Do we dare talk about legacies

With the help of friends and colleagues, I had built the Institute for Nonprofit Practice (INP) to train nonprofit managers, entrusted with the holy work of supporting our society’s most vulnerable people, how to combine their passion with skill, perspective, and strategic intelligence.  We have done well.

On June 8, 2017, the Institute for Nonprofit Practice celebrated its 10th anniversary.  Its curriculum and culture were based on deeply held values, then passed it on to a young woman, Yolanda Coentro, who shared those values and the capacity to put them into action.   During the celebration, Yolanda asked INP faculty and alumni to stand.  We did; and as I looked around at the sea of 300 Black and White, Brown and Tan faces, tears of gratitude and love trickled down my face.

It was as though the Gala had launched the INP anew.  Now it stood by itself, independent of me and in good hands.  This was my legacy.

The experience was as strange as it was wonderful.  It was a little like attending my own funeral, hearing, all at once, those things about yourself that usually come with the distance of death.  Retirement had been a symbolic death that allowed me to see the INP as though from a far horizon, and I was proud.

At my judgmental best, I have always dismissed the idea of legacy for its narcissism and arrogance.  I’ve watched many a man—it’s rarely a woman—spend much of their time shaping the narrative they hope to preserve, writing memoirs, accumulating fortunes, polishing their images, and fighting against unseen enemies who might diminish their importance.

I never imagined that people would cherish or admire the memory of my character or achievements?  My children will remember and, I hope, love me, but lionize me?  I doubt that.  Who am I, after all?  A man who has lived a reasonable life, taken care of his family, worked hard at his job, and tried to give life to his values.  When I’m in a contemplative mood, I see myself as a grain of sand in along a vast stretch of beach, next to an even vaster stretch of ocean and sky.  In both senses, it seems certain that, soon after I die, I will be largely forgotten.  That seems to be our common fate.

Since I’ve gotten older and retired, though, since, since my actions no longer speak as readily for me, I find myself thinking about the meaning of my life, wondering if there is a coherent story that has emerged, and, yes, imagining how I will be remembered.

It’s hard to avoid.  We humans are meaning makers.  Just living day to day isn’t enough.  We need to wring order from chaos.  For some reason, we need a purpose for living.  So we construct stories that link one event to another and both to ideas and values that make sense in the cultures we inhabit.  It is through these stories that we know ourselves, and we try very hard to have other people see us within our terms.  Even as people and events intervene and force us to change our narratives, we do so reluctantly, with an eye to continuity.  The continuity is an essential quality of human life.  We need to be recognizable to ourselves—and to others—over the years.

Building a legacy is creative effort to extend that narrative beyond ourselves and beyond the years of our lives.  This is key: our legacy doesn’t completely belong to us.  Others help to build it as, for example, historians and politicians have built the legacies of  Washington and Lincoln to further their own ends, often in the best sense.  My father’s legacy, for instance is mine, too.  My fate is an essential part of his legacy.  He was the son of an immigrant.  As his son, that immigrant story early on settled deep within my soul, helping to define who I am, where I stand in the world, and what I stand for.  I am not my father.  His identity has been transformed within me but it accompanies me every day of my life.  That is his legacy.  Similarly, there are narratives that co-mingle between me and my children.

As I stood at the Anniversary Gala, I knew that the legacy of the INP was not mine, alone.  It was shared and it would be interpreted by many others, and especially by the students, who had passed through its rigors.  I had fallen in love with them and they with me.  They had helped transform the Institute from an educational program into a cause: by improving leadership, we believe, we improve the capacity of nonprofits to protect abused children, house the homeless, rescue the crime-infected streets, give dignity to immigrant communities, and to redress disparities in education and housing, race and gender, and environmental degradation.  What they do with their education, not the education, itself, is the legacy.

Legacies are how we expand ourselves by extending our values out to the world and into action.  The legacy of the INP is coded into the collective impact of its students. Legacies represent our aspirations—actions and ideas drawn from past and present and hurled into the future, hoping that they thrive.

It is the hope, itself, that may be most important.  It is living in a world of possibilities, not defeats.  The legacy I took from my parents wasn’t that the world would inevitably become more just and equitable but that the possibility exists and that we, who share that hope, are ennobled by our efforts to make it so.

Legacies are bridges.  The INP leads through my parents—and those educators and social reformers who influenced them—through me, through Yolanda, through the INP students, and then to their progeny.

What makes the idea of a legacy so compelling is that it is timeless.  It joins us to our past, our present, and to a fondly imagined future.  In a small way, it allows us to transcend ourselves, to believe, at least for a moment, that we are more than grains of sand in the vastness of eternal time and space.  We are giants that span the ages.

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6 thoughts on “Do we dare talk about legacies”

  1. “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.” Robert Louis Stevenson. You and INP team did a great job of planting the seeds…..Thank you for doing so!

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    1. Thanks, Paula. We worked very hard to plant those seeds and the flowers are extraordinarily beautiful. I just loved seeing everybody at the Gala. More importantly, I look forward to following everybody’s careers over the next period of time.

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  2. Congratulations on being able to create and then let go of INP. It’s not easy to do both. As for myself, I am just happy to have survived to this point, and content with being a grain of sand, or perhaps a small pebble, in time. It’s a lot more than I had expected to accomplish. Jay always wanted to have a legacy, and he did a lot for the community as President of the Chamber of Commerce and his founding an initiative called One Community One Goal brought him that as an annual award is still given in his name. But I will follow the words of General MacArthur and …just fade away. Not too shabby.

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    1. I had an easier time letting go than one might imagine–or than many other, whose organizations I have coached–partly because I recruited great board members and an even better successor as CEO. How could I not trust them.

      I wish there were lots more attention given to the challenge of leadership succession. It has been a tremendous problem in both nonprofits and for-profits, yet we know enough to do it well.

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  3. Great piece, Barry. Often mistakenly attributed to Chas. de Gaulle is the observation that the cemeteries are full of indispensable men. Humbling, for all of us who aspire to humility. My mantra for the day is “be here now.” Thank you Ram Dass, aka Richard Alpert.

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    1. All of those thoughts are alive for me, Steve. Franny and I are off to Normandy in July, and we’ve been reading, watching movies, and watching Band of Brothers. The tears flow, and I am incredibly grateful to those guys who gave their lives–average age of 19–so that we could live free and live longer.

      I first saw, then read Ram Dass in 1970 in Cambridge, and have tried very hard–with only occasional success–to be here now. It’s an injunction that feels more important with each passing year. Thanks for the reminder.

      Barry

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