The art of storytelling for family offices


The story of a lifetime can further a legacy in your next-gens


“The common story is about one plus one equals two…but the real genuine stories are about one and one equaling three…The thing that matters most to us is that other thing, where the whole is greater than the parts – that’s the three.” –Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker


In my experience meeting with individuals wishing to preserve their legacies, they invariably begin by telling their own stories. They recount the history as it is best known to them through their reminiscences and recollections. Richard B. wanted his kids to understand why they were raised the way they were. Marlene S. felt a sense of fulfillment in leaving behind her family’s precious archives including a 180-year-old Bible that belonged to her great-grandfather and the story about how she received it. Carol M. documented a traditional Thanksgiving squash casserole and shortbread cookie recipes – served at every Thanksgiving and known as the family’s ultimate comfort food by her loved ones. Michael R. understood the need to communicate his thoughts on wealth stewardship and spirituality to his successors.

My own belief is that everyone – or at least, all sane people – live their lives from an authentic place: they live according to their values and what’s important to them every day. The way their life manifests includes patterns of the “things that are important” to them, and their values and beliefs.

We met a multi-family office of a single family comprised mainly of first and second generation wealth creators – the third generation is still in school. In the early 1950s, the patriarch and matriarch (then in their early 20s) had both come to the US from a developing country with the goal of achieving their part of the “American Dream” and to be able to send for their family members to immigrate once financially stable. They toiled hard and with their brilliant scholastic achievements, they were selected to enroll in top Ivy League universities with full scholarships, and excelled in their chosen fields. They married upon graduation with highest honors and began building family and careers.

They gained professional experience and in their 50s (in the late 1980s), they decide to leave their positions and start a firm of their own. Subsequently, a division of their company was sold in 2002 for many lifetimes’ worth of liquidity and the main corporation is now a leader in their field, employing 1,400 professionals and support staff. They have successfully transitioned their business over to their two sons, and have remained as consultant and CEO.


Rags to riches

Recently, at ages 82 and 81, they decided to tell the story of their literal rise from rags to riches. In doing so, they realized that one of the most important parts of their story was actually the history of the country where they were born. They wanted to pass on the values and culture of their country of birth to their grandchildren so they would gain an understanding of their heritage. This was one way of providing a value-added aspect (or “three”) to their own life story. It provided an important context for the part of their history when they chose to leave to come to the US for greater opportunity.

In another case, a 76-year-old entrepreneurial real estate tycoon, the founder and creator of great wealth for many generations, rediscovered through our interview process that in his childhood he loved playing and sculpting with clay. He reluctantly had to give it up to go to work during the Depression years. Decades later, as he reflected and told this part of his childhood story, he was inspired to set up a sculpting studio in the basement of one of his buildings where only those over the age of 65 can enroll at very little cost (and they have to show their ID). At these facilities they can take lessons, use the tools and discover their artistic selves. He has his own studio space there and has been producing large sculptures that he places on all his properties. We realized through our interview process that in fact, in the decades of developing huge office and apartment buildings, he was “sculpting” with concrete all his life, and that he just needed to embrace clay again. The power of one plus one equals three, again at work with inspiring leadership as an elder.

Certain special family offices with which we have been blessed to work can easily describe the mission, vision and values behind their philanthropy for next generations. But that is not always the case. More often than not, part of our consultation helps them discover the nature of their donor legacy as we film them communicating it to next generations.


The mission

In the majority of cases, the estate plan of the elders includes a generous gift to the family foundation upon their death. We are asked regularly by the next generation if we can find out in our discovery process how their mom or dad gives to charitable causes each year: what is the rationale or principle that inspires their philanthropy? In other words, it is not always clear. They seek understanding and guidance for that time in the future when their elders will not be available to consult. Through our donor interview process, we determine what was the mission when they first established the foundation and the values with which it is administered as well as naturally, their vision for its future.

Through our questions and some reflection, we often uncover the whys and the hows based on which the family philanthropy is enacted. One family office we have worked with has the following story:

We were hired by the 40-50 year old children of a 73-year-old, second-generation family business owner to capture his legacy. The business was started by their grandfather 85 years earlier. Just before filming him, I contacted the next-gens as we always do, to ask if there were any questions they would like me to ask that I could weave into our scripted questions. They could either remain anonymous or declare whose question it was and pose it to their father while being filmed.

A question surfaced from the eldest daughter who asked, “Why does our family foundation give a $100,000 donation each year to Juvenile Diabetes Foundation when none of us or our children (his grandchildren) suffer from the disease?”

After two days of filming all the stories of his life and the business history, I had the chance to ask the question as part of the donor legacy interview on the foundation. The response on camera was astounding. Here this stoic, poised man took a deep breath, his eyes welled up in tears, and his voice cracked as he recounted the following:

He was born in the Depression era of the early 1930s. His father died when he was a toddler, and his mother died of heart problems when he was 17 years old. While mourning her death, he found out from relatives that she had lost her first child – a boy born three years before him and who died when he was just an infant – due to juvenile diabetes. At that time there was no cure for the disease. He was shocked, as he had always thought he was the eldest – his mother had never spoken of this child. His relatives recounted that after that loss she was never the same, and likely died so young due to a broken heart.

He started working in the family business and vowed from his first paycheck that he would donate a certain percentage to help find a cure for juvenile diabetes so that no other mother would face the tragic loss of a young child to that disease. And that is why the foundation gave every year to that cause.

Our crew was spellbound, we all had to wipe away the tears streaming down our faces. We all understood the power of that story, now preserved for generations to come.

When the children saw the production some time later, there was a complete sense of surprise, shock and tears flowed once again. They had never met their grandmother since she died before he was even married. After learning about this story, they called a family foundation board meeting to change the by-laws to include that every year going forward a certain percentage would always be donated to Juvenile Diabetes, in honor of their grandmother and father.

This knowledge of family history was very powerful for the family to uncover. Firstly, a long-lost family secret was revealed with a wonderful and honorable donor legacy of this patriarch. And secondly, it bonded the family going forward in their philanthropic mission; they felt the need to commit to giving to that cause in posthumous honor.

Another family we were lucky to work with described through their donor legacy interviews on-camera what they wished for their descendants. One of their children (now 50) had suffered from leukemia as a child and nearly died. From that time on, their belief was to donate as much as possible to medical research institutes searching for cures for childhood cancer because as the matriarch declared on camera, “if you cure a child of cancer, you give them a whole lifetime”. Once again, when the adult children saw their parents reflect this way, they were extremely moved. They vowed that even though they lived all over the country, they would each donate to childhood cancer-related causes in their own communities to honor their parent’s legacy.



It never ceases to amaze us how when we begin to work with storytelling  and to capture the reflection of elders on their lives, they almost always have very little, if any, experience with the Ethical Will process. Spiritual legacies — that unique complex of values, beliefs, insights, passions, and actions that are embedded in each person’s life experiences — are important to transfer. The articulation and identification of values, beliefs, influential mentors, and important moments all seem to emerge as morals or life lessons. This legacy of values passed across generations is most aptly acquired and remembered by those who receive them through the telling of one’s life story. The benefits of its wisdom are priceless heirlooms given from one generation to another.

Although there is nothing more entertaining than a long and detailed tale, it’s also worthwhile to sometimes consider the beauty in brevity. It is possible for a short story to have tremendous impact, and a story doesn’t have to be long to be powerful.

This theme of saying a lot by saying very little has in recent years been popularized by the Six Word Story concept, originally started when Ernest Hemingway was asked to write a story of no more than six words. He wrote “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” A few years ago, SMITH magazine challenged people to send in their memoirs of six words each. They subsequently published a bestseller called Not Quite What I Was Planning. You already know how hard it can be to summarize your life’s work in an hour or even a day.

Now imagine if you had to summarize your entire memoirs in a six-word sentence, what would it be?


By Iris Wagner