Do What I've Always Done


I argued with my father, for the last year of his life.

He had recently asked me to move back to Detroit, to help with a charitable foundation he was starting. Of course, I didn't hesitate.
When I got here, I recommended that we develop a Mission Statement, to articulate his philanthropic vision.
"Na!" he dismissed, "just do what I've always done."
Me: "But this foundation could last for generations. Without a Mission Statement how will your grandkids know what you believed in?"
My father shook his head: "No, no. Just do what I've always done."

I argued with my father, for the last year of his life.

"Do what I've always done."
What does the heck does that mean? 
He wouldn't explain that to me either. Should "do what I've always done" mean that we should only give to those organizations to which my father had always given, regardless of how they might evolve or whether they lose their relevance? For example, let's say my father had always given to charity X, which has a certain mission; if their mission changes dramatically, or they become less effective over time, or the need for charity X no longer exists, should we continue giving to them because of "do what I've always done"?
Or does "do what I've always done" refer to broader philanthropic themes or fields, such as education or entrepreneurship, rather than relationships with a specific organization?
Or might "do what I've always done" represent the way in which we "do" our giving: i.e. learning and listening before we give, be responsive to needs in the current landscape, anticipate changes on the ground, and take educated risk for a greater philanthropic impact; write a smart cheque rather than a dumb cheque, as an entrepreneur would, as my father always did.

Do what I've always done.

By way of advice, to find out what the heck "do what I've always done" could possibly mean, I asked a few folks at his old company Guardian Industries what they thought.
A friend, who had been with Guardian a long, long time, told me the following story:
"when your dad first hired me, he put me in an office, and didn't tell me anything. He didn't tell me what I should be doing, he didn't tell me anything! He just left me alone. So, after two or three weeks, I went to see him and I said 'Mr Davidson, what do you want me to do?' And your father said: 'that's why I hired you! Figure it out. If I wanted to do it, I wouldn't have hired you."

Maybe that's what "do what I've always done" means: "figure it out, that's why I hired you."
My father asked us to do the work. He hired us to do it. If he wanted to do it -even from the grave- he could have named all his favorite charities specifically in his will. He didn't have to leave a perpetual foundation. But the fact is, he established a perpetual foundation which will be directed by those who come long after us. This is like hearing him say: "I don't want to do it. I hired you to do it. Do what I've always done and figure it out."

I still argue with my father everyday. 
Although he's been gone nearly nine years. 
More and more, in these arguments, I can point to successes in our "figuring it out" in our "doing what he always did."
And I do think he would be pleased with our progress. 
He asked us to figure it out. 
We've been figuring it out. 
Like him, we have hired recognized professionals and leaders to help us see William Davidson's vision through.
He would be pleased that we are run by a top-notch professional staff: lean on internal population, tough on diligence, courageous in their pushing back, non-static, collegial, and with a high degree of ownership in their work. A professional team that I would put up against any in the business. 
We've come a long way since a few of us were sitting alone in empty rooms at Guardian or the PISTONS, wondering what the heck my father wanted.
We've been figuring it out.
I'm sure he would be pleased that we are quietly making major impacts with the highest quality people. 
After all, that's what my father always did.