Love & Money

Our Common Work

Rob Lehman

From a talk given at the twelfth family foundations conference, February 1998, published in the 1998 25th anniversary issue of Noetic Sciences Review.

Is it possible for money to be a conduit for love? The word philanthropy carries the meaning "love of humanity." Modern philanthropy brings together two seemingly irreconcilable concepts: love and money. 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 this 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.

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 professions 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 on to, 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. 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 began to see the problems I had understood as existing far beyond my own self as difficulties that have also existed within my own life. Without this understanding, I am persuaded that no matter how innovative our programs, no matter how much money is spent with the best of intentions, if (to paraphrase Thomas Merton) the relationship through which the money is passed does not exist in wholeness and freedom, we will not have exchanged anything but our own ego-centered ambitions, fears, and illusions.

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

We learned a great deal about this last year at the Fetzer Institute, while reevaluating our central mission. As at 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, it was when it felt as though we were out of options that 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.

It is said that for Gandhi public life was not secular, it was sacred. The challenge for philanthropy, what I 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 need to recover a deep 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 be “sacred,” that all [people] are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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 and 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.

Mind, Money, and Grace
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 that organizations must learn is 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 lives; 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 that 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, our faithfulness.

Our Common Work from the Inside Out
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? 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.” He said:

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.

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.

It is up to each of us to lead the way, the leading from within that unites the inner life of spirit with the outer life of service. 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.

Rob Lehman is president of Fetzer Institute, a nonprofit foundation that supports research, education, and service projects exploring “the integral relationships among body, mind, and spirit.”