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Leaving 'your' legacy: It’s not about you

July 28, 2014
by Terry Axelrod
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I am always so impressed and moved by the caliber of people who come to our workshops. We get to be with senior staff, board, and volunteer leaders who are so connected to their purpose, doing their life's work, and living their passions. It's as if we always see people at their best.

I am particularly inspired by the "superstars" among them: the revered founders looking to leave their organization in great shape before they retire, the super-visible board members and high-level donors, the seasoned major gifts staff. These are the people with an impressive track record of leadership and fundraising success—people who have been there, done that, yet they still come to our workshops to learn and be coached. Why do they do that?

They've learned over time that one person—no matter how charismatic or hard working, no matter how wealthy or well-connected in a community—cannot bring about systemic change in an organization and sustain it long-term. That kind of deep, long-lasting culture shift requires an ever-evolving group of people to embrace a new approach, test it, wrestle with it, customize it, and ultimately, make it their own. In that way, they can authentically pass it on to others, who in turn can challenge it and ultimately embrace it.

They know that their most lasting legacy would be to create a steady stream of passionate donors who believe in the mission so much that contributing to its sustainability is a natural expression of their personal mission and values.

No one single superstar in an organization can grow those deeper roots of abundance in a culture. It takes a team of dedicated people. We have seen many examples of nonprofits that have that one "ideal" board member, the most revered development director, or the wealthiest major benefactor, yet they struggle to broaden that base of support. I wonder what those organizations will look like in 10 or 20years once that superstar has moved on.

If you are one of those superstars in your arena, you no doubt know what I mean. It's easy to have it all work while you're there. But the test is in your legacy. With what will you be leaving this gem of an organization?

This new way of thinking—connecting donors to your real work and then following a systematic approach to grow them into major donors—is the heavy lifting of the nonprofit and philanthropic world. It's what everyone wants, donors and nonprofits alike. Yet it takes real work, with a group of people who may not always agree with one another. It takes moving beyond superstar status to the real reason you got involved in the first place: to fulfill the mission of the organization and to sustain it over time.

It's about the kids, the cure, the families, the lives that will be changed, and truly—as you know—it's not about you.


Terry Axelrod

CEO, Benevon

Terry Axelrod



Terry Axelrod is founder and CEO of Benevon. She has more than thirty years of experience in the...

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