The Heart of Philanthropy

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by Rob Lehman

Delivered at the Council on Foundations’ 12th Family Foundations Conference
February 23, 1998

I. A Yearning of the Heart

It is truly a pleasure to be with you this afternoon. I’d like to begin with a brief meditation in the form of a poem by the thirteenth century Persian poet, Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks. Following the poem. I invite us to enter a moment of silent reflection before we continue.

The Real Work

There is one thing in this world that you must never forget to do. If you forget everything else and not this, there’s nothing to worry about; but if you remember everything else and forget this, then you will have done nothing in your life.

It’s as if a king has sent you on a journey to do a task, and you perform a hundred other services, but not the one he sent you to do. So human beings come into this world to do particular work. That work is the purpose, and each is specific to the person.

You say, “But I spend my energies on lofty enterprises. I study jurisprudence and philosophy … and medicine and all the rest.” But consider why you do those things. They are all branches of yourself… . Remember the deep root of your being.

This afternoon I would like to share some thoughts that come from my personal experience of this journey; the journey to “remember the deep root of our being.” I’m only one person. I’m not an expert. I can only offer what I believe I’m learning from my experience, my inner struggle with philanthropy over the last 25 years.

I believe the essence of what I’m observing is an emerging leadership role for philanthropy as we enter the twenty-first century. A leadership role that is being born through the work of family foundations and family philanthropy. I am persuaded that a deeper understanding of the purpose of philanthropy is arising. This purpose is essentially the spiritual challenge of bringing into conscious relationship the inner life of mind and spirit with the outer life of action and service.

With the very survival of people and the planet at risk, we are being called to consciously integrate spirit into all aspects of our lives. This is the work of the inner life of our culture. This is the heart of philanthropy.

It is said that for Gandhi public life was not secular, it was sacred. The challenge for philanthropy, what I want to call our common work, is to reunite the sacred with the secular, the inner world of spirit with the outer world of service. Like Gandhi we must recover a deep reverence and awareness of how the inner dimension of human existence (our shared values, meaning, and purpose) relates to our public action.

Yet how can we speak of the relationship between spirituality and public life in a society that has rightfully built a constitutional wall between religion and the state? In his fascinating new study of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx-The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Ellis points out that the author of the doctrine of the separation of church and state, in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence wrote:

“We hold these truths to to ‘sacred’, that all [people] are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness….”

Benjamin Franklin prevailed upon Jefferson to change the word “sacred” to “self-evident.” I wonder what it would mean to our culture if “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were indeed considered sacred–perhaps human sacraments–“outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace”; if we began to ask, what is the relationship between our inner life and our outer life; between our inner freedom and our outer freedom; between our inner happiness and our outer happiness?

Indeed, these are the questions that seem to arise more and more in our foundation work. We are witnessing a yearning for the sacred in almost every domain: in law and medicine; in business and social action; in elementary-secondary schools and even in universities. Some call it “spirituality,” others call it “the inner life” but regardless of its title, this yearning has a relationship to the urgent needs of society. Family foundations have been the torchbearers of this spiritual movement. Over the past three years, various family foundations and representatives of family philanthropy have met to attempt to gain insight into the implications of this movement. There is a general feeling that at the end of this century, we may be experiencing a reorientation of our culture toward the sacred.

During the last five years alone, sales of spiritually oriented books have increased by 800 percent. A recent survey sponsored by the Fetzer Institute and the Institute of Noetic Sciences shows that 44 million Americans are part of a growing constellation of people who link their own spiritual growth with their life in service and social action.

Dan Yankelovich reports that the percentage of the public who see spiritual growth as a critical value in their lives has grown from fifty-three percent to seventy-eight percent in just the last three years. And only 6 percent of this group consider themselves New Age. This is a mainstream movement.

In a special issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine last December, the editors made the point that “there is a striking change in the nature of faith and worship [in America]”; that a new breed of worshiper is looking beyond the religious institutions, and integrating spirituality into ordinary, everyday life. The way the Sunday Times puts it, “God is being decentralized.”

What kind of spirituality is this that seems to extend beyond the doors of our churches, synagogues, and temples?

Perhaps, it is what His Holiness, The Dalai Lama was describing recently when he said:

I believe deeply that we must find, all of us together, a new spirituality. We need a new concept, a lay spirituality. This new concept ought to be elaborated alongside the religions, in such a way that all people of good will could adhere to it… (he concludes with emphasis) I believe in it deeply, and I think we need it so the world can have a better future.

The language of this spiritual awakening is just emerging. As we all know, it is difficult to speak about spiritual matters. Diane Sawyer tells the story of a six-year-old child in first grade. The art teacher asked the children to draw anything they wanted. The little girl was deeply immersed in her drawing and didn’t hear the teacher say it was time to stop. The teacher walked to her desk and gently asked, “What are you drawing?” “I’m drawing a picture of God,” she said. The teacher then said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” The little girl responded with a smile, “They will when I finish.”

Of course, the teacher was right, we don’t know what God looks like. (Perhaps we need to have the eyes and the vision of a six-year old..!) We don’t have a good modern language for spirituality. Yet our awkwardness must not stop us from trying to understand the spiritual and the sacred. The stakes are too high. We must be bold enough to search beneath the surface for a deeper reality where the roots of our problems can be addressed.

 

II. The Case for the Common Work

When we ask, as foundations, how we can improve the conditions of the world, our minds usually turn to such questions as: How can we enlist more people, more nations, in the work of doing good? How can we mobilize science and technology for the good of civilization? How will market economies bring prosperity to the world?

I feel certain that historians will see the twentieth century as a period in which we, as human beings, tried in an organized way to heal the ills of our world. Yet, the problems at the end of this century continue to grow at increasing rates. With trillions of dollars being spent (U.S. foundations alone spent an estimated $15 billion in 1997), the reality is that modern approaches, programs, and projects are having only limited impact. In some ways, especially through science and technology, we’ve advanced beyond our wildest dreams; yet all these modern innovations, while important and necessary, are not sufficient.

Perhaps, as we reflect back on this century, we will come to realize that it is not enough to want to do good. It is not enough to convince our nations to do good. We must learn a great deal more about how good is done. We must learn a great deal more about the wisdom of doing good.

Thomas Merton put it this way:

If we attempt to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening our own self-understanding, our own freedom, integrity and capacity to love, we will not have anything to give to others. We will communicate nothing but the contagion of our own obsessions, our aggressiveness, our own ego-centered ambitions..

For me, this insight describes the spiritual awakening of our time. There is a connection between the inner life of mind and spirit and the outer life of action and service. When we act to right a wrong, to heal an injury, or even to love a child, our inner motivations, both conscious and unconscious, will be the hidden part of our actions influencing their effectiveness. Our spiritual life and our material active life influence each other-they are not divided away from each other-the two are in full relationship for good and for bad. We cannot heal our outer world without healing our inner world.

We are learning that we cannot adequately address the exterior side of life without becoming aware of the interior side of life. More and more our science is finding evidence of these correlations. It seems the material world is the outer skin of the invisible world of spirit. We do, as our religions have taught, live in a sacramental world-if we could only see more clearly how life is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

Let’s imagine a historian of the year 3000 writing of the twentieth century. What will that historian focus on? Will it be the terrible wars and violence of this century? Will it be the triumph of free markets over communism? Will it be the great advances in science and technology? I believe the historian of the future may well see a hidden history, which will reveal the beginning of the movement to reconnect our inner and outer lives as the most significant contribution of this century.

Our historian will observe that, at the end of the nineteenth century, there arose two great movements: the first was the collective desire to work together toward the solution of human problems, and the second was the individual desire to gain psychological and spiritual self-understanding. At the end of the twentieth century, we are learning that neither of these movements can succeed without the other; the two need to nurture and support each other. For collective action in the outer life without conscious awareness in the inner life is like a stream cut off from its source and will soon run dry; and self reflection that does not flow into service becomes self-indulgent and narcissistic like a stagnant pool of water.

Our historian will point to numerous trends as having their origin in the twentieth century, awakenings that became more fully developed in the twenty-first and subsequent centuries; Here are just a few:

  • The great models for spiritually based, social leadership of the twentieth century–such as Jane Addams, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Bishop Tutu, and H. H. The Dalai Lama — among many others — whose lives of acting for justice and peace were rooted in a deep spiritual awareness.
  • The emergence of scientific, psychological, and ecological ways of thinking that deepened our growing awareness of the interconnected and hidden wholeness of life.
  • The scientific understanding of how the mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of our lives influence our physical health.
  • The spiritual grass roots where tens of millions of people were meeting in small groups to become more aware of how their inner lives affect their actions, learning how to bring values of caring and relationship more fully into their lives; and finally,
  • The liberation of the feminine, showing how culture understood reality through a deeper more relational perspective.

What I want to suggest is that 1,000 years from now historians might well point to the key role of philanthropy in responding to this movement and in nurturing this period of change. They might say that as the twentieth century ended, philanthropy, itself, began to provide conscious leadership that would integrate this new spiritual consciousness into the life of service–into the work for peace, justice, and the environment.

Let us at least dare to ask, “What do we want historians to look back and say was our contribution at the beginning of the twenty-first century?”

To do so, I would like to focus the remainder of my talk on the essential purpose of philanthropy and how I believe we, as institutions and individuals, are called to respond to that purpose.

 

III. The Giver and the Gift: Love & Money

Modern philanthropy brings together two seemingly irreconcilable concepts: Love and Money. These are the inevitable inner and outer aspects of our work. The word philanthropy, as we know, carries the meaning, “love of humanity.” But if we read through all the annual reports of all the foundations for the last ten years, I’d wager we would be hard-pressed to find the word “love” mentioned more than ten times. The truth is we live in a time of confusion around the word. We were taught that love is caring and acting for the good of others. What we are learning in this century is that when we remain unaware of our inner lives and their entangled motives, acting out of what we believe are good intentions may not truly serve the welfare of others. Still, love is our calling as philanthropists When will we discover how love can become the central principle in our work?

Let me suggest that love is the only true bridge between the inner life and the outer life. Love, not money, is the true currency of philanthropy. But of course, in modern society the instrument of philanthropy is money. So, a deeper question arises: Is it possible for money to be a conduit of love?

My sense is that those in family philanthropy have a particular wisdom to teach to others in this work of bringing money and love into right relationship. For most of us, our family is the true school of the spirit, where we are enrolled in a course of study that can only be taught from the inside out. In a way, those in family foundations have been in preparation for the moral and spiritual challenges of philanthropy; you understand this crucible of love and money better than most.

Let me share a bit of my own experience. When I first went to work for a foundation, I remember so easily slipping into the innocence of altruistic arrogance. With the financial resources available, and our large sense of purpose, I truly began to believe–while being constantly courted and treated as special–that the programs we were funding could solve the problems that are out there. But slowly, I began to see that, as well-intended “grantees” would shape themselves into the problems we wanted to solve, there was a breakdown in open, candid communication, and a loss of true mutuality. When the currency of the relationship became primarily “us and them,” “have and have-not,” I could sense the emergence of fear and distrust. As grantees and I began to treat each other as means to ends, as objects to be strategized with, I could feel myself drawn into the politics of money that I rightly feared.

Just how do we stay committed to our profession and keep our relationships authentic, while working constantly in the shadow of money? This is one of our deepest challenges.

In recent years I’ve begun to grasp, if not always hold onto, a way in which money can be an instrument for spirit, and not a barrier to human virtue. It involves putting our relationships in the center. Let me try to explain. What I’ve begun to grasp is simply this: That the effect of money depends on the nature of the relationship between the giver and the receiver, and that every time we exchange money, it is a manifestation of the quality of our relationships.

I know in my own journey. I have traveled this road from giver to receiver, many times–always by way of what Helen Luke calls “the bridge of humility.” I seem to find myself on this bridge when, in helplessness, I begin to see those “outside problems” as difficulties that have also existed within my own life. As the Tibetan saying goes, “The crack in the heart lets the mystery in.” And it is humbly here–in the cracks in my thinking, the cracks in my pride, the cracks in my heart–that I begin to discover the seeds of my humanity growing in the lives around me and, when I can accept this, well, then somehow, it turns around, and the wholeness of life found in others begins to unfold in me.

Gandhi once said that he did not understand the problems of India until he understood himself. In saying this, he reminds us that the first thing to do is to explore the world nearest to us: the world within our own hearts.

Without this inner understanding, I am persuaded that no matter how innovative our programs, no matter how much money is spent with the best of intentions, if the relationship through which the money is passed does not exist in wholeness and freedom, we will not have exchanged anything, as Thomas Merton says, but our own ego-centered ambitions, fears and illusions.

If we accept this relationship-centered definition of money, if we accept that the problems we attempt to solve exist within ourselves as well, then we can see that when we exchange money, even when intended for the highest good, the exchange of who we are is the small print that no one ever reads in the transaction.

We must acknowledge that we live in a world tied to the exchange of money. And if so, we need to be mindful of what we are expressing with each exchange. We must stay vigilant in our understanding that the authenticity of our relationships surrounding money is of more importance than maintaining the power of the giver over the receiver.

I believe the key question is how can we remove ourselves and our institutions from the center of our relationships and discover, instead, our common work?

 

IV. The Inner Life of Institutions and Individuals

We learned a great deal about this last year, at the Fetzer Institute, while reevaluating our central mission. Like most organizations, the first question we asked ourselves was, “What makes us unique; what is our distinctive purpose?” I must have written five or six pieces based on many conversations with staff and trustees trying to capture what makes the Fetzer Institute different. But none of these drafts rang true.

Ironically, when it felt as though we were out of options, we found ourselves at a new beginning. As Henry Kissinger said, “We often arrive at the right choice, only after all other possibilities have been exhausted.” Now that we were exhausted, there was suddenly enough light to see ourselves more fully in others. For there comes a moment in the life of an organization, as there does in each of our own lives, when we begin to shift our primary awareness away from the question of what makes us distinctive and unique to the question of what is the larger purpose we share with others. And so, as we begin to understand ourselves as part of each other, as we begin to understand ourselves as part of something larger, our true identity comes into clear relief.

But organizations like individuals are highly susceptible to ego-inflation. To realize this, we have only to acknowledge our endless patterns of hustling reality to fit our own organizational goals and objectives. It becomes powerfully clear that when everything revolves solely around the purposes and missions of our institutions, then money becomes an organizational form of gravity reforming reality in our own image. All this leads me to suggest that we need a Copernican shift in our organizational lives. For while the Earth has not been seen as the center of our universe for nearly 500 years, organizations still see themselves at the center of the worlds in which they operate.

I’m suggesting that, as long as our institutions stay in the center, our relationships surrounding money will be burdened by ego-attachments that will block any possibility of true collaboration. And the world is too complex and resources too scarce to go it alone.

We must find better ways to collaborate. True collaboration is more than bringing together financial and intellectual resources around a mutual goal. In the end, collaboration that draws on the resources of mind and money, but not on the resources of grace, will only rearrange the furniture.

The inner life of collaboration is about states of mind and spirit that are open-open to self-examination, open to growth, open to trust, and open to mutual action. Collaborative relationships that arise from such radical openness become vehicles of cocreation. In essence, the spiritual practice organizations must learn is the practice of collaboration.

True collaboration requires a key transformation in how we view the core of our institutional life. The crucial change here calls for a deeper understanding of the word power. The American Heritage Dictionary points out that originally the word power meant able to be. Over time, it came to mean to be able. This reflects a transition of meaning from a focus on the inner life, the capacity of being, to a focus on the outer life, the capacity of doing. This shift in the meaning of power reflects an imbalance we have all suffered, an imbalance that is at the root of many of our problems. What we are beginning to understand is that this united life of spirit and service requires a recovery of the relationship between the power to be and the power to do. As an ancient Christian maxim tells us, “action follows being.”

Ultimately, to unite the life of spirit and service requires a new form of logic, a logic of the spirit, calling on us to bridge the inner and outer life; bringing an inner dimension to the elementary principles of institutional life. For example, traditional institutional logic holds that first you define your purpose, then you structure an organization to carry out the purpose. But the logic of the spirit suggests the first question is not what is our purpose, but how shall we live together? This requires us to understand that our institutional vision includes not only what we see but, more essentially, our capacity to see; that our institutional strategies include not only what we do but, more substantially, who we are; and that our institutional evaluation includes not only what we achieve but, more fundamentally, as Mother Teresa observed, our faithfulness.

It is through this slight shift in our perspective that we will discover our common work. Yet what is this work we hold in common? At this conference there are many foundations with varied purposes: some in education, some in justice, some in health, some in the environment, some in religion, some in the arts. In the outer life we are indeed dramatically diverse, but I am suggesting that it is in viewing our work from the inside out that we will discover our commonality. We will discover our common work as we recognize that we cannot address the larger issues in the public realm without attending to our own spiritual issues in the personal realm. In order to do the work, we must be the work: the very personal work of exploring the deepest, most sacred parts of our lives.

We do our common work together right at the level where we trust that each of us is on an inner journey and where we support each other along the way. And so, it is through the exploration of the depths of our own well that we discover the common spring feeding all the wells.

It is through the awareness of this deep inner connectedness that we become free to act with authentic love. Otherwise, we merely react, and are seduced by the rush of continual doing–what Thomas Merton called a “pervasive form of modern violence.” Listen to his insight:

The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his or her work for peace.

So, of course, the question is how? How do we resist the violence of continual doing? In the Benedictine phrase, How does our work become prayer?

It is our spiritual practices that ground us in, not separate us from, the ordinary life, the real world. Our practices of prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and silence help us see life as it really is, to avoid romanticism on the one hand and cynicism on the other. When integrated into our daily life–from waking up, eating, and working to gardening and walking–spiritual practices help us see with wisdom and act with compassion.

 

V. The Heart of Philanthropy

I would like to conclude by referring to a recent speech by Marian Wright Edelman in which she recalled a piece Lee Atwater, former head of the Republican Party, wrote seven years ago, shortly before he died at the age of 40, of cancer. I believe Lee Atwater’s words express the truth I have tried to convey today:

“Long before I was struck with cancer, I felt something staring at American society. It was a sense among the people of the country. Republicans and Democrats alike, that something was missing from their lives, something crucial. I was trying to position the Republican party to take advantage of it, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. My illness helped me to see what was missing in society is what was missing in me. A little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The eighties were about acquiring; acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know I acquired more than most, but you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn’t I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn’t I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye-to-eye with that truth. But it is a truth that the country caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay can learn on my dying. (He concludes with an invitation) I don’t know who will lead us through the eighties and nineties, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society. This tumor of the soul.”

Who will lead us? Who will accept this invitation “to speak to the spiritual vacuum in our hearts?” I believe we know our leader for the twenty-first century. Each of us sitting in this room, and all of those who follow must accept this challenge of leadership; this leadership from within that unites the inner life of spirit with the outer life of service. And when we do, we will discover what the great spiritual traditions have taught, and that is, simply, as we enhance our inner capacity for wholeness and freedom, we strengthen our outer capacity to love and serve. This is our common work. This is the call to the heart of philanthropy.