What Legacy Giving Taught Me About My Aging Parents

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When I started my career in legacy giving almost 20 years ago I never thought it would provide the skills to help me to work with my aging parents.  As a legacy giving, or planned giving professional (with a background in estate litigation) I promote legacy giving donations by individuals to support the future of an organization and to honor the donors’ values and memory.  Legacy gifts are charitable gifts most often created in a person’s estate plan, such as a bequest in a will.


This means I usually work with individuals 65 years old and up.  Meeting with these individuals has always been a special part of my work.  I loved to hear them share stories, values, and learn where they came from and what they envision for the future for the family and their community.  Sometimes I also speak with their children and grandchildren, and their estate and financial advisors.  All of this is in the context of making sure what the donor values are supported through a charitable gift.  In this journey, I gain a very personal look into someone else’s life. 

Now, 20 years later, those individuals are my parents.

 Working with seniors has taught me so many things throughout the years.  Many of these have now helped better shape the ways I interact with my own parents.


Let them tell you stories

I have heard so many incredible stories from donors over the years.  I learned how they came to the United States, overcame adversity in their lives, protected their families and fought injuries and illnesses.  Our stories shape our lives, and the act of retelling them is not necessarily to teach the listener, but an act of sharing and a way to tap into who they really are. Stories are a way of connecting with our donors and working with them to create a legacy gift that is meaningful to them.

In my family, perhaps like many children, I heard the stories of long lost relatives and our stories of adversity and joy, but didn’t assign too much meaning to it.  Now, with children of my own, I treasure hearing those stories and passing them down to future generations.  My children and I love to listen to stories from my parents of where our ancestors lived, went to school, what they ate and what they wore.  We have photocopied and scanned dozens of old photographs.  And my son thinks it is so cool that his great-great uncle Benny rode a motorcycle with a sidecar for my great-great aunt Bessie in the turn-of-the-century Lower East Side (I think it is pretty cool, too!). 


Listen more than you speak

As fundraisers, we are drilled in with this all the time.  Most fundraisers are friendly folk – we like to talk and interact with other people.  It is part of the reason we went into this profession.  But we are always reminded that it is about the donor, not us. 


I have tried doing that with my parents as well.  This is their time to share, to discuss what is on their minds – joyful memories, fears, and regrets. It is not the time to talk over them or change the topic.  I know with careers, children, pets, homes – there is no end to the stories we want to share with our parents.  And they want to hear it all.  So go ahead and share with them and also give them time to talk with you.  It is important that they pass down their stories, experience, and their wisdom as well as what is important to them.  Let them tell you how much you mean to them, how wonderful it has been to be your parent – there may not be many chances to have that conversation.  Accept it with open arms (and ears).


Don’t be afraid to discuss end of life issues

This is a tough one.  Even as an attorney and a planned giving professional, it can still be awkward discussing this with donors.  This fear is likely one of the top reasons that hold back nonprofit professionals from raising legacy gifts.  Besides the complexity of the gift vehicles, it’s inevitable that the conversation has an underlying context of the end of life discussion. 


Here is what I have learned after doing this for almost 2 decades, and it is what I teach my clients – when our donors are at the stage of discussing legacy giving, they have come to terms with the fact that one day they will no longer be with us.  The conversation doesn’t involve fear or discussion of dying but revolves around celebrating their lives and what is most valuable to them.  That may be family, career, life experiences, and so on.  It certainly involved lots of memories that they are usually thrilled to share. 


We do talk about what they value, what they want to be remembered for, what impact they may want to make for the future – either their family, community or both – and yes, in this context we talk about when they are no longer here.  It’s not a sad conversation because they are comforted by someone listening to them and understanding their need to be remembered.

So why is it so hard for us to have this discussion with our own parents?  I know that I have always avoided them for years with my own parents.  I would usually say “uh huh” and change the subject – the equivalent of putting my hands over my ears and thinking “I can’t hear you.” 


Now, though, I have put my own feelings of loss aside and realized that I was being selfish.  My parents want to feel that their lives have meaning.  They want to relive the past experiences that they treasure, sometimes over and over again.  They want to make sure I know where to locate the wills, their safe deposit box, their bank accounts, their long-term disability policy and their funeral preferences.  I cringe even writing that last sentence.  The realization is that we all don’t live forever, and my parents want to make sure that when that happens (because it will – again, I cringe) that the transition is as smooth as possible.  They don’t want to worry that I will undergo any more stress than necessary.


We don’t know where life will lead us, but if we are fortunate to have parents that have made it to the elderly stage, now is the time to listen to them when they want to tell stories about their parents and childhood and when they want to show you the frayed black and white pictures of their childhood.  Listen as they discuss their end of life plans and arrangements.  Much of it is grounded in their values and will show you how they view their lives made an impact and want to be remembered. 

Join us as we discuss legacy giving and how it makes an impact on the lives of our donors.