Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to work with a number of extraordinarily passionate, transformative philanthropists. Many of them discovered their interest in philanthropy only after they’d retired from their professional careers. After completing their estate plan, providing for their kids, taking all the trips that they’d dreamt about, and buying all the usual toys, they discovered the one thing that was left to want: To be remembered for something beyond their business acumen or financial success.
After Retirement, Immortality
As we grow older, we reflect on how we want to be remembered. What aspects of our lives do we want to endure beyond our own lifetime? How do we know that our lives truly mattered? Very few people have the opportunity or financial wherewithal to create their own legacies. Bill Gates, who has both, might be remembered a few years from now not only as the software pioneer, but also as the man who eliminated malaria.
Establishing one’s legacy entails putting a stamp on the future—making a contribution to future generations. A private foundation or donor-advised fund can be a useful tool in adopting such a longer-term perspective. Because both vehicles can be handed down from one generation to the next, they can keep your good works going and ensure that your values and ideas live on.
How to Leave Your Mark
For those who have both time and means, philanthropy can become a fulfilling, meaningful second career. Those who get involved in post-career philanthropy invariably want to draw upon the business smarts that created their wealth to advance ideas for society at large. In doing so, they often find that their checkbook isn’t necessarily their greatest strategic asset. Their talents, skills, experience, and networks may ultimately prove far more important.
I’ve seen many examples of individuals who, by virtue of their business know-how and professional and social connections, were able to accomplish amazing things—feats that would be impossible for even the professionals at one of the mega-foundations. For example, one of our clients whose foundation focused on saving the oceans was able to leverage his experience in the recreational boating business to unite two constituencies historically at loggerheads over conservation issues: recreational fishermen and environmentalists. With his help, they came to an agreement to protect an important marine habitat for endangered ocean species. Because of his years in the boating industry collaborating with these constituencies, he was one of just a handful of people in the country who had the credibility to convene these two groups, forge a partnership, and help them reach consensus on a contentious issue.
Another client who had been a practicing attorney for more than four decades wanted to do something to help reform the criminal justice system at the state level. He saw that defendants were coming back to court multiple times for appearances, putting their employment at risk and racking up costs for everything from daycare to transportation. And with tax payers footing the bill for all those prosecutorial hours, the cost to the state was also high. Our client partnered with a nonprofit to create a state-level pilot program where a designated prosecutor and a social worker screened all of the cases in order to determine whether they should be prosecuted, how they should be prosecuted, and what kind of social services the defendant might need. The result was a reduction in the number of average court appearances from 4.7 to just over one, representing significant cost savings for both defendants and tax payers alike.
Philanthropy isn’t just a great way to give back; it can also open doors. As one of our clients discovered, becoming philanthropically active can introduce you to new people and expand your networks. He was thrilled at the opportunity to meet and subsequently support a scientific writer whose articles he’d read for years. Involvement in philanthropy can also give you a new perspective on your community. In talking to other funders, social service agencies, a school nurse, and a juvenile judge, another client learned first-hand about the suffering and need in her own backyard. By meeting with those working on the front lines, she was exposed to aspects of her community she otherwise never would have known and subsequently was able to find a personally meaningful outlet for her giving.
Clients often tell us that giving their money away is far more fulfilling than generating their wealth. Whether it’s giving back to society in a way that is personally meaningful or deepening your connections to your community, you’ll likely find that giving leads to receiving.