Book groups, from neighborhood living room soirees to online book forums, are an international phenomenon. The National Endowment for the Humanities, citing data from public libraries, estimates that 875,000 Americans participate regularly in book group readings. But can the book-club bandwagon be a springboard to moral and civic reflection?
No one can know what happens in the ten of thousands of individual clubs that now exist across America. But one sign that the trend could trigger deeper public conversation is that more and more locales are holding communitywide reading campaigns.
In 1998, the Seattle Public Library kicked off the nation's first "one community, one book" initiative, in which residents are urged to read a selected work (usually of fiction), join local groups and attend broader forums and events related to the theme. Since then, cities and towns in all 50 states have held at least one such initiative.
In the last two years, towns from Maine to North Carolina read
Mountains Beyond Mountains
, Tracy Kidder's profile of a doctor who transformed health care in Haiti. This spring, six public libraries in Maine are holding town-wide readings of Harper Lee's novel,
To Kill a Mockingbird
In Dover, Massachusetts, library director Kathy Killeen estimates that about 700 of the town's 6,000 residents took part in its "One Book, One Dover" program in 2004 with Kidder's account of Paul Farmer, the gifted doctor seeking to address the root causes of disease in poor countries.
"It's great when there's an opportunity to listen to something more than a sound byte and work through different perspectives and ideas about how we participate responsibly in our community and in the world," said Rev. John A. Nelson, minister of Dover's oldest Protestant church.
read the same book, after
spirited talk about it
among customers in a gift
shop led the co-owner,
to form a team that
launched the town-wide
In some cases, reflection has shifted to
action. The Dover and Concord programs
were not fundraisers, but people
in those communities nevertheless contributed "tens of thousands" of dollars to Farmer's nonprofit organization, Partners in Health, according to Ed Cardoza, its director of development.
"It helps to have stories," said Nelson, the minister in Dover, "examples of men and women finding ways to put their resources where their hearts are."
Money Talks. Nobody Walks...
away from our discussion uninspired!
More Than Money discussion groups have emerged as a primary way the Institute serves its members and friends. It's been exciting to observe and hear about the energy that participants bring to these forums. This primer on what makes for a successful group is offered in the hope that it will inspire readers to join current groups or start new ones. It can be tough to get conversations started. But we find that once people begin talking, they don't want to stop. Why? Group members find it of value to share their personal concerns, convictions, conflicts or questions. How do we make sense of money? How do we handle money in our relationships with our children, partners and parents? Is our money serving our life goals, or does it feel like the other way around?
Here are some of the qualities that we think make for great groups:
. A key ingredient is people who come motivated to explore and learn from others without judging. While group members have different world views and money circumstances, this intention builds a sense of community and connection in the group.
The Call of Stories
. Personal stories are at the heart of MTM discussions. The more we delve into our stories of dealing with our money and our values, the more we learn. Hearing others' stories is helpful. It's nice to know that we're not alone.
. A welcoming environment provides a sense of safety, openness, and relaxation. Nothing fancy is needed, just a place to sit that feels warm and welcoming. We have found that simple food, such as healthy snacks, desserts, or even a potluck, helps set the mood that allows us to move slowly but deliberately to a place of open exploration.
Some (but not too much) structure
. The Institute has agendas that provide a framework for meetings but leave final decisions to the group. The only must is a non-solicitation and confidentiality agreement. Groups use
, members' stories, a text, a news item or a current movie to begin discussions. The Institute has materials on facilitating groups and ways to address questions that tend to arise.
A sense of inquiry
. Our discussions take us to where there are few guideposts-yet many detours. We encourage people to raise questions and experiment with answers. Curiosity matters.
A sense of newness.
Many of us complain that money seems to run our lives. Here's a chance to do something about it! Our discussion groups are safe places to share your feelings, positive or negative, about money. Many participants find this to be a big relief-one that they didn't understand until they experienced it. By entering a conversation, you're on a path to taking back control. We hope that, in the process, you will create your own way to contribute to the common good.
Some groups are older but welcome new members. Others are more
recent. Yet others are forming. Current groups or places where people
want to start one are listed below. We can help you find others who
seek frank talk about money. Check our
, call 978.371.1726 or
Boston (Brookline/Jamaica Plain,
Hanover, New Hampshire
New York City
Long Island, New York
Morristown, New Jersey
Chicago/Oak Park, Illinois
San Francisco area
Santa Cruz, California
Santa Fe, New Mexico
A School for Values?
By Albert Keith Whitaker
As the director of a small foundation, I've noticed a gap between such buzzwords of philanthropy as
accountability, grantsmanship, strategic plan,
and the real work of running a foundation. Not that those words are meaningless. But they can be hard to connect to the operational imperatives of philanthropy today.
Because the foundation I direct is devoted to education, I've seen firsthand an approach to deepening moral reflection among teachers that I think might help to close that gap.
Over the last five years, the Morton Foundation has organized dialogues on the moral dynamics of education at numerous colleges and universities. Using history, literature, or poetry as a starting point, these conversations have helped hundreds of teachers find new joy in their teaching and advising and also strengthened their collegial relationships.
Recently, George McCully, president of the
Catalogue for Philanthropy,
suggested to me that similar conversations might help deepen the philanthropic culture in our state, Massachusetts. George's insight sparked a new collaboration between the Morton Foundation and the
, one that is now in the planning stage: the Morton Program for Philanthropic Education.
Using the seminar model, it will engage in moral reflection the boards, staff, and even major donors at private and community foundations and public charities. We'll also provide web-based tools so others can organize philanthropic education programs themselves.
My hope is that people who already care enough to be practicing philanthropy will deepen their understanding and feel invigorated and empowered in their vocation. In other states, philanthropy networks are trying this approach and finding that it works. Together we can help philanthropy live up to its potential as a modern day "school for values."
Albert Keith Whitaker is president of the Morton Foundation and director of financial and estate planning at Calibre Advisory Services, the family office unit of Wachovia Bank.
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