Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late: 5 Actions to Preserve Your Family Story

Stephen Chambers is a Senior Consultant and the Deputy Manager of the History Division at The Winthrop Group, where he specializes in organizational and family history. Stephen has directed or co-authored numerous philanthropic projects and reports, regularly collaborating with experts from leading institutions to support philanthropic decision making and economically sustainability. He has widely published on family and organizational history in the United States and abroad, strategic management, economic sustainability in the social sector, generational change and leadership, and reputational strategy.

Heidi Druckemiller is an historian, researcher, and writer who specializes in family history and architectural and urban history. As a Senior Consultant at The Winthrop Group she co-created The Family Story Program which examines the histories of families and individuals. Prior to joining Winthrop, Heidi held the title of Senior Historian & Senior Vice President at Wells Fargo, where she spent seven years creating comprehensive family history projects on behalf of select clients and prospects. She is passionate about bespoke book publishing and authors original monographs for clients that showcase their historic homes, real estate properties, family histories, and heritage abroad.

The largest wealth transfer in U.S. history is currently underway. Within the next 30 years, approximately $30 trillion in wealth will pass from members of the Baby Boomer generation to their descendants. And although most families recognize the importance of financial legacy planning, many others frequently put off preserving a much more valuable asset: their family story. In a 2017 survey of estate planners, 84 percent of respondents said that it was “important, very important, or necessary that younger family members are taught how family wealth was created” in order for a successful wealth transfer to take place.

For families facing generational change, their story can make the achievements, struggles, and sacrifices of the past tangible to members of the rising generation. Their story also offers a window into the factors that hold families together: history, legacy, and shared values. These factors are also vital to improving governance and intergenerational communications within any given family.

Many families intuitively appreciate the power of their story, but they may be unsure about how to go about creating and preserving it. After all, the process to shape an authentic story is extensive and complex, requiring a significant time commitment, independent perspective, and contextual knowledge. But with so much at stake, the following are steps families can immediately take to get started:

  1. Capture oral histories. When aging relatives pass away, many families experience an all-too-familiar feeling of loss: If only we had recorded their stories. Many recognize the value of interviewing elderly family members, but it can be difficult to carve out the time. Just as importantly, oral histories often benefit from an independent point-of-view, and families should consider that individuals often tell their stories in more detail and with greater honesty when they are relating them to professional historians.
  2. Understand what you have. Attics, basements, and storage facilities around the world are filled with unknown priceless documents and artifacts—as well as with boxes of junk. It can feel overwhelming to sort through vast amounts of family materials, but it is essential to do so. For all of the historical records that can be located in major archives and other repositories, it is often personal letters, photographs, diaries, and ephemera that are key to fully understanding a particular family’s legacy.
  3. Preserve what matters most. Once a family has taken the time to assess what it has, it is time to preserve materials against future loss. This includes both physical preservation according to professional archival standards and digitization in an online family archive. Collectrium is the finest platform available to successfully create the latter.
  4. Unlock mysteries from the past. As a family assembles its physical and digital archive, it also has the opportunity to dig deeper into areas of interest based on questions that will inevitably arise: Who is the figure depicted in a painting acquired by a great uncle? What disease was a grandmother referring to in a letter to her father? What is the provenance of a particularly beautiful set of sterling silver, and what is its value? By drawing on historical research and analysis, most questions can likely be answered. Here, too, families can benefit from an expert eye.
  5. Put it all together. With oral histories underway and an archive taking shape, a family can begin to tell its story. This can take many forms. Whereas one family may be interested in publishing a bespoke book, another might benefit from creating interactive and digital media for next-generation family members. Some families may also want to share their story more widely, with friends, advisors, or even the general public. The choice of audience is important and should inform how the story is put together. In creating the story, the family’s personal cache of memories, documents, and other materials can now be contextualized and given a richer life with detailed historical research and analysis. Getting it right can be the difference between an authentic and impactful family story, and one that is quickly forgotten.

There is no time like the present to begin the process of preserving your past for the benefit of future generations.


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