An Interview with Steve Kirsch and Wayne Muller
talked with Steve Kirsch, co-founder of the Kirsch Foundation,
and Wayne Muller, founder of Bread for the Journey, about
their models of giving. Approaching philanthropy from
very different backgrounds, one thinks big and one intentionally
Kirsch, founder and CEO of Propel Software Corporation,
considers his "asteroid project"-which funds
efforts to detect and protect us against possible asteroid-Earth
collisions -one of the most cost-effective charitable
investments around. "We may not receive its results
for 10,000 years, but is it really worth it," he
asks, "to save 20 million bucks yet be wiped out
next week? It's silly not to pay for the collision insurance."
Kirsch also founded two
other successful high-tech companies besides Propel, including
Infoseek Corporation, which was purchased by Disney in
1999. To give some of the profits away, he and his wife
Michele started their own $75 million foundation (www.kirschfoundation.org).
In 1999 they were named Outstanding Philanthropists by
chapter of the National Society of Fundraising Executives.
That same year, they were recognized by Slate magazine
as the eighth largest charitable givers in America.
for the Journey (BFJ, www.breadforthejourney.org) is a
national philanthropic organization with fifteen local
chapters, all run by volunteers. Its founder and president,
Rev. Wayne Muller, is also a therapist, retreat leader,
and author. He has published three books and writes regularly
on business and spirituality for Forbes magazine. He also
founded the Institute for Engaged Spirituality.
BFJ is a response to what
Muller sees as a growing need for a simple, accessible,
neighborhood-based model of philanthropy, "more intimate
and responsive than already existing-and breathtakingly
useful-community foundations." BFJ volunteers pool
their own resources and give money locally, to people
with strength and vision who are excited about helping
their communities. Such people exist everywhere, Muller
says; all they lack is a small amount of money to get
started and the confidence that they can carry out their
vision. A typical BFJ example: A $200 grant to buy clay
allowed a person with a passion for making pots to teach
others to make them, too. The pots were then planted with
flowers, which were then sold to raise money to help abused
women. Says Muller, "Our culture points toward big
stuff. I like to be a voice in the wilderness saying that
just as much energy should go toward small. If you do
that, you'll be astonished at what two or three people
in a neighborhood can do to change the world."
We asked both Kirsch and
Muller what giving effectively means to them.
People have different
goals for why they give. Some give because they enjoy
the process-going through grant applications, meeting
with potential recipients, deciding which group gets the
money. For them, the journey is the reward. Others, like
me, are focused on results. If you're focused on results
you have a different metric.
I don't think about giving
in terms of effectiveness.I think more in terms of surprise.
I'm so humbly in awe of the way the world really operates
-there are forces much greater than us at work. Some gifts
are going to take wings, some hobble along, and some sputter,
and I can never predict which will do which.
When I was chaplain at
an AIDS clinic, I made weekly visits to the bedside of
a gay man. The man was Greek Orthodox, and his priest
would not come to visit him. We had long conversations
about spirituality and how people view grace and suffering.
After a year, the man said to me, "You know, I've
been really glad you've come." I assumed it was because
I was a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and could
talk about these things-and then he said, "I haven't
understood a single thing you've said about theology,
but I really like the sound of your voice." (Muller
laughs.) We think we're doing one thing, but in reality
something else is really going on.
How does your organization
do its funding?
At our foundation, we
do a combination of things. First, we set our goals. Our
foundation has identified four or five major areas that
we give to. Then we create programs to strategically achieve
those goals. We evaluate grants in the context of our
goals. We also institute programs ourselves. We get involved;
for example, there is the medical program we fund. (Kirsch's
project to fund cancer research is discussed on the Kirsch
Foundation website: www.kirschfoundation.org.) We also
pursue our goal in ways other than grant applications.
For example, we occasionally invest in for-profit companies
to achieve the goal, without expecting a return on investment.
This allows the business to get started quickly. If we
make money at it, that's a bonus, and we can reinvest
it in a charitable project.
We always have outcomes.
Typically, they are very long-term. So we have to have
intermediate goals too. For example, for an environmental
project, we might have a long-term outcome of meeting
state and federal clean air guidelines 50 years from now.
Sub-goals would be passing certain pieces of legislation.
Those kinds of sub-goals help us get to the final goal.
Basically, we're applying the same sort of business logic
that you use to run a business. You have goals you want
to achieve and you figure out how to do it. It's about
creating strategies to achieve the goals. I have very
little contact with my grantees. The way we operate is
we say, "Let's go cure cancer," and then we
set basic milestones. The project passes Phase One, Phase
Two, and Phase Three clinical trials. Beyond that you're
micromanaging. It's difficult to be expert in all fields,
so we let the management of goals be at the discretion
of grantees. We try to pick world-class grantees-we place
a high emphasis on that. We set the goals and evaluate
the grantees on the basis of their ability to achieve
those goals. Our goal is to cure cancer, so we ask, "Do
these people have a good chance of curing cancer?"
We check their background and approach. We give them money
for three years and see how they do. So it's not that
we require them to meet all the milestones we set along
the way. And it's not necessarily that we check performance
against expected outcomes either. Let's say they cure
tuberculosis, instead of cancer. That's O.K. with me!
The way funding works
at Bread for the Journey is, when someone calls us requesting
money, we meet them for a walk in the park or a cup of
tea. If we fall a little bit in love with them, we give
them money. Having consulted with Kellogg's and other
large foundations, my observation is that foundations
often use paperwork out of fear of making a mistake. In
general, people are so worried they're going to give money
to the wrong place that they frontload the paper. In my
experience, you get pretty much the same result, whichever
way you do it- some things take off and some don't. So
why not simplify the process?
For us, philanthropy is
about relationships, love and kindness. We give our grantees
money only once, but that doesn't mean we stop giving
in the relationship. We put them in touch with other funders;
we help them get 501(c)3 status. The point of being at
ground level is that we can be in relationship with people,
but the relationship is not always about money. That makes
it too small. It's also important in BFJ that we not feel
pressure to raise money, because we want people in our
chapters to have fun. All our chapters are run by volunteers
who do this in addition to their full-time jobs. When
they have money, they give it away; and when they don't,
they wait for it to come. One of my presumptions is that
an act of generosity is an act that benefits everybody.
When giving and receiving are done really well, the line
between giver and receiver begins to dissolve a little.
When you see someone throw their arms around someone else
in a great big hug, who is giving and who is receiving?
It's a silly question. Both benefit.
is about deep nourishment for all beings. I wrote Sabbath:
Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest in response to seeing
that a lot of people in the world who are trying to do
good are doing good badly, myself included. We are all
subject to the impulse to rush, and to the idea that bigger
and more is better. At a certain point, that becomes simply
not healing. So when we reach for what we would heal,
we create suffering. We knock things over. There are thousands
of stories of the World Bank, AID, and IMF sticking money
in a place because they thought they had to hurry up and
do something. They didn't take the time to know what it's
like to live there and know what's truly and good and
holy. The more quietly and mindfully we do this work,
the better all beings will benefit, and the better we'll
What advice would you
give to donors who have $10,000-$500,000 per year to give
My advice is no different
from what I would tell people with more money. The only
difference would be the number of focus areas. In this
case, it would be to focus your giving to one to three
areas that you have a passion for, decide on specific
goals in those areas, and then start pursuing strategies
to achieve those goals.
Find out where the strengths
are in your community. The need is everywhere. The question
is, "Where's the grace, the light, the juice?"
Sometimes you'll read about someone in the newspaper.
You'll read or hear about a need at the YMCA, for example.
It's not that hard. Just keep your ear to the ground.
You don't have to be obvious about it. Get a few people
you love together and talk about what you've seen in the
community. It can be an excuse to get together.
When you give this way,
you begin to read the newspaper differently. It's much
more about listening. All of a sudden it's not "those
people" and "us," it's all "us."
It doesn't take a tremendous amount of time and it's fun;
you're hanging around people you like to be with. You
can all be generous together. I would also say to think
small. Think about ways to do less better. In the Christian
tradition, Jesus talked about small things. He said, "Heaven
is like a grain of mustard seed." Small things done
well are really the things that move the world.
Is bigger better in philanthropy?
Bigger gives you the opportunity
to be more effective. It doesn't ensure results, but it
definitely gives you a lot of advantages. There is an
advantage to scale. The larger the capital you have, the
more efficient you can be. We have a full-time person
in charge of the medical grants, for example.
In the Chronicle of Philanthropy,
they're always talking about who's got the biggest endowment.
What does it matter if Bill Gates is surpassed by Hewlett
Packard? That's silly, but it makes the front pages. I'd
like to see on the other side of the front page, "How
small can we get?" I often ask people, "What's
the smallest thing that anyone did for you that changed
your life?" There are places for large interventions,
like doing research on cancer or AIDS treatments. But
at the same time, it's not a good presumption that bigger
is more effective. The presumption that real change happens
from the top down is being challenged everywhere. For
example, a bank in Bangladesh lent individuals $50 to
$100 to start small businesses. That micro credit work
ultimately changed the whole country's economy. One thousand
tiny kindnesses rising from the ground up change the world
more reliably than one initiative from the top down. There
is a place for both.
--Interviewed by Pamela
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