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Three steps for building your legacy in line with your values.

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How do you leave a legacy? 

Most of us can’t afford to have our name on a building, but the advice on the opposite end of the spectrum — building a legacy in non-financial terms — tends towards vague platitudes about a life well lived. If you want to do more than dance like nobody’s watching, but you aren’t sure how to get started, here are three steps you can take: 

1. Start with a definition. 

If you take it literally, you’ll find that the basic definition of legacy is “a gift by will, especially of money or other personal property” — but its meaning and use are a lot broader. To get clarity on how to leave your legacy, begin by ignoring ‘how’ and focusing on ‘why.’ Do you want your name and story to be remembered? Do you want to make an anonymous impact that lasts beyond your lifetime? Do you want to focus on your family, friends, and close community? Do you have a broader cause that you wish to support? 

All these choices aren’t mutually exclusive — you can contribute to solving the climate crisis and leave behind a book of family recipes — but defining what your legacy means to you is the first step to taking action. Depending on your goals and what you consider most important, the way you allocate your resources to build your legacy will likely differ.    

2. Figure out your resources.

It’s important to spend time on defining your goals because reaching them requires personal resources. That’s not just referring to money — your skills and talents, your time, and even your connections are resources, too. We all have a different mix, with one thing in common: these resources are limited, so how you choose to allocate them matters. 

Start by asking yourself the question: “What can I offer?” You might find you’re able to set aside a portion of your income, or you can commit to a certain number of hours. Whether that money and time goes to charitable causes and writing your memoir, or helping pay for your child’s education and volunteering, is entirely up to you and how you define your legacy.  

3. Find your avenues, with help. 

Seeking out and selecting the method for leaving your legacy becomes a lot more manageable once you’re clear on the impact you hope to have and on what you have to offer— but you may still find countless options even after defining this criteria. Simplify the selection process by considering two more questions: Is it more important to see the impact in your lifetime, or leave a mark after you’re gone? Are your goals better served by continual habits, or singular actions?   

There’s no wrong answer, and for you it might be a mix of all of the above. If you’re unsure, you can look to role models for inspiration — how are leading activists in the cause you’re passionate about making an impact, or how are people you admire leaving their legacy. You can also find experts to help guide you. For example, you can work with a wealth planner on your philanthropic efforts, whether you want to give directly to a cause or set up a private foundation.

Remember, your legacy is not a one-time financial transfer after your death, it’s an accumulation of all you’ve done in your life that leaves an impact. With that broader timeframe in mind, it’s easy to see that your goals and values, the resources you have, and even the avenues available to you will likely evolve. If you live with intention — guided by these three steps and revisiting them as you enter new life stages — your legacy will evolve and you’ll do a lot of good along the way.  

At BMO, our deep-rooted belief in doing what’s right can be summed up in a simple statement of purpose: Boldly Grow the Good in business and life. If you're looking for inspiration and guidance to grow the good yourself, check out Women of Influence's deep dive — Money Making Change — on using investments, charitable giving, and everyday spending to make the world a better place. ​