What’s your Legacy?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on December 5th, 2014 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Perhaps it is only natural that in the nonprofit sector, we forget that some words have multiple meanings.  We might, therefore, be forgiven for the unidimensional understanding of legacy that so many in the nonprofit sector seem to hold In so doing, we lose what may be the more important and valuable meaning of the word.

planned giving artwork

The first, and, so we are taught is, therefore, the more common, definition of legacy is the one that so many in our sector embrace:  a bequest—a gift of money or property left to someone/some organization.  It is these legacy gifts, tied to Boston College researchers’ estimate of $41 trillion dollars transferring hands by 2055, that is causing many nonprofits to become conversant in planned giving*.

And, with an average planned gift of $32,000 (according to GuideStar), I encourage every nonprofit to figure out how it will have the capacity to accept planned gifts.  (The options here are multiple, and by no means costly.  Yes, an organization can have a planned giving expert(s) on staff, but this is an unlikely scenario for most.  Alternatively, a nonprofit can have a relationship with a financial advisor, bank, community foundation, etc., who/that provides the expertise as the need arrives.  In other words, when it is time to talk to a potential legacy donor, the nonprofit representative is joined on a visit by its out-sourced planned giving expert.)

But it is actually the second understanding of legacy where too few nonprofits focus, thereby leaving too much on the table.  That second definition is “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.”  If we think about all of the “ancestors” every nonprofit has, our failure to have them focus on their legacies is massive!  The response I got the other day when I asked an executive director, who has held this position for double digit years, what he wanted his legacy to be, left me dumbfounded.  “I don’t want anything named after me,” he said, “I don’t want a legacy.”  Of the two other executive directors in on this conversation also had an adverse response to the concept of legacy; it wasn’t a term with which either was comfortable.  Why would that be?

Sadly, legacy has garnered some wrong connotations.  Legacy is not necessarily about self-aggrandizement, though to be fair, that is how some think of it.  Legacy, in its second usage, generally doesn’t come with “all that bling.”  Quite frequently, it may only be recognized by those internal to the organization; unlike a name on a building, this kind of legacy’s palpability may even fade as players move on and new people move in and it is known only in the history of the organization or people’s (fading) memories.  But it was/is, nevertheless, a legacy.

Turning an organization around is a legacy, as is strengthening its impact.  Establishing a sizeable endowment fund thereby giving an organization financial security for decades to come is a legacy, as is building strong partnerships or making the organization cutting edge.  All different sizes and stripes, but all legacies that can influence and sustain an organization for decades to come.

One of my favorite questions to ask of new board members is, “What do you want your legacy to be?”  I like to focus them, early on, as to what they want the impact of their tenure on the board to be.  What, exactly, is that gift which they wish to leave behind, that difference that will have made the organization stronger, better, more successful.  Years ago, I asked this question at a board retreat, posing the question, giving folks a few minutes to think about it, and then soliciting their responses.

The first person who answered said, “I want my legacy to be that I make our events fun so people want to come to them.”  Not what I was used to hearing, I was momentarily thrown-off, but I recovered and asked my traditional follow-up question:  to what end do you want this to be your legacy?  This woman recognized the value to an organization of well-attended events, the failure of the group’s current events to attract the crowds needed for future sustainability and wanted to change things to secure that better future.  What a legacy and a commentary at the same time!

As frequently happens when presented with this question, many in that room couldn’t form their legacy because they’d hadn’t thought about their role beyond coming to board meetings.  They hadn’t realized that the sole sum of their tenure on the board shouldn’t simply be s/he meeting attendance.  The organization won’t falter or soar because board members simply attend meetings; it will, however, do the former if board member after board member doesn’t know and fulfill his/her legacy.

I’m equally fond of asking this question of (new) executive directors (as well as other senior managers), and do so with a greater sense of urgency.  Without a legacy goal, there is nothing but treading water, running the rat wheel, status quo.  It may make doing the job easier, but it is hardly a road map for leaving the organization a stronger, more vibrant and/or resilient place than when you took over its stewardship.  When you leave a position, you should be able to look back on your years of service and be able to say—to yourself, after all this is between you and the organization—this is how I moved the needle.

But moving the needle cannot be left to chance or a go-with-the-flow mentality; moving the needle happens as a result of intentionally setting a legacy goal:  as a result of my tenure, this organization will….  Moving the needle may be aligned with the strategic plan and/or it may be outside of the plan.  For example, wanting to create an organizational culture that embraces strategic planning, such that comprehensive planning happens on a regular basis, the plan is implemented and regularly monitored and a new plan created before the current one expires is an awesome legacy.  Establishing a strong endowment to support future programmatic needs may be both a strategic goal and a person’s legacy goal, whereas bringing a positive and supportive work culture to an organization is an inspiring legacy, but not something that, sadly, often rises to the level of a strategic plan.

A common question asked, understandably, by too many executive directors is, “Do I matter to the organization?”  If you’ve followed the classic rule of good leadership—hired people smarter than you and gotten out of their way—the answer, for the day-to-day, is probably, no, you don’t matter.  But when it comes to the bigger picture—to the legacy—and getting everyone involved in achieving that legacy (despite folks not knowing what is going on), then you matter.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.