Written by Elizabeth Kain
In 2014, Claudi Wilson found herself executor to the estate of beloved friends she had known for more than forty years. Martin (Marty) and Jeanette (Jan) Manhoff had entrusted Claudi with their legacy but had provided little guidance on how to move forward after their passing. The will stated only that Claudi should consider any nonprofit of which she thought they would approve. While she had great partners in her lawyer and investment advisor – not to mention friends of Jan and Marty - she yearned for expertise not only in how to create a lasting legacy for her friends, but also how best to distribute their beloved possessions.
Marty and Jan met as art majors at the University of Washington. Upon graduation, they immediately set out to support the allied effort in World War II. Following the war, they wed and Marty accepted a position to serve as military attaché in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s regime. After ten years in Europe, they returned home to Seattle and opened Bottega, a contemporary home-furnishings and housewares store. It was here where Claudi first met the Manhoffs. She felt an instant connection with the couple; Marty’s kindness made an immediate and lasting impression, and she and Jan shared a passion for art. Claudi worked for them for three years and during this time, as they provided more and more opportunities for her to explore her own creative passions, she was inspired to pursue a career as a designer, eventually landing the position of Creative Director for one of the major television networks.
Over the years, Claudi kept in touch with the Manhoffs, attending Jan’s art shows and catching up with calls, but it was only after her mother’s passing that she reconnected on a deeper level and was once again welcomed into the Manhoff’s life as their surrogate daughter. She learned that Marty had Parkinson’s disease and looked after both him and Jan as his illness progressed. Finally, just before Marty passed in 2008, she promised him she would take care of Jan once he was gone. Claudi looked after her for the next six years, until Jan died in 2014.
Claudi felt an enormous sense of responsibility to the Manhoffs and knew she did not have the experience to manage their estate on her own. While she was committed to creating a legacy that would serve well the memory of her friends, she was overwhelmed at the prospect of determining what this might look like and then seeing it through. Marty and Jan were devoted to art, but they also treasured time at their cabin in the San Juan Islands. Finding a way to support these diverse passions was daunting. Her trusted investment advisor and a lawyer could not advise on some of the philanthropic complexities of the Manhoff trust. As Claudi shared her concerns with friends, one put her in touch with Stephanie Ellis-Smith at Phīla Engaged Giving.
Phīla Engaged Giving works with individuals, families, estates, foundations and businesses that know they have been financially rewarded and are interested in sharing those rewards with the community. When Stephanie founded the company, her goal was to help her clients understand the issues that move them, learn from experts on the ground who are doing the work and make high-impact investments in groups that best align with their interests. She values candid and personal explorations into people’s values and beliefs, life experiences and aspirational goals.
“Of course, I could do the research, but the questions Stephanie asked and the expertise she offered made a tremendous impact on my philanthropic decisions. I feel so happy with my choices. They were a perfect reflection of the goals I outlined at our first meeting.” – Claudi Wilson
When she met Stephanie for the first time, Claudi was impressed. She immediately had the sense that Stephanie was asking the right questions, and she felt comfortable sharing her hopes and aspirations for a philanthropic advisor as well as what she wanted to accomplish on behalf of Jan and Marty. As Claudi explained what issues were most important to them, Stephanie provided her take on the two areas of interest – the arts and the San Juan Islands archipelago north of Seattle. Later, she developed a list of potential organizations whose missions matched the Manhoff’s passion and goals, as described by Claudi.
As the relationship between Stephanie and Claudi deepened, Claudi confided other challenges she was facing as she sold or auctioned Manhoff possessions to increase their financial impact. Voracious readers, the Manhoffs had left a considerable collection of books; unfortunately, wholesale book sellers wanted to cherry pick the best volumes, leaving Claudi with hundreds of volumes for which she would have to find new homes. Stephanie took on this and other challenges with zeal. Not only did she find libraries that would take each and every tome, to Claudi’s huge relief, she arranged for them to picked up and transported to their new locations. She also successfully placed Jan’s art in strategic locations or arranged for it to be auctioned for the benefit of local artists.
As Claudi worked with Phīla to narrow the choices for her financial gifts, Stephanie arranged for Claudi to meet the staff at the organizations who were likely to be the best fit. This semi-formal interview process allowed Claudi to get to know the people doing the work, understand how they evaluate their progress, and then to determine her level of involvement going forward. Stephanie facilitated proposals to Claudi on how the Manhoff’s donations would be used and tracked. Most importantly, she laid the groundwork for a strong and lasting relationship between Claudi and the ultimate recipients of the Manhoff Estate.
“I knew Stephanie had understood the Manhoffs when I ran into a couple of Jan’s friends and they mentioned that the organizations Stephanie had recommended would be a good fit with Jan and Marty’s values.” – Claudi Wilson
At the end of the months-long process, Claudi selected two organizations to be recipients of the Manhoff estate: one focused on supporting local artists and another dedicated to conserving land in the San Juan Islands. Both organizations had provided a clear roadmap for how the gift would be used, a timeline for implementation and expected outcomes. A year later, Claudi now considers the staff friends and feels comfortable calling whenever she has questions. Claudi remains involved in both organizations’ activities to the extent she wants to be and feels she has a far greater knowledge of philanthropy than when she started. Most importantly, she feels confident about the legacy she has created on behalf of the Manhoffs.