President Jimmy Carter: The Legacy Lesson

Here’s some advice philanthropic advisors don’t usually dispense:

Stop thinking about your legacy.

Yes, I’m a little different, and so is my advice.

Legacy planning is pragmatic, reasonable, and even strategic. That’s all good. But I’d like to advocate for simply doing the right thing, and having that become your legacy. That kind of genuine legacy is not a plan, it’s an orientation. I’m thinking about this right now because President Jimmy Carter, 90, announced that he is battling cancer.

My first job after law school was at The Carter Center in Atlanta, and there I witnessed a man working toward his goals. His approach inspired the Center’s tagline crafted during my tenure: Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope.

A lifelong practitioner of doing the right thing, President Carter founded the Center to ensure a better life for millions by taking on problems no one else has the will, or capacity, to tackle. That is significant, and has a deeply personal resonance for me.

When I came to work at the Carter Center in the mid-1990s, the AIDS epidemic was at its peak. So, I admit, I came through the door concerned – why was The Carter Center, already active in Sub-Saharan Africa, not addressing this crisis?  The answer, I came to see, made sense, and was pretty clear: the world’s scientific, philanthropic, NGOs and research sectors were focused on AIDS, but the pernicious guinea worm, for example, had scarcely any foes in high places.

In 1986, 3.5 million people, mostly Africans, were diagnosed with painful cases of guinea worm disease. In Benin, Guinea, Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, Chad and Sudan and at least 10 other countries people were suffering with the disease, which can be debilitating, often leaving victims unable to walk, work, and in some cases even paralyzed. The Carter Center commanded a concerted effort for eradication, mobilizing the CDC, UNICEF, WHO, foreign governments and private industry. Thanks to his moral authority and presidential Rolodex, Carter was able to address the disease as both a public health scourge and a national security issue. His efforts were mainly aimed at ensuring safe, clean water sources in under-resourced regions. In 2014, there were 126 cases of the disease reported.

President Carter’s international humanitarian work has touched people in many corners of the world, and every one of those people will embody his legacy. He was doing it because that is who he is, not how he wants to be remembered. That’s a powerful example in how to create an authentic lasting legacy. Yes, Carter was President of the United States of America, and perhaps most –or more– impressively he has gracefully leveraged that unique and powerful identity to change the world for the better.

The title of President Jimmy Carter’s new book, A Full Life, I think, understates the case.  He is the exemplar of a full life and a meaningful legacy, in no small part because he’s not driven by concern about how he’ll be remembered.  He identifies areas of need and who he can help next.

We can all aspire to that kind of astonishing greatness.

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