Why we need more mindfulness in philanthropy

This guest post by Amy Paulson originally appeared on the Global Gratitude Alliance’s blog.

It’s time to shift the paradigm.

We are being called to evolve together. To make way for something that brings us to a deeper level of awareness, connection, and purpose – for ourselves and for the world.

It starts from within – with the simple act of noticing.

Some call this mindfulness – being aware, in the moment, with intention, and without judgment.

There’s mounting evidence supporting the benefits of mindfulness to our health and well-being – at work, in school, and in our relationships. So, we asked ourselves, can the practice of “being present” help us shift how we give?

Pioneers like IDEX* have been taking a mindful approach to philanthropy for decades. One that is rooted in presence, mutuality, and collaboration. One that remembers that all the great movements for social change start at the grassroots level. And, one that values authentic connection – which starts from a process of profound self-examination – of noticing what’s going on inside us and how that informs what goes on around us.

Learning from IDEX and other mindful changemakers at the IDEX Academy earlier this year, we were inspired to join the movement. To push beyond our comfort zones and embody something that is innovative, yet rooted in indigenous wisdom. Something that seeks to transform others, yet is grounded in transforming ourselves first.

In truth, we are outgrowing our forefathers – those centuries-old founders of charitable giving – and the paradigms that informed them. We bow to them and the groundwork they laid, such that we can now see what is needed to meet the injustices of our modern world.

We are aware that traditional top-down, outsider-led aid has been ineffective at radically transforming the lives of those it intended to serve. We see this in the abysmal health, education, and social service infrastructures in the poorest recipient countries of aid. We see this in the continued spread of preventable diseases, in the unjust differences in maternal mortality rates per country, and in the unnecessary increase in the number of orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV/AIDS.

And, we see this in the eyes of the 2 billion people in the world still living on less than $2 a day.

Yet there are also negative effects that we cannot see. Cloaked in images of starving children with distended bellies, paternalistic, outsider-led models have little to do with human dignity and community self-determination. Rather, they are based on the misconception that outside experts can ‘fix the problem’ – a problem that traditional aid, colonization, and globalization may have created in the first place.

What’s more, such models perpetuate the age-old victim paradigm and harmful stereotypes of helpless, destitute communities saved by ‘whites in shining armor’ – a dangerous hero narrative that further absolves the everyday person from taking action.

Many of the more recent impact and grant-making models still leave room for improvement. They ignore complex interdependencies, value short-term outcomes over long-term impact, and use ‘carrot and stick’ approaches that maintain imbalanced power dynamics between those who give and those who receive.

We are ready for something different. And, most of us who are called to help shift the paradigm want a new way to be engaged – one that asks us to come into a deeper, more relational world together, to forge the kind of sacred connections that our ancestors held as the key to a thriving planet.

In the spirit of a movement that values not just the impact to the communities we serve, but the impact to human dignity that occurs when we transform heart, purpose, and action into meaningful connections with others, we’ve established a new set of guiding principles and a theory of change which lay the foundation for an approach that we call mindful philanthropy.

What does this really mean? Here are five of the highlights:

1) Presence. It all starts here. We must examine the shadows formed by our experience, culture, ego, trauma, and relationship to power and privilege – all of which can get in the way of a truly authentic practice of giving. By releasing attachment to these shadows, we can serve with curiosity, compassion, humility, and gratitude – and more fully engage with the world.

This presence changes the dynamic profoundly, for it creates the space for us to be with each other wherever we are in our lives and in the world. And from there, we can contemplate how to co-create a better world.

2) Justice. We are aware that in many places where we work, we represent ‘the other’ – those who may have exploited and oppressed communities of color through colonialism, globalization, and traditional aid. We strive to repair and create new connections to ‘the other’ by advocating for the rights of the communities we serve, including the right to identify their own needs and serve as their own agents of change.

3) Transformation. We seek transformative change to break intergenerational cycles of trauma, poverty, abuse, and vulnerability. A 9-year old girl whose parents died of HIV/AIDS cannot be given education as the only means to breaking the cycle if she carries trauma in her mind, body, and spirit. We take a holistic yet trauma-informed approach that considers the emotional needs of each person as a means to transforming self and community.

4) Collaboration. We dismiss the notion that we’re competing with other organizations for resources which leads to scarcity-mindset, silo-building, and duplicated efforts. We strive to replace the old transactional model with an open-hearted relational model that builds meaningful connections with a spirit of solidarity, respect, and partnership.

5) Learning and Innovation. In the for-profit sector, taking risks and being willing to fail is called “innovation.” Yet nonprofits are given little leeway to take even calculated risks and are afforded zero tolerance for failure. We embrace leaders who have the curiosity, grit, and gumption to try something new, viewing failures as lessons that become wisdom shared with others.

These are just some of the ways in which we are joining a movement that honors what philanthropy is really all about – a word which literally means love for humanity. Our approach is three-fold: encouraging donors to experience the power of mindful giving, training activists and volunteers about mindful service, and collaborating with other changemakers to explore how to collectively shift towards a practice of mindful social change.

Cultivating a movement sounds scary. But, it’s not about us. It’s about the collective. Many other mindful trailblazers have paved the way for us to humbly embrace our shared responsibility not just for a better world, but for a better way of getting there.

Will you join us?

*Thousand Currents changed its name from IDEX in 2016.

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