Deepak Chopra on Global Change

deepak chopra.jpg Last week I attended a half-day retreat of 50 global religious leaders, convened by renowned speaker and bestselling author Deepak Chopra, M.D. and his Alliance for a New Humanity. The meeting focused on ways that these leaders might advance peace and global healing through “collective consciousness.” I would be bringing you the video interview Deepak graciously granted PhilanthroMedia with his advice for high-net worth donors interested in the topic but (aargh!) one member of his film crew apparently failed to press "Record" when my tape was in it!

This meeting is one of several I have recently attended which explore the connections between philanthropy, spirituality and social change. Many of the participants in these meetings are what I would call “new age,” a label I wouldn’t apply to myself. But from them I am gleaning insights that contribute to my interest in advancing the end of philanthropy as usual. A few high-level take-aways from the retreat:

- Deepak talked about the idea that change can’t happen by focusing on one problem at a time. In his opinion, it isn’t enough to be an activist for “this or that”; we have to focus on healing the “rift in our collective soul.” Interesting to think about what this would mean from a grantmaking perspective.

- We spent time charting events in modern history which created “quantum leaps” in consciousness. These are events like the dropping of the A-Bomb, the establishment of the United Nations (which had several representatives at the meeting), Woodstock, and 9/11. While I’m not too well versed in the terms used by the group, I understood these to be events in which large numbers of us open ourselves to new possibilities. The exercise demonstrated the idea that shifts in global consciousness do occur. It also offered the opportunity to explore what these leaders might do to advance their own, or how they might prepare for them as they occur organically.

- The most important idea I heard, and the reason I am attending these meetings, was best summed up by Gandhi who said “…we must be the change we wish to see in the world.” That's because I am interested in understanding what would happen if giving, particularly by professional philanthropists, wasn’t so cerebral and distant from how we live our lives as individuals. What if foundation presidents and program officers were selected not just because of how smart they are but, rather, how committed to their own personal evolution? What if a strong sense of self was important but ego-driven action less acceptable? What if the ability to build strong relationships at home and among the inner-circle of a foundation's staff was an imperative requisite? What if, drawing closer to the Greek roots of the word, 'philanthropy', our leaders were those most uniquely suited to advance a love of mankind?

Susan Herr

Posted at 7:59 AM, Jul 06, 2007 in Cross-Sectoral Strategies | Global Philanthropy | Peace and Justice | Philanthropic Strategy | Permalink | Comments (4)


Interesting thoughts.

But I'm not ready to give up hope that you can still get to the same place by just being smart about what you are trying to do, with our without a "love for mankind" guiding your actions.

You cite Gandhi to make your point, and so will I.

In in his 10th Rule for Radicals, the great organizer Saul Alinsky writes: "You do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments." To illustrate this rule, Alinsky cites Gandih's strategic choice of nonviolence over violence as his means for ending British rule in India.

According to Alinsky, "Gandhi is viewed by the world as the epitome of the highest moral behavior with respect to means and ends.... History, and religious and moral opinion, have so enshrined Gandhi in this sacred matrix that in many quarters it is blasphemous to question whether this entire procedure of passive resistance was not simply the only intelligent, realistic, expedient program which Gandhi had at his disposal; and that the 'morality' which surrounded this policy of passive resistance was to a large degree a rationale to cloak a pragmatic program with a desired and essential moral cover...

"From a pragmatic point of view, passive resistance was not only possible, but was the most effective means that could have been selected for the end of ridding India of British control."

Posted by: Bruce Trachtenberg

Great comment. Clearly the idea that you can conduct great philanthropy with only your intellect is the dominant approach. But in interviewing folks two weeks ago at the National Center for Black Philanthropy, I heard alot about how white donors can do alot of harm with their giving if they operate from assumptions. Obviously, the ability to challenge assumptions comes from the head but doesn't the humility need to come from somewhere deeper. Doesn't it make sense that, since our business is largely a people business, love of people might be an imperative part of the equation for advancing the end of philanthropy as usual?

Posted by: Susan Herr

Great post and comments. I'm asking myself alot of these questions, too.

Seems like assumption-checking plays an important part of what you're asking for. We're all constantly operating from assumptions (I think that's part of being human, of functioning sanely). What's key is to be willing and able to question our assumptions regularly and to be willing to change them if the situation calls for it.

I tend to think assumption-checking doesn't only happen in the head but that it involves our heart, our gut, that feeling we get when parts of our lives are out of alignment, that stress we carry in our shoulders, discomfort in watching someones suffering, etc.

Bruce's point about smartness is well taken, although both love-for-mankind and knowing-what's-best-for-mankind can lead to disastrous consequences. Smartness and lovingness might come from the same source as well: what it is we believe about the world and the possibilities we see for it, and how we learn and act in response to those beliefs. The quantum leaps you describe seem to refer to occasions when what we believe about the world makes a dramatic shift, and possibilities suddenly open or close before our eyes.

I like that you're asking that a person's professional and personal lives be consistent. Sometimes simply seeing those inconsistencies for the first time can generate the kind of quantum leap that can powerfully and positively impact a life, an organization, a strategy, a purpose.

Looking honestly at those inconsistencies can often require a love-of-self, which for many is a prerequisite for the love-of-people that would drive a sea-change in the practice of philanthropy...

I've been considering my own desire to end philanthropy as usual as the need to engage with these kinds of circles (paradoxes)... something that is so much easier said than done!

Thanks for your blog and the opportunity to chime in...

Posted by: Christine Egger

I decided to post a comment on this blog because the topic of this online conversation is fascinating to me personally, intellectually, and professionally. I am a Ph.D/ABD cultural anthropologist trained by quite a few of the most brilliant, globally-human conscious people (female and male) in the world (literally and metaphorically). I mention this not as a sign of arrogance, or ego-driven valuation by association, but as an act of reverence and acknowledgement of being a young beneficiary.

I reflect on the work/ jobs/ lives/ careers/ vocations of each of my (former) professors and how their teaching and careers continue to impact me.

As a native of Louisville, Kentucky, a “black-child of bussing” (to use the colloquial and vernacular terms of the day), and a graduate of Jefferson County Public Schools, I was also mentored very early by people (mostly-not exclusively-female people) who established careers in philanthropy and human service, and weren’t so “well-heeled” as professors at the two world-class research-one institutions I attended for my advanced degrees. Their pragmatics at the formative periods of my life, demonstrated that I too could, and should, develop a similar career path that combined analytical knowledge with human service because I “cared” about people.

Hence, my focus in the field began not from the donor side of the “philanthropic world,” but from the grant-seeker (public-institutional) and recipient (community) side. Of late, the greatest of my professional successes in philanthropy came from this side as well. However, I have since begun to truly think about necessary developments in donor services and donor education that goes beyond the implementation of web-based technologies, informative seminars about changes in tax laws, etc. These are useful but I envision so much more.

My initial trajectory or focus emerged from my academic engagement with the discipline of cultural anthropology and its focus on the examination of economic development policies, non-governmental organizations (transnational, national, and local) throughout the world/globe, and in urban and rural centers of the United States.

My goal in this blog response is to hopefully add something new to the previous discussion and cause all of us greater “reflection” or to increase our practice of “self-checks.” In philanthropy, the individual is only omnipresent on the donor side. Practioners in the field are learning that the late 19th, early 20th century idea of the “robber-baron” philanthropist was a dangerous myth created from myopia. After all, there is a very real reason why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was incorporated with both spouse’s names and the Clare Booth Luce Program did not become a Public Policy Institute until well after the creation of the Henry R. Luce Foundation. Values, beliefs, and notions of justifiably shared social domains are never atemporal, or apolitical.

The tension that exists between “a rationale to cloak a pragmatic program” in a “moral cover” and the idea of philanthropy's potential for social change, global healing, and peace, is a very, very, very old bifurcation of articulated positions in Western derived philosophical and cultural traditions. The tension, or disagreement exists because the determination of who possesses the right to “know what is best for mankind” and/or shares a universal “love-of-humankind” is contextual, frequently constrained by geo-political boundaries, structural organizational boundaries, and cultural visions of legitimate and illegitimate “moral” action or practice. Let's examine the headlines of the places where each of us gather our news. Post-colonial social theorists in the social sciences offer analyses of these situations which are indeed, paradoxical. Yet, the paradoxical nature of the residue from past territorial squabbles, should not deter new or innovative thinkers. For example, in a corporation post-merger, governing boards and C-Level management ask whether the new corporation was ever really successful in erasing the vestiges of the previous corporation. Current business management wisdom from Europe (specifically England) seems to advocate for immediate embrace and inclusion with the gradual incorporation of the former institutional identity in order to hold the greatest long-term sustainability. Why? Key stakeholders are less likely to leave with their invaluable brands of institutional knowledge. During periods of change and transition that hinders sustainability.

Yet, the ability (or desire) to challenge assumptions, particularly those we hold as “truth,” and the locus of that ability, is very difficult to dispel and redress. For example, in Herr’s post about the “challenge” emerging from the head, fails to recognize that not every cultural tradition locates knowledge in the head or brain (see works on anthropology of the body). Humility need not be located “somewhere deeper” but may be located in consistent sustainable action across each and every generation. Language too gets in the way of expansion and reconceptualization.

How can philanthropy address, redress, or change human social problems effectively when intrinsically and fundamentally, the system relies upon donor strategies of giving? Why is that?

I learned (as I was preparing for my comprehensive exams in winter 2005) that historically, the social difference between “religious institutions” and “civil institutions” was wrought with gruesome political battles in Europe beginning in the 16th century. Secondly, I learned that in the United States, by the late 19th century and into the first third of the twentieth century, “charities” and “philanthropic organizations” used the terrains of immigration, education, and “respectable and decent” female employment as the new battlegrounds for determining legitimate or illegitimate directions and strategies for philanthropically driven social change. My own observation is that at the end of the twentieth century, the nebulous domains created by faith-based and social concern driven 501(c)3 organizations shape the new terrains of philanthropic tension. In the realm of global philanthropy, the post-colonial realities faced in former European colonies and throughout suburb, city, and village within the entirety of the European Union, the emergence and prominence of middle-class donors (i.e. giving circles popular in Women’s and African American’s philanthropic strategies globally), and the lack of infrastructural development and the resulting lack of accountability and effectiveness in transitional states, all continue to shape our current state of professional practice in philanthropy.

Within our research, analytical, and expository practices, cultural anthropologists refer to “the checking of assumptions” as “reflexivity” and sometimes all three practices are referred to collectively as “ethnography” or “ethnographic practice.” Like all practioners in any field, anthropologists do not agree on a singular definition for what ethnography does or should encompass and how it is or is not different from “interviewing.” Yet, it is generally accepted, that it is impossible to escape, disregard, or ignore, ones cultural-self, community of engagement, or ones cultivated variety of experiences (i.e. cultural baggage from travel, social isolation, or displacement); nor does one necessarily want to do so.

The development of strong relationships across temporal (i.e. generational) and spatial (e.g. national, municipal, or geopolitical region, etc.) boundaries requires innovators in the field to gain knowledge from as many sources as possible. I would argue the best data would result from explorations across markers of difference affecting people and institutions. The globalizing world that each of us are a part of is simultaneously dividing and shrinking people, communities, and donor bases. Homogeneity and hetereogeneity are both equally arguable positions.

So, the issue as articulated in the previous messages of how do we educate our donors (an idea unheard of in the late 19th and early 20th century), our colleagues, our communities, and ourselves, without replicating the hierarchical and impenetrable organizational structures of the past, remains a critical one for us to answer. Must we, then also accept, the presence of “systemic residue” that we sustain and recreate by continuing to work in the system as prescribed by our work tasks, titles, and organizational structure, practices of standardization, etc.? Or should we take a different approach and implement effective systems that regularly place, donors, grant-seekers (institution), and targeted-constituencies (even children) in the same governing body with equal decision-making authority? Should we serve as the catalysts for change and diversity within our often very small, minimally staffed organizations?

Frankly, from the seven years that I have participated as a professional in the field of philanthropy (my participatory experience in non-profits is much older), I am cautious and resolutely skeptical when discussions of change emerge in philanthropic circles. United States based philanthropic organizations are regularly closed-systems of knowledge, personnel, and resources. They frequently remain so for decades something that it shares more with academia than the corporate sector. There are historical explanations, but generally, at any end, philanthropy is not a transient field.

Moreover, giving strategies (donor side) are not regularly evaluated on municipal or regional levels to successfully navigate change or transition and inspire growth from past endeavors. Intergenerational transfers of power in the family foundation sector are frequently brutal, over-wrought with familial quests for love, validation, and aging issues. Corporate foundations in certain parts of the globe, are perceived as the purveyors of environmental and economic degradation rather than the purveyors of altruistic practice and social change (i.e. the Coca-Cola Corporation perceived by South Asians).

In conversations I had at the Association of Fund-Raising Professionals Meeting in Washington, DC, in 2000 (NSFRE then), services on the donors’-side follow the traditional gender and cultural demographic of exclusiveness. The grant-seeker and community-services side is marginally more reflective of the targeted constituencies, but infrequently at the level of fiduciary control and decision-making authority. These perceptions were voiced by practioners in the field whose experience was far greater than my own. I remember an aside comment made by one of the then, leaders of an international aid and relief organization. He said, “I am not aware any non-profit nationally, that understands donors need to be educated with the public and frequently more than the public.” By then, I was well aware of the need for donor evaluation and education, but only because I applied anthropological knowledge and practice to philanthropic practice.

Perhaps, the harsh realities circumscribing our state of affairs in philanthropy will urge us to seek out talented innovators both inside and outside of the field. Perhaps, sustainability in this context includes focused-recruitment and ardent-retention of talented professionals who enhance the work that each of us has committed to do. Perhaps, we need to redefine what is meant by useful talent by broadening the old categories diversification and inclusion in ways that are not empirically based or utilized. If each of us is trying and but not succeeding in making these identifications, then perhaps we need to take different approaches as was suggested at the end of Herr’s last comment and implied by Egger’s comment regarding the valulessness of “traditional,” “stereotypical” assumptions. It's a boggling thought to ask can we participate in donor or grant-seeker sides of philanthropy without any social assumptions...or expectations?

I didn’t disagree with what I read, but please disagree with my framing of the issues or my content. My best discernment consistently comes from voiced disagreement. In fact, I was truly excited to learn that the catalyst for this “blog-alogue” emerged from someone in my hometown.

My alma mater's alumni chapter has less cross-generational reach to “the south” let alone “the bluegrass” region. Still, I am genuinely interested in hearing more from others. I apologize if my contribution was too lengthy. I am still learning proper web-based protocol.

Posted by: Ethel Hazard