Legacies: The present’s responsibilities to past and future

In my own family we have been having deep conversations about inter-generational legacies. We have some family land that was assembled at great costs to prior generations. How do we, the present stewards, respect the past and plan for the future?

Perhaps my personal situation has made the issue of inter-generational transfer more salient, but it seems like everywhere I go the conversation gradually turns to the questions of legacies. Institutions reaching mature stability in part because of the vision and dedication of what, in many cases, may be the founders are now realizing they have no succession plan. Without a plan going forward what happens to all the hard work? How do you sustain what has been wrought? Should you?

Family businesses have struggled with the legacy question more explicitly than have research institutions, university departments, foundations, or other non-profits.

Certainly there are case studies we could learn from – the Rockefeller Foundation, the Salk Institute, Bell Labs. Each had to weather transitions from founding leadership to new leadership. How successful were they? What if your legacy is something smaller – maybe just a program at your college or university, maybe just your own lab? In some cases your legacy may be a position you created within an institution. What do you think will happen when you are no longer there?

The real issue is whether you want to think in terms of legacies. A legacy implys that the present owes something to the past as well as something to the future. If you have built something from the ground up – chances are it involved the sacrifices and hard work of not just yourself but others. There may be individuals who consider themselves “alumnae” – whose identity is tightly coupled with their past or present affiliation with the institution. The reputation, the prestige, the good works – the value of many of these things depend on the sustainability of the legacy institution.

For foundations in particular the legacy question can be a thorny one. Many foundations are established by founders with the explicit goal of existing “in perpetuity.” And yet – there is also the natural concern of the dead-hand — what precisely to the future generations owe to the original intententions of founders now temporally, and maybe even spatially, distant? How does the present generation look back while looking forward?

To me, the most important thing NOT to do is shrug. Not thinking explicitly about your legacy – what it means to you to honor the past while planning for the future – is not insouciance, it is negligence.