More Than Money
Issue #34

The Art of Giving

Table of Contents

“Graceful Giving Listening for Surprise”

An Interview with Wayne Muller

Interviewed by Pamela Gerloff

MTM: Do you think there is an art to giving that can be cultivated or developed?

MULLER: I don't know that I would use the word art; I would use the word grace. Some people are very graceful in their generosity. You could say artful if you were looking at it as a technique, but most people I've met who are artful in their giving don't think of it that way at all. If you were to suggest that they are generous, they probably wouldn't believe it. I find that truly generous people are the ones who don't talk about it. In the scriptures, Jesus said when you give alms, don't let the right hand know what the left hand is doing.

I've noticed that those who give in this way are generally people who don't have a lot. I have worked in poor communities and I'm always humbled by how generous people are with hardly any money. It almost never fails that I'm offered some kindness or hospitality without any kind of presumption or show of generosity; it is more like, "Well, this is just what we do."

Those who give gracefully do it as naturally as breathing. It's almost like the movement of the in-breath and out-breath,where there is no effort at all. It's not really about giving; it's just about being alive. That, to me, is the highest art.

I'm involved in a project with the Fetzer Institute called Generosity of Spirit. We're collecting stories about giving from all over the world-stories about people who are considered by others to be generous. We're trying to understand the nature of generosity. We get referrals by asking people, "Who would you say is a generous person?" People are always surprised when they are referred to us. That confirms for me that the people we all think are the most generous don't feel as if they're doing anything special. Their giving isn't something separate and superior that calls attention to itself. The graceful part happens when people are not thinking that they're doing anything.

MTM: If artful giving just happens naturally, how might people who want to intentionally give-for example, individuals who donate to charities, or people with family foundations, or even people who work for large philanthropic organizations-make use of this concept for themselves?

MULLER: : I've learned in this field that everything starts with listening-being able to take in what's true before responding. So that is one key to graceful giving that can be applied by anyone. A lot of foundations have worked hard to get their mission statement so clear that they will know exactly to whom they will and will not give. I think that's a double-edged sword. On one hand, it makes it easier on the staff. They don't have to make a million decisions every time they're asked for money, because they already know the answer: We give to these people and not to those. There can certainly be an art to doing that well, but on the other hand, I've seen some beautiful things happen when people just listen and don't act; when they don't set some sort of lens over their eyes before they walk into the world with their resources, but instead are willing to be surprised by what they find. It takes no small amount of patience, faith, and courage to walk in the world that way.

MTM: Would you give an example of that kind of listening?

MULLER: : I just saw a video of someone who happened to be traveling in Myanmar and he came across a monastery where kids were trying to learn English. Learning English is a way for the Burmese to take their place at the table of the world, so it was important for them to have a place to learn it. The monastery had been recently destroyed and the people needed money to rebuild it.

The traveler happened to be an artist, so he taught the people how to make molds of some of the statues in the monastery and the surrounding village-not to sell them, but so they could give the copies from the molds away as presents, presuming that all beings would benefit and that, karmically, some good would come back to them.

As people heard about these gifts, more and more people visited the monastery, and some of them gave the monastery money. The monastery ended up with $18,000, which was more than enough to build a three-story building and have English classes all week long. It became the whole focal point for the village.

This turned out to be an $18,000 project that changed the lives of 500 people-and the man who started it just happened to be wandering around.

MTM: What are you suggesting?

MULLER: : I'm not saying that everybody in the Rockefeller Foundation should be given an airline ticket to another country and just start walking around, but it illustrates for me that one of the elements of giving is the willingness to be surprised. When you're receptive to possibilities, then something really quite artful can occur. If we become too wedded to our mission statement, we can miss some of those little surprises that can change the world.

I recognize-and honor-that it's not easy, and the larger the organization the harder it is. But for individuals, family foundations, and other small organizations, I think it's a bit easier. For example, a woman who directs one of our Bread for the Journey chapters ran into someone she knew, a school teacher named Juan. Juan said, "A lot of kids in my school don't have computers. I'd like to figure out how to get computers into the kids' hands."

He explained that as people upgrade their computers, they often throw out their old ones. "If I had enough money for new parts," he said, "I would teach all these kids how to rebuild the computers. If they could take them apart and put them together twice all by themselves, they would get to take them home." The woman asked how much he needed. He said, "$1,500 for parts." She gave him the money and by the end of the year all the children in his school had computers. So then Juan had a different problem. He didn't know what to do with the rebuilt computers because every kid already had one. So he was walking on the street thinking, "What am I going to do with all these extra computers?" and he bumped into a guy from Ghana. (In California! I know it sounds weirder than fiction.) Juan asked, "What are you doing?" and the Ghanaian said, "I'm looking for computers for kids in my country." So Juan filled up a container ship with computers for kids in Ghana.

It was pure serendipity, pure grace. What more artful story could you imagine? And none of it was on purpose.

MTM: And the artfulness depended on the willingness of the giver to listen, and to be open to the possibilities that presented themselves.

MULLER: : Yes. Clearly, there is an artful element to crafting an organization in such a way that you're doing good work, making good decisions, honoring the people you're working with, setting forth a mission statement in terms of your assets, and looking at what you can realistically do. There is an art to structuring an organization in such a way that all those things are cared for.

At the same time, there is a kind of posture of fluidity we can take, where, if we're willing to be surprised, sometimes some of the more magical aspects of effective giving show themselves to us. I know that every parent knows this. A lot of times, what we think we're going to give our children is not what we give them, and this is true in any relationship. The opportunities for giving in a relationship often show up at a time or in a form we don't expect. If we're too preoccupied or attached to our plan for how things are supposed to happen, we lose our capacity to respond to what is right in front of us.

MTM: I imagine that we have all had those kinds of experiences in our lives: those times when everything comes together and seems magically harmonious. So when you describe it, it sounds easy, but you suggested earlier that it isn't. Why isn't it easy?

MULLER: : One reason is that it requires patience and faith that the right things will come along. If you sit alone in your office, the right things probably aren't going to come along as easily. You have to move around in the world with a certain amount of receptivity.

Another reason is because organizations require that you project a budget and plan and identify who you're looking for and how you're going to find them and blah blah blah. There are good reasons for every single one of those things, and over the years they've proven very useful. So the question is, how do you render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's? There is a middle path, and traveling that middle path is difficult once you fall into the bureaucratic presumption that if we get all the rules right, we won't make mistakes. I think people are afraid of making mistakes. In our organization, the thing I have found the most astonishing is that people who are starting a chapter are sometimes more troubled by what to do with the money once they have it than they are about raising it. They will raise $3,000 and sit on it. They are afraid of giving it to the wrong person.

MTM: Do you do anything about that, or does the fear go away on its own?

MULLER: : Actually, we have a very specific thing that we do. If we find that people are feeling a little frozen by the fear of making a mistake, we first talk with them and listen to their concerns, and we also give them a challenge grant.

We give them $1,500 if they will raise a corresponding $1,500, and we tell them the money has to be spent in three to six months. It's like priming a pump. Once they give it away and realize how it feels-how much fun it is-then generally, it's like a ball that rolls down an inclined plane. It gains momentum.

MTM: And it removes some of that fear of making mistakes.

MULLER: : Yes. I think all the grant-making guidelines, evaluation procedures, and manuals that foundations write are designed not only to help them give money to the right person, but also to be sure they don't make mistakes.

MTM: Some people would say that's a good thing.

MULLER: : One of the hardest things to do is to make the radical presumption that the number of mistakes made in the field of philanthropy is not related to how many rules we have. I dare say that Bread for the Journey probably makes the same percentage of grants to people to whom, in hindsight, we may not have given money as do the MacArthur or Packard or Lilly foundations with all of their various guidelines. We make approximately as many good and bad decisions, and all the paperwork doesn't really help.

There is a kind of trance we get into and the trance is that if we get all the rules right we won't make any mistakes. It's hard to get out of that trance because it protects us. We feel a responsibility for stewarding that money in an honorable way, so we want to keep ourselves from making mistakes.

MTM: How do you get out of the trance?

MULLER: : Part of it is that you have to take the fear out of it. I was with a friend at the Chagall show at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art and we noticed that Chagall has no respect for anything, in terms of where it's supposed to go.

He'll have chickens flying in the air, big people next to tiny little people, birds on the ground, cars in the air. Nothing makes sense, but it's art!

I think the reason it's art is because Chagall doesn't worry about where things are supposed to go. His art doesn't have fear in it. To me, art is the opposite of fear. You can't be creative if you're fearful that you will be judged by another as not doing what you said you were going to do. You have to be able to jump and not know where you're going, in order to be surprised. The moment there is fear, it stops being art. If you're doing it with fear, you're an engineer, not an artist. You're saying, "This is what I want to have happen and this is how I'm going to get there."

I don't think Chagall had a clue what was going to happen when he painted. He clearly had a vision and images that came into his heart and mind, but I think he was probably as surprised as anybody at what happened at the end of the day.

MTM: I just had an image of Chagall sitting there at the end of the day, wide-eyed at what he had created. It is a great way to live, isn't it? But what if people don't have that fearlessness or faith? What if people don't have the feeling that it's all O.K. and everything will all work out? How do they get that?

MULLER: : Most people I have met have been confronted with some experience in their life that forces them to realize that there is something-some power that is larger than themselves -that is somehow guiding their life. In my work with hospices, AIDS clinics, alcoholics, people in the midst of divorce, people who lose children-all kinds of people-I've found that sooner or later everyone has some experience in their life that tells them that they are not running the show. When that happens, there is always an enormous amount of rage at the dying of the illusion of control and authority. People realize that they can respond to what they are being given, but they are not always in charge of what they will be given. I think that the more people can draw on the deeper truths of those kinds of experiences and apply them to their work in philanthropy, the more spacious and honorable the field becomes.

MTM: Would you say more about that?

MULLER: : There is something that happens in organizations -I've seen it a lot in hospitals. People can have a personal vision for themselves of what it means to be a healer, for example. Doctors, nurses, social workers, and ministers may have a strong sense of faith or call to be a healer, but the culture of the organization they are in ends up being run by the mentality of third-party payment structures. So doctors see 35 patients a day, and after a while they don't feel like healers at all. Now doctors and nurses are starting to quit. The average age of nurses is 49 years old. In ten years we will have a severe shortage of doctors and nurses in the hospitals.

I am being invited into large medical organizations to help rebalance the inner lives of the people with the outer structure of the organization-so that the medical people's faith in healing, their desire to be honorable companions, and their desire to be patient with their clients can be honored by the external structure of the organization. If there isn't any congruence between the inner life of the people and the outer life of the organization, sooner or later nobody really believes in anything. And then there is a tremendous river of grief that flows through the organization, because people can't do what they were born to do.

I think the same is true of giving. People are called into the field of philanthropy because they believe they can make the world a better place and that forces larger than themselves may be able to guide them to where the help belongs. But they get caught up in the structures of the organization or the processes they have set up for themselves.

MTM: Would you give an example of this?

MULLER: : Here's a small illustration: Someone who works at the World Bank came to one of my retreats and got excited about Bread for the Journey's concept of people giving philanthropically on a small scale in their own local communities. He persuaded the World Bank to give $500 to each of its employees, which the employees would then designate to a charity of their choice in their own communities. A committee was formed, meetings were held, procedures were set up. Everybody loved the idea, but as time went on, nothing happened. Finally, the man who had originated the idea tracked down the person responsible for cutting the checks. She explained that the World Bank was incapable of writing a check for $500 because it would cost too much in overhead just to write the check!

MTM: So people's yearning to do good is thwarted by the very system that was set up to support it.

MULLER: : I think that in both medicine and philanthropy, there are two fundamentally different approaches to healing.

One starts with diagnostics and needs assessments. You try to figure out what's wrong and then you give medication or treatment to neutralize or get rid of the disease.

The other way of approaching health is to listen for where the wholeness is in the system and coax that to the surface. You try to reinforce the fundamental mechanisms of the organism to enable it to do what it does best. Whether you're in medicine or philanthropy, those are the two basic approaches.

At Bread for the Journey, we don't do needs assessments. We all have needs; you don't have to figure out what they are. Instead, you look for where the wholeness is. You find the wholeness and strengthen that.

When you're operating from the diagnostic approach, you think, "If we can fix it, all will be well." So, large organizations tend to respond to what's wrong. Individuals and small organizations are closer to the ground, so they can listen for where the strengths are in a community. They know where the community capital is-the wisdom, creativity, enthusiasm, and patience capital. They can more easily respond to what's "right" and nourish that.

This is not to set one type of healing or model of philanthropy against the other. I think we would all be better served if there were a marriage of the two approaches-if we could lift up an individual's and a community's strengths, rather than just respond to what's wrong.

But it takes no small amount of faith to give in this way. It takes faith for a board of directors of a foundation or a family who is running a family foundation to say, "Let's be a little more faithful this year. Let's be more playfully easy about our expectations for ourselves or what will happen. Let's set the bar lower rather than higher." When you set the bar really low sometimes you can really be surprised. When you set the bar high, you're always striving to make something happen that's maybe not supposed to happen, or it's not the right time for it to happen.

So I think that, ultimately, giving is about surprise. There has to be a kind of faithful reciprocity, an intercourse with the world, a willingness to make mistakes and to be surprised. That's the beginning of the art-and the grace-of philanthropy.

Reverend Wayne Muller is the founder and president of Bread for the Journey, a national philanthropic organization with 18 local chapters, all run by volunteers. He is also a therapist, retreat leader, and author. He has published three books and writes regularly on business and spirituality for Forbes magazine. Rev. Muller founded the Institute for Engaged Spirituality and regularly consults with philanthropic organizations.


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