By Laura A. Roser
What’s a Family Brain Trust?
A Family Brain Trust is the structure by which you capture and archive important family information. It can be in physical form – such as a file cabinet with folders that contain important documents – or in digital form – such as a file storage system on Dropbox or a family website.
The purpose of the Brain Trust is not only to store information, but, more importantly, to provide a structure by which to encourage your family members to archive important memories – either in writing, video, audio or as images.
Principles of an Effective Brain Trust
Accessible from Multiple Locations: Your Brain Trust houses information that can help your loved ones, but it can’t help them if they can’t get to it easily. This library of resources must be available to any member of your family at any time, which is why a website is such a good idea. We have a system for our clients that is specifically set up for creating an online family legacy, but there are a variety of alternatives if you want to format a website on your own.
Encourages Contribution: Every member of the family should be allowed to contribute. One voice shouldn’t drown out the others. Certainly, older generations may have been through more, but younger generations can also add a ton of value. Consider assigning family research projects or learning about something together and having everyone contribute their ideas. For example, have everyone research how to be healthy, and each member of the family could contribute their favorite books, tips, and routines to that end.
Easy to Archive: Again, you don’t want your family information stuck in a website that becomes obsolete over time. Think of all the family memories that are on old 8mm films or slides—these now need to be converted over to a usable format. Digital information is scarier, however, because there’s no physical representation of it; at least with an 8mm film, you’ve got a reel of it somewhere. When digital formats become obsolete, there’s no physical trace except for a failing hard drive. Periodically, you’ll want to download your information, store it in a safe place digitally (on a hard drive or thumb drive), and print it.
Structured to Make Information Sharing Easy: It’s hard to share your knowledge when there’s no structure. If an interviewer began with, “Tell me everything you know,” you’d have a hard time reeling off your wisdom. It’s too broad. So don’t do the same thing with your Brain Trust. You need a website with sections and categories so your loved ones understand what you expect from them. A website with a variety of pre-set categories (as well as the option to add your own) allows for more intelligent responses and helps your family generate ideas.
Creating Your Own Family Website
If technology is not your strength, it may make sense to hire a company to create a family website for you. But, it’s really quite easy now to design your own website with do-it-yourself tools.
My favorites are wordpress.org and I’ve heard good things about wix.com as well. Make sure you can password-protect your website. It’s important to keep your family information private. If privacy is extremely important to you, hire a company to create your website because you’ll want to take extra steps to have it hosted on your own server and protected with SSL certification. Highly sensitive information – like bank account numbers – should never be put on a site like this.
Some things to think about:
- A custom domain name is a good idea (i.e. stevensfamilysite.com)… to register a custom domain, visit godaddy.com
- If you’re using wordpress, consider paying for a beautiful theme at themeforest.net – make sure the theme has many good reviews before purchasing
- Many sites can be set up very quickly if you use themes or templates that populate demo information and allow you to switch out their content with yours.
What About a Third Party Provider?
Check out these family history sites. They have options to archive some family stories and pictures:
There are a couple companies I’ve come across that also offer archiving sites for your family wisdom in conjunction with your financial information:
- More Than Money Vault is meant for financial professionals and offers a platform to track their clients’ financial information as well as a lot of family information (such as your mission, stories, photos, etc.). It’s geared toward high net worth families who are concerned about generational wealth transfer.
- FamilyArc is a way to capture digital information and focuses on memories and stories and photos. Also geared toward high net worth families, but offers less of a financial connection than More Than Money Vault.
Each platform has its uses and may be an option depending on your needs.
Coming Up with Your Own Categories
If you create your own site, make sure it’s easy to navigate and access by all family members who will be participating. Another strategy is to have one family member take over the role of being family “historian” and request information (such as stories or photos from everyone in the family) and add it to the website.
Some categories we recommend are:
- Gratitude Board: This is where your family posts what they love about other members of the family and to express appreciation.
- Favorites: Where family members list their favorite recipes, memories and traditions.
- About Us: Family mission, mantra, coat of arms and other identity elements.
- Legacy Letters: Letters from each family member to their loved ones to be passed on as a part of their estate plan.
- Words of Wisdom: Money advice, business advice, health advice, exercises like having your family answer the question “What is the most important thing I learned this year?”
- Giving: Where you discuss your giving objectives as a family.
- Special Projects: Lists special projects you’re working on as a family.
- Events: Listing of future events (birthdays, reunions, anniversaries, etc.) and archive of past events (photos of birthdays, etc.)
Don’t use every single one of these categories. Pick 3 to 5 that inspire you and go with those. Too much information can get overwhelming.
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by Laura A. Roser
CEO and Founder of Paragon Road
#1 Expert in Meaning Legacy Planning