This is not an either/or matter; both objects and people are important. But it is crucial to note in considering a family’s legacy that the integrity of a legacy depends at least as much on people and relationships—the legates—as it does on the objects involved. Thus, it is essential not to divorce the objects of one’s legacy from the people who are intended to carry it on. The objects that are intended to constitute a family’s legacy may continue to exist, but they will be devoid of meaning if people are not behind them (as in the case of the example above).


It follows from this discussion that the most sustainable legacies will be built upon an understanding that a legacy will best survive and will most likely serve its intended purpose if it is properly represented by emissaries, those people who accept the mission to sustain and transition the legacy. But those people who are entrusted to act as emissaries must themselves be properly engaged in the vision and purpose—the dream—of the legacy.

In one family, the founder of a billion-dollar company believed that a successful future for the family business would be his legacy. The company thrived in locations where other businesses failed and provided jobs and generous benefits to employees who otherwise would have struggled. His oldest son was identified as the next CEO until he suddenly stated his intention to resign. “What happened?” I asked the founder. “It was the legacy I dreamed of, not my son’s,” he told me, “and I neglected to ask my son about his dreams.” The son clearly was not well engaged with his father’s intended legacy. So one component of successfully passing on a legacy is to ensure that the dream is shared by others. This can be promoted in various ways, including:

• Open communication about what the legacy means to the grantor. In one family, a charitable foundation was viewed by the founder as his legacy, and he made it very clear very often that the foundation needed a high public profile. His son and daughter were opposed to the public profile and resisted engaging wholeheartedly in activities related to the foundation. This led to repeated conflict in the family, until at one meeting the founder’s son-in-law asked why the public profile was so important. Surprisingly, this was the first time anyone had asked that simple question. The founder explained that a branch of his family had a poor reputation in the press, and he viewed his charitable foundation—his legacy—as an opportunity to change that. That simple explanation secured much better engagement by his children.

• Asking questions and requesting (not requiring) active involvement of those people who will carry the legacy forward. People are much more likely to engage in a mission when they believe they can choose to do so. They will resist if they feel they are obligated to participate.

• Nurturing good family relationships so that the emissaries may view their engagement in the mission of the legacy as an act of love and perhaps even of giving back to the grantor.

• Ensuring that a legacy’s emissaries perceive personal value in serving the intended mission. In the Roman Empire, a legatus received large shares of the wealth derived from a province. In the present context, material benefits may be less important than the perception of intangible benefits received, such as gratitude, appreciation, respect and authority.

One way to think of a legacy is as a gift from the present into the future. However, because it extends over time, we might rather think of it as a series of gifts, first from the grantor and then from his or her emissaries to succeeding generations. So for a legacy to continue having meaning, good engagement must occur repeatedly over time. In other words, the dream must be kept alive, if the legacy is to be more than just an object devoid of meaning. Although there are many paths to this end, I discuss two below.

First, it is essential to tell and retell the story that lies behind the legacy. In the Jewish religion, the story of Passover is an example of a legacy that has lasted thousands of years. Every year the story is retold at a family Seder, during Passover dinner. In telling the story, each family becomes an emissary of the legacy. Those telling the story are encouraged to tailor their explanations so that children with differing personal qualities (wise, rebellious, intellectually challenged, withdrawn) can understand them. Participants are encouraged to ask questions, perhaps most importantly, “What does this Passover mean to me?” These are good guidelines for any legacy to be kept alive: Tailor the story to the people who are receiving it and encourage questions, in particular questions about personal engagement and relevance. Today the story behind a legacy can be told in many ways—in print, of course, but also on a website, through video recording and so on.