pablo Picasso, Mother Teresa and Harriet Tubman.
This list also includes prominent philanthropists– people like Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett and the Ford family.
But the vast majority of us will not leave that type of globally recognized legacy. If we are honest, how many of the 319 million people in the U.S. or the 7.2 billion people on the planet will even be remembered 100 years from now?
Many of us, however, can leave a more modest legacy. One person doesn’t have to change the entire world to make a difference. Instead, a person can change their neighborhood, their community, or even a local, grassroots nonprofit organization. The scale might be different, but the work is equally important.
One of the very best ways to achieve a meaningful legacy is to actively engage family members and others in thoughtful and effective philanthropy during one’s lifetime.
Values outlast individuals
A few years ago, my son and I traveled to Belarus in the former Soviet Union to visit the small village that my grandfather left in 1912. His family had lived there for centuries and, for the most part, it was unchanged since he had left.
We walked through the abandoned and disordered 400-year-old cemetery where many of our ancestors were buried. Not only were their headstones illegible and covered with moss, but I didn't even know which names to look for.
I am quite sure, however, that my own life today has been deeply informed by the values of these long-ago ancestors, passed down from generation to generation. I share their values. That is their legacy.
Similarly, most of the Americans who grew up in the Depression and then fought hard (on the home front and overseas) during World War II are unknown by name to those living today. The members of that generation are almost all gone.
Collectively, however, we know of them as "The Greatest Generation” – a generation whose courage and sacrifice rescued freedom from totalitarianism. Their generational legacy is the free society that we enjoy today. Even if we don’t recall their names, we share the values they preserved. That is their legacy.
"The idea of legacy may evoke death, but it's not about death,” said Susan Bosak, chair of the Legacy Project. “Legacy is really about life and living. It helps us decide the kind of life we want to live and the kind of world we want to live in.
"Through legacy, 'me' becomes 'we,’ said Bosak. “'We' encompasses past and future, old and young, and the society we create and perpetuate.”
Individual and generational legacies
Today, people have more information, technology and resources available to them than ever before. Armed with this knowledge, power and responsibility, how do we create a legacy for generations to come?
The fundamental components of a true legacy include: living a life consistent with our values; living in harmony with others; and living in a way that repairs the world and preserves the things essential to a healthy, sustainable and productive society and planet. Ideally, we want to leave the world better than we found it.
“The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit,” said farmer Nelson Henderson.
Generous, thoughtful and focused philanthropy is the tool that helps us create and solidify our legacies. The first step in creating a legacy is finding an area in which to make a difference. What are your passions?
Areas of “passion” include libraries, the wilderness, the arts, justice, civil rights, the democratic system, health care and disease prevention, education, care of the elderly, child welfare, peace, civic engagement, religion, human dignity, veterans programs, disaster relief, protections and opportunities for women and girls, research, coexistence, the environment -- and many other causes.
For each of these issues, there are great nonprofit organizations working locally, nationally and abroad to preserve the things we cherish and repair the things that require attention and improvement. Pick one and support it.
Define and pass along your family values
The best way to create and secure your legacy is by engaging family members in your philanthropic journey. If you are among the elders in your family, you can pass charitable values down the generational chain. If you are a younger family member, you can pass your values upwards.
Family conversations that deal with money, values, responsibility, privilege and opportunity are essential to passing on more than just financial wealth from generation to generation. They define and pass values to others up and down the family tree.
Some may find honest communication about existing and emerging values challenging at first, but the effort ultimately will be rewarding for all. For some families, an outside facilitator may be helpful. Uncovering shared values and developing shared plans bring generations together along common themes and values and create legacy in the truest sense.
The upcoming holiday season and the 2015 New Year provide the perfect opportunity to ask important questions. The question should not be: "How will I, individually, be remembered by all 100 years from now?" Most likely, you won’t be.
Instead, the questions should be: "What kind of world do I want to live in? What steps can my family and I take to help preserve, repair and change the world, so that it is a better place: healthier, more sustainable and more life-affirming for our descendants -- and for members of our community, my country and my world."
As Goethe wrote: "Choose well. Your choice is brief, and yet endless."
Bruce DeBoskey, J.D., is a nationally recognized, Colorado-based philanthropic strategist working with The DeBoskey Group to help businesses, foundations and families design and implement thoughtful philanthropic strategies and actionable plans. He is a Teaching Fellow with Boston College's Center for Corporate Citizenship, the Co-Dean of Philanthropy for the Purposeful Planning Institute, a certified 21/64 Trainer and a frequent speaker at conferences and workshops. More information at deboskeygroup.com.