More Than Money
Issue #11

Embracing Our Power

Table of Contents

“Beyond Business as Usual”

Once we have a strong sense of personal identity and a chosen niche for engaging in the world, how can we exercise power in a new way--a way in which a compassionate heart as well as a prudent mind are our guides, a way in which all people are recognized as equals with whom our lives are profoundly interconnected?

In the stories below, people seek to go beyond "business as usual" in their chosen fields. An investment manager works to increase global security (rather than just the security of his clients), a community development professional defines success in non-economic terms, and a foundation director views grantees not as recipients of largess but as the foundation's "customers."

The Power of Shared Security

Alan Slifka is founder/partner of Halcyon/Alan B. Slifka Management Co., an investment firm managing over half a billion dollars in client accounts.

As a small child, I remember my father crying over losing his money in the Crash. I felt very afraid about what would happen to my family. Perhaps that's why the quest for security--both personal and global--has been such a persistent theme in my life.

Early in my investment work, I saw the truth behind the saying that every investor is wrestling with greed and fear. A man with a million thinks he'll feel secure once he has five; a man with five thinks he'll feel secure if he has ten, and so on. I vowed not to be that way.

In my 20s, 30s, and 40s I worked to become financially secure. In my 50's, influenced by the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, "the repairing of the world," I threw myself into supporting various nonprofits, viewing philanthropy as a kind of venture capital for social entrepreneurs. Then, in 1986, my life was changed by a trip to Israel. The Middle East felt like a powder keg, with tension streaming from two peoples struggling for whatever power they could muster to defend their survival. I felt powerfully drawn to focus my social entrepreneurship on building commitment to peaceful Arab-Jewish coexistence.

I started by hiring a team of researchers at Haifa University to study the need for coexistence work in Israel. When I went back to Israel the next year, I met with Arab and Jewish leaders, government officials, project managers, and business leaders, and I discovered that hundreds of institutions and social entrepreneurs wanted to do coexistence work but that the missing link was funding. And so I started the Abraham Fund, to support and enhance peaceful Jewish-Arab coexistence.

Now the Abraham Fund is giving away about a million dollars a year--some my own money, but mostly I raise funds from others. We make it clear that the Fund is in no way about rich Americans coming in to direct the show: we only use Israeli consultants, and Israelis set the policies and run the programs. The Fund is probably reaching 10,000 people annually and impacting over 100,000 people. The Israeli government has co-funded many projects, which has enormously encouraged and legitimized friendly coexistence.

One of my biggest challenges has been raising funds. Everyone says, "After we take care of our own community, then we can support bridging projects." I tell them that if we wait until each community has all it needs, we'll wait forever. Educating for peaceful coexistence benefits everyone and cannot wait.

--Alan Slifka

Rooted in Spirit

I'm Cherokee. I attended predominantly non- Indian public schools, and by high school I realized that I saw things differently from others my age. Not only was I was never driven to "win" (because then someone had to lose), but the whole concept of hierarchical authority made no sense to me. My view of the world, like most indigenous people, emphasized balance and harmony, not dominance.

In 1984, I helped run a micro-lending fund on Pine Ridge reservation, making small loans to help people become financially self-sufficient. It was challenging to convince non-native lenders that our models were successful, because they were fixated on evaluating success by a growing profit line. Meanwhile, our borrowers' ideas of success was to make enough money from their businesses to get good clothes for their kids and a reliable car, to improve their home life, and pay off the debt. They knew quality of life was paramount and sensed what was "enough."

When I started First Nations Development Institute in 1980, it was to help break native people's dependency on federal money and to rebuild our self-reliance. Last year I helped the Institute give out $1.5 million in grants. Some people might say, "that's a lot of power" but to me money and power are not at all the same. Power comes solely from my connection to what's sacred. Keeping my spiritual center enables me to do the work with a sense of responsibility and gratitude. I pray a lot, burn sweetgrass, and take time throughout each day to express thanksgiving.

I work constantly with our funders who are wealthy and with our grant recipients who have very little. Because I recognize spiritual power as the foundation of who I am and the basis of all my connections, I can enter all kinds of relationships from a deeply centered place: not above or below anybody, because everyone has equal access to spiritual power whether they understand it or not. Nothing I do can take away that power nor give it to them.

You can't be in community development to please people. Even when I fund people's proposals, nine times out of ten they are still displeased with me for not doing it exactly their way. I know that both grantees and funders think all kinds of things about me: some think I'm hoarding or I'm trying to be manipulative; others think they can get funded by wearing me down or wooing me over. I've seen people be nice to my face and not so nice behind my back.

It hurts my feelings when people aren't genuine with me, but it no longer knocks me off center or makes me doubt my judgment. I've developed a lot of compassion for how wealthy people can become isolated. I've also developed clarity that people who give money to feel good about themselves are simply setting themselves up to be used.

I can't be used because my mind is not focused on me or my ego. Instead, I am looking at what the money is going to do, what difference it is going to make. I like having money to put to good use. I like it a lot! To recipients this may look like power, but the projects we support are built on each local community's definition of success--in their terms, not mine or any other funder's.

For example, we once worked with a tribe whose goal was to become one of the biggest economic entities in their state. The tribe bought several big businesses and made an enormous per capita return for their people. Two years later Harvard Business Review wrote them up as an economic success story. They had succeeded in their goal--but they also had developed the highest teenage suicide rate in the state!

Meanwhile we worked with another tribe whose goal was to increase the long-range well-being of the tribe. They had developed a scholarship program, a teen center, a well-baby clinic. By focusing their development efforts on programs that benefited the community, they achieved their goal with few costs--and of course, they were never written up as a success.

--Rebecca Adamson


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