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Legacy Letters and Charitable Giving

Often we feel overwhelmed and defeated by the size and numbers of needs and requests. Rather than throw up our hands in despair, we must do what we can and then a bit more.
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Except for the beauty of the richly-colored leaves fluttering to the ground announcing the season, Columbus Day, and Halloween, October seems a quiet month preceding the chaotic holiday season.

However, my mail is filling with gift catalogs with product I nor anyone I know needs or even wants. Their shiny pages shimmer and gleam, luring me to buy. The other envelopes clogging my mailbox at this time of year are requests for annual donations -- and a legacy gift -- from every charitable organization I know and more that I don't know.

I stack some of these envelopes for later consideration, and for October focus on my values to be expressed later by financial gifts. Whether we're secular or religious, we're bombarded by those who tell us we're responsible to help the homeless, feed the hungry, advocate for peace, women's and children's rights and literacy -- and on and on.

Often we feel overwhelmed and defeated by the size and numbers of needs and requests. Rather than throw up our hands in despair, we must do what we can and then a bit more.

"It is not your obligation to complete the task of perfecting the world, but neither are you free to desist from it." -- The Talmud

Being grateful for my blessings and knowing how privileged I am is where I begin. Whether I have $1, $100, $1,000, or $100,000 to give is not the issue -- what is significant is that I give myself time to muse, to consider my values, to clarify for myself which causes reflect those values, prioritize and take action with my time, effort, and money according to those values.

Here's where the legacy writing is dually purposeful. In legacy letters we can express what causes matter most to us, giving us a foundation and direction for our philanthropy and volunteer commitments. Second, if it's true that our kids and theirs are less interested in our stuff and our money, and more interested in knowing who we are, our mettle, why we act and give what and to whom we do, a legacy letter to accompany our legal wills is one way to share our values with them.

Though you may begin with a list stimulated by your full mailbox at this time of year, the essence of this legacy letter will express your values, including reasons for your choices -- most engaging when told as a story. Here is Doris Klayman's 70-year-old memory, a story about her grandfather who taught her to value generosity:

Although it's almost impossible for me to remember anyone before the Holocaust, I do have a vivid memory of my grandfather -- the Rabbi of Ludbreg.

In that town beggars came knocking on doors and asking for alms every Saturday and Wednesday -- market days in that small town. But of course, they didn't come to our door on Saturdays, since my grandfather could not respond on that day -- Shabbat. But on Wednesdays my grandfather would set up a little table in the garden when the weather was good and in the hallway in bad weather. On the table he would arrange little piles of change, and as the beggars, accustomed to this, and sometimes a Gypsy (Roma) or two came by, my grandfather would greet them and hand them each a little pile of money.

I was fascinated by all of this then -- and have remembered it always as a lesson "to be kind to the less fortunate, and always be as generous as possible."

Learning generosity from a great, great grandfather, and passing it forward to grandchildren and great grandchildren is a way to honor your values and solidify the covenant between the past and the future.

Suggestions for Action:

1. Reflect and write about who and what means most to you in the world. Then take a step beyond the personal and ask yourself and write about the causes you hold most dear and why.

2. Write memories and story snippets that explain to yourself why those specific causes matter, and how they connect you to the meaning of your life.

3. Take some time to go through the envelopes of requests -- discarding those that don't touch you (no need to feel guilty -- there are enough people in the world with a variety of experiences and commitments so that all causes will be attended to) -- and keeping those envelopes that represent the causes closest to your heart.

4. Write a legacy letter to your family or someone close to you. Share your discoveries about what makes you generous with particular causes. If your reflection reminded you of specific events or snippets of your history, share those in your letter.

5. You may choose to attach your letter to your will, read it at a family gathering to initiate conversation about the taboo topic of money, or both. Remember that if you don't speak about these values, your legacy will be passed down to include another generation of silence about money and values, and the importance of giving.

May you be blessed with courage and compassion, and may your gifts to those in need be generous in this season and in all seasons.

Rachael Freed

NEW "Your Legacy Matters: Harvesting the Love and Lessons of Your Life, A multi-generational guide for writing your ethical will," is now available everywhere. 2012 editions now available of Rachael Freed's "Women's Lives, Women's Legacies, Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations," "The Legacy Workbook for the Busy Woman" [also available as pdf downloads at and "Heartmates: A Guide for the Partner and Family of the Heart Patient," and "The Heartmates Journal." Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, Rachael is a clinical social worker, adult educator and works with financial, health, and religious organizations focused on legacy principles and practices. She has seven grandchildren. Her home is Minneapolis, Minn.

For more information, visit her website: