Stewardship and the Art of Being a Good Ancestor

6 min readJan 25, 2021

By Marlis Jansen with Lily Boyar

For much of my life, I have rarely stopped to consider where my natural resources came from. When I turned on the faucet, water would run. When I switched on the lights, there was electricity. So long as I paid my bills on time, like magic, I could expect a hot shower. I rarely gave thought to the power plant or reservoir, or the people working behind the scenes to make this happen. And I didn’t often consider whether these resources would be available for my grandchildren, or those thereafter.

Many of us don’t think about conserving our resources, especially when we’ve come to expect that they will always be available. Stewardship however, is the intentional choice to use only what you need, in order to maintain resources for future generations. Being a steward requires thinking long-term about what we have so we can contribute to a future world that will undoubtedly be different from our own.

Redefining Stewardship

The term “stewardship” traditionally refers to the intentional management of financial resources for the betterment of our future kin. However, we believe that wealth comes in many forms, extending beyond financial capital. We can be wealthy in family, social networks, intellect, education, and spirituality for example. An expanded definition of wealth requires a new perspective on stewardship.

“Stewardship with a capital S” refers to the conservation of resources (of all kinds) for future generations, decoupled from biological lineage. A steward is responsible for the management or care of something, whether it is financial wealth, a family, business, community, the environment, or the planet, for the express purpose of endowing the future.

Stewardship takes many forms. Stewards can pass resources down to their children, or make deliberate decisions that consider the welfare and livelihood of those outside of their family. Some stewards might choose to invest their financial resources to build a better world, while others will lend their time, energy, and talent.

Ownership vs. Stewardship

Sustaining wealth and resources for the future is one of our greatest challenges. As we approach the largest wealth transfer of all time, this becomes especially pertinent. Roughly $68 trillion in U.S. wealth will be passed from Baby Boomers to Millennials in the next quarter-century (Robinson). With the right foresight and planning, these resources can have a lasting impact, from serving and empowering future generations to catalyzing social and environmental change.

However, as it stands, American culture doesn’t always encourage stewardship. Consumer goods are designed to be obsolete or out of fashion over time, resulting in the need to own, replace, and discard. Not only do we promote the use of disposable products, but disposability itself has become a pervasive American attitude, extending beyond the material world. We’ve created a lifestyle where we treat our goods, wealth, people, and land as if they were replaceable, without considering what will be left for our inheritors.

To be good ancestors, in a dominant consumer culture that has historically valued immediacy, youth and short-term thinking, we are challenged to shift our cultural focus from ownership to stewardship. Native American culture for example, places an emphasis on the stewardship of natural resources. Many Indigenous societies view the land on which they live as a sacred loan from their grandchildren, to be preserved and protected. Indigenous Peoples consider stewardship to be “intergenerational guardianship,” or a reciprocal give and take (Joseph). In fact, The Iroquois Confederacy, an alliance formed by six indigenous nations, created a philosophy known as the Seventh Generation Principle, the idea that our decisions on earth should promote a more sustainable world for seven generations.

So, How Can We Practice Stewardship?

Our culture is an amalgam of our values, norms, and behaviors. Sometimes, we unconsciously carry forward the culture in which we were raised. Other times, we actively and intentionally create new traditions and lifestyles that have the effect of changing culture. If we are intentional, we can construct a culture that embodies our beliefs and ideals and contributes to generations of change-makers. We can choose to create a culture of stewardship.

Together, the following strategies can lead us toward developing a widespread value and practice of stewardship.

Use Your Values as a North Star. As stewards, it is important to have a clear and personal connection to our efforts. Each individual has different reasons for preserving and managing their resources for the future. It’s important to ask ourselves; What causes am I passionate about? Who do I want to benefit? When we intentionally establish our principles and beliefs, they become the driver of our behavior and can guide us as stewards.

Consider Your Legacy. Humans have historically dedicated themselves to serve people and causes they care about, even when the fruits of their labor aren’t realized during their lifetime. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have much of what exists today, from the antiquities and wonders of the world to the advances of modern science and medicine. For some people, stewardship is about supporting future generations of their own families. For others, it’s about protecting the planet or society at large. Designing a legacy of stewardship involves thinking long term about people we will never meet. It invites us to reflect on who and what we care most about and direct our resources accordingly.

Engage Multiple Generations. We each play an integral role in transferring wealth and passing on deeply held beliefs and values to those who come after us. When we model and teach stewardship we give our successors an appreciation for who we are as people, giving them a deeper connection to us. By engaging the rising generation and inviting them to be part of a culture of stewardship, we have the power to make a greater, lasting impact. When the rising generation has an appreciation for the value of stewardship, they are more likely to pass on the living generation’s wealth, resources, and ideas, as well as their own.

Find People Who Are Rowing in the Same Direction. We may have lofty goals and aspirations to help reduce world hunger, climate change, or racial injustice for example. However, for the greatest long-term impact, it is important to find a community of people who share our same vision. Our efforts will be lasting if we have others to amplify them. This community of support can come from our biological family, or from groups of like-minded individuals. When we join groups and organizations of people who share our goals, we receive the support we need to be empowered and energetic change agents.

Cultivate a Diverse and Vibrant Community. Our resources have the greatest impact when we think beyond ourselves and the living generation. I will likely never know the world that future generations will inherit, or the problems that will need solving after I am gone. To make a lasting contribution to the lives of those who come after me, I must have a sense of what constitutes progress and who I would like to empower with my resources. Stewardship is most effective when we draw from many perspectives about how best to contribute to the future. When we harness the creativity and skill sets of a diverse network, we can be better stewards.

Regardless of Financial Wealth, We All Have the Capacity to Be Stewards.

Our financial wealth can be a powerful vehicle for expressing our values as stewards. However, regardless of our financial circumstances, we each have the opportunity to make decisions big and small that will positively influence the future.

Each of our lives was built on gifts from those who came before us. In fact, much of what we have today did not originate with us. Everything from the water that drips from our faucets to the medical advances that have influenced our well-being and survival, were passed onto us from our predecessors. When we think like stewards, we have the power to shape our legacy and the culture that comes after us.


David Robinson, founder and CEO of RTS Private Wealth Management. “Here’s How to Prepare Your Heirs for the $68 Trillion ‘Great Wealth Transfer’.” CNBC, CNBC, 25 Feb. 2019,

Joseph, Bob. What Is the Seventh Generation Principle?, Seventh Generation Principle is,seven generations into the future.




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