The Power of Client Stories


After reviewing the situation, I asked Mr. Jacobs if he were open to the idea of charitable giving. He was. “I’ve been a lifelong member of Rotary, and I’d be happy to donate $2,000. My deceased wife was an active member of a sewing club. I could give them $3,000 in her memory.”
I decided to save the discussion of charitable giving for another time. Instead, I started getting to know Mr. Jacobs. He was a good man with a remarkable story. It seems he had grown up and spent his long life on two pieces of ground. Born in upstate New York, he had lived on a farm there until his family moved when he was 10. They bought a small farm near the town of Ocoee, where he had lived ever since.
He’d certainly had his share of misfortune. As a boy in New York, he had lost an eye in a farming accident. He also had been afflicted with polio, so one of his legs was withered, and he walked with a pronounced limp. He had been married for many years, but his wife had passed away about five years before I met him. 
He had one child, a daughter in her mid-50’s who had not fulfilled any particular ambitions, and still waited tables at a local all-you-can-eat restaurant. She had two children, a son and a daughter, both in their early 20’s at the time. Both were heavily involved with illicit drug use. The son had been arrested for dealing drugs for his father, Mr. Jacobs’ ex-son-in-law, who was serving time in a federal prison. Mr. Jacobs’ granddaughter was also pregnant; Mr. Jacobs did not know who the father might be
In view of all this, and understandably, while Mr. Jacobs wanted to make sure that his child’s and his grandchildren’s needs were met, he certainly had no intention of leaving them $9 million. Mr. Jacobs had worked hard all his life. When he was a teenager, he and his father had built a service station on their property, which Mr. Jacobs had operated since he was 18. 
He told me interesting stories about sleeping in the station all night, so in case a car drove by, he would be there to sell them a quarter’s worth of gas. At one point, he owned his own tanker truck, and worked in the station all day, and drove a tanker to Tampa, which in those days, took four or five hours, filled up, drove back, and worked all day taking care of customers.
Ocoee, where Mr. Jacobs lived, might fairly be described as a stepchild of Orange County—a town with a hard luck story much like Mr. Jacobs’. In the early 1920’s, there had been a race riot there on Election Day. Several people were killed—an incident that had stigmatized the town and still cast a shadow over it even these many years later. 
Early in the Great Depression, the town lost its bank, leaving it no source of lending for businesses looking to put down roots and grow there. Mr. Jacobs told me that he knew a number of merchants who went to the bank of a nearby town seeking a loan, and were refused because the bank did not want to support businesses that would compete with those in its own town. 
Mr. Jacobs chose to use this setback as an opportunity. In the 1960’s, he and a few Rotary Club buddies opened a bank in Ocoee. His capital contribution was the land on which the bank was built. One merger followed another until eventually Mr. Jacobs’ investments of land for the bank had returned the current value of his estate—$9 million.
Mr. Jacobs and I spent a good bit of time together. I helped him capture and articulate some of these stories. I wanted to make sure that, in addition to protecting the financial resources he had, we also preserved the rest of his wealth—who he was, what he had learned, and the values that had guided him to his hard-won wisdom, and ensure that these somehow would be passed along intact to those who would follow him, even though, at the time, they did not seem particularly interested in what he had to say.
As we talked one afternoon, I was struck by an insight into what might be important for Mr. Jacobs. He was describing his friendships and associations with citizens of Ocoee, his adopted hometown, and it suddenly seemed clear to me that this was the key. 
“Mr. Jacobs,” I asked, “what would you think if we could take the money in your estate that otherwise would go to the IRS, and instead direct it into an account that you and those you trust could dispense for projects in Ocoee?” 
He looked at me and asked, “What do you mean?” 
“We could take the money that otherwise would have to be paid in taxes, and see to it that it was spent to improve the town and the lives of the people there.” 
He was intrigued. “Give me an example,” he said, leaning forward.  
“Well,” I said, “suppose that the elementary school needed new playground equipment. We could take some of the money that we had set aside in a special fund—one that you and those you trust could control—and buy the equipment. If the girls needed a new softball field to play on, you could finance its construction. If you just wanted to make the Christmas parade extra special one year, you could direct funds to do just that.” 
Mr. Jacobs’s eyes grew wide; I could see he was imagining the possibilities. “We could do that?” he asked. 
“Indeed, we could. And it wouldn’t take away anything from your family, because the money we’d be using to set up the fund would otherwise just have gone to the government.” 
Mr. Jacobs sat back in his chair with a deeply satisfied grin. “This is exciting,” he said, and a new mood of enthusiasm came over him. He was already planning what he would do with the money.
Rather than giving $2,000 to the Rotary Club or $3,000 to his wife’s sewing circle, Mr. Jacobs ended up contributing $5 million. The money was used, as we had discussed, to create a fund to benefit the city of Ocoee—a fund that would be controlled by him and those he trusted, and be used expressly to support worthwhile community projects for that town, in keeping with the things that Mr. Jacobs felt were most important. 
With his wife gone, and appropriate arrangements made to care for his child and grandchildren, his remaining great love was the town of Ocoee. The difference that this advising made for him and for the citizens of Ocoee may well extend beyond the foreseeable future, benefiting countless generations to come.
Using Mr. Jacobs’ case as a model for what can be accomplished using story-based planning, what are some of the results can we expect to see from this approach? 
In this example, we can see many results that can be calculated in numbers. The number of tax dollars saved was in the millions. The number of dollars directed to a very worthy cause was likewise in the millions. Mr. Jacobs’ family received a substantial sum, according to their needs. Although not mentioned in this account, the plan bypassed much of the probate process, thus saving many months and many thousands of dollars of expenses when Mr. Jacobs passed away. Measured by numbers alone, the results were outstanding.
But some of the most important outcomes cannot be calculated in dollars and cents or measured in numbers. These are the human results, which I believe are far more important than the numerical ones. For Mr. Jacobs himself, the results were stunning. 
Because of our use of a story-based process, Mr. Jacobs felt heard and understood. He was able to participate actively in the design of his plan. He was able to share his lifetime of amazing stories and save them for a time in the future when his family would want to hear them. He was able to identify the causes he felt passionate about, causes that had not previously been obvious to him. 
He found new energy and new purpose in his life, as he saw his plan come together and then play out before his eyes. He found a peace of mind that had eluded him before, a peace of mind based on reviewing his life, putting together its pieces, and then fashioning a legacy that would allow him to know that he had made a difference in the lives of those for whom he cared most.
The results for others are equally profound and valuable. The town of Ocoee will be blessed for many years to come by the gifts that will come from Mr. Jacobs’ foundation. This in turn will create a new pride for the town, and will likely result in a higher quality of life for all its citizens. 
Mr. Jacobs’ planning may be the inspiration for others to do the same, thus blessing their lives and the causes they choose to support. Those who administer Mr. Jacobs’ foundation will be touched by the trust and confidence Mr. Jacobs showed in them. They will also be uplifted by the opportunity to identify needs in the community and then direct resources to address those needs. 
Mr. Jacobs’ family will have their material needs met through Mr. Jacobs’ planning, but they will also be nourished by his stories and encouraged by his example of hard work, integrity, ingenuity, loyalty, and generosity. 
How have you used stories to understand and inspire your clients? I’d love to hear from you.

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