Interview with Wayne Muller
by Pamela Gerloff
Do you think there is an art to giving that can be cultivated
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.
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
: 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.
Would you give
an example of that kind of listening?
: 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.
What are you
: 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
And the artfulness
depended on the willingness of the giver to listen, and
to be open to the possibilities that presented themselves.
: 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
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.
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?
: 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
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.
Do you do anything
about that, or does the fear go away on its own?
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.
And it removes
some of that fear of making mistakes.
: 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.
Some people would
say that's a good thing.
: 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
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.
How do you get
out of the trance?
: 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.
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?
: 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.
Would you say
more about that?
: 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.
Would you give
an example of this?
: 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!
So people's yearning
to do good is thwarted by the very system that was set up
to support it.
: 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
magazine. Rev. Muller founded
the Institute for Engaged Spirituality and regularly consults
with philanthropic organizations.
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