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Participatory Philanthropy

Tom Callanan Posted by Tom Callanan.

Tom Callanan is a writer, group process facilitator, consultant, and cofounder of the Collective Wisdom Initiative.

Participatory Philanthropy


One of my first experiences of fully participating in life came during a river rafting trip on a difficult section of the Salt River in Arizona during spring flood.  I was a freshman boatman paddling with six veteran guides when the boat ahead of us capsized.  With minimal direction from our captain, everyone immediately leapt into action.  We paddled like maniacs to the overturned boat. Two men then launched themselves into the air and onto the bottom of the capsized boat as if shot from a cannon. Others threw rescue lines to swimmers and others hauled them like fish into our boat.  Others, myself included, steered our boat and kept it from capsizing as we navigated continuous whitewater. Our actions were totally spontaneous and yet they seemed somehow scripted to include all of us and the river itself.

I’ve learned that this state of individual and collective “flow” can be experienced, not just in crisis situations, but in all domains of life including philanthropy. One of the keys to getting into flow is to recognize that it’s accessed through a particular state of being called “participatory consciousness.”  In short, there are three basic ways of thinking, acting, and being (states of consciousness). These states, namely “instrumental,” “receptive” and “participatory,” are available to us in every moment. And yet, most of us limit ourselves to just one or two states at any given time, and rarely do we engage the most dynamic and creative state of “participatory consciousness” that is experienced as flow.

Here’s a brief run-down of the tree types of consciousness:

“Instrumental consciousness” is the most common way of thinking/acting for achieving success. Most of us operate from this type of consciousness 90% of our lives, as we set intentions, establish priorities, and move toward our goals with clarity, focus and will. From this state, we see ourselves as separate from our environment and acting on that environment. We evaluate things as either “instruments of” or “distractions from” achieving our goals.

“Receptive consciousness” is the state where, rather than “acting on” our environment, we  “receive it.” We experience receptive consciousness when we step into a hot bath after a hectic day and our muscles relax. To fully enjoy and be nourished by the bath, we can’t “act on it” as instrumental consciousness would dictate. We need to relax our control and our sense of separateness and open to allow it to effect and nourish us. This state can open us to being nourished by sources far beyond the bathtub—to energy from other people, animals, the food we eat, art, beauty, nature, silence, God.  It’s all there for us if we can open to receive it.

“Participatory consciousness” is a way of being where we’re not so much acting on or receiving our environment-we’re engaging with it. This was my experience with river rafting, and it’s also described by others such as big wave surfers or artists—the experience of interacting with the wave, the music, or the canvas in such a way that something is mutually unfolding between the actor and their medium. There’s a conversation or a play that we’re participating in – a spontaneous, creative and exuberant give-and-take. Like the experience of our most luminous moments making love, we feel totally connected and interdependent. Each person is contributing to the experience, and no one is controlling it.

The difference between states of consciousness is often subtle and can best be distinguished by our intention.  If we want to accomplish something or control a situation, we’re in instrumental. If we’re looking to receive or get something, we’re in receptive. If we’re open to being influenced and guided by what’s happening, we’re participating. Participation is often the most productive and creative state, but it’s also the most difficult to achieve because you can’t make it happen in an instrumental way.

There are, however, a few things you can do to create the conditions for participatory consciousness to emerge.  My first experience of participating within the realm of philanthropy came almost by accident during my second year as a program officer at the Fetzer Institute.  I was totally inundated and overwhelmed by funding requests, proposals and projects and was operating totally from an instrumental mode. I turned to my colleague and mentor, Arthur Zajonc, for help.  With a dozen projects in my portfolio, I was thinking that perhaps I was carrying too heavy a load.  I was shocked when Arthur suggested that I double the load.  “You’re holding on too tight,” he said.  “The biggest danger in philanthropy is control, which is really an illusion.  You’re trying to control the process, and there’s no way for Spirit, inspiration, or even joy to enter. With twice as many projects, you’ll have to let go and trust the process along with your intuition and inner guidance.”

With a good degree of skepticism and nervousness, I decided to try Arthur’s approach of loosening my illusion of control by working on a small project with Parabola Magazine to produce an audio CD called “Inside the Miracle: Enduring Illness, Approaching Wholeness.” It featured poet, Mark Nepo’s writing about his experience with cancer and the music of Therese Schroeder-Sheker, a harpist who works with terminally ill patients.  I was nervous about the collaboration because Mark and Therese were busy, accomplished artists who worked in different areas and had never before worked together. My nervousness was exacerbated on the opening conference call which was facilitated by Parabola’s publisher, Joe Kulin. Instead of leading us into a very structured, instrumentally-oriented process as I had imagined, Joe began with the open-ended question, “Well, what are we imagining that we might do together?”  “This guy is nuts,” I thought. I was going to intervene and call for more structure but decided to heed Arthur’s advice and follow Joe’s lead.

At first, it appeared that I might be right. The visions that each of us shared for the project, myself included, were REALLY different. But Joe wasn’t phased and reassured us that our differences added to the creativity (if we held our visions lightly) and would eventually “work themselves out.”  He then asked us to share why we were personally drawn to the project.  Mark began by sharing deeply and tenderly about his experience of being broken open by cancer and his desire to help others through similar experiences.  Mark’s words and the way he spoke brought me to tears, and I could feel the atmosphere of the call move to a much deeper level of intimacy.  Therese followed by talking about the heartache and joy that she experiences every day in her job working with the dying.  I then found myself choked up as I spoke about my recent experience of joining my kids and ex-wife in holding our 14-year old family dog as she was put to sleep by our vet. When all of us had shared, we sat in complete silence for what seemed like five minutes.  “What was going on?” I thought. We’d clearly touched sacred ground and a common sense of purpose, but where was this leading?

Then Mark began to read a passage from his writing about how a friend of his named Paul had participated with him in his cancer experience.

“You see. It was time. The tube had to come out. It had drained my lung of blood for days, through a slit in my side. The doctor was waiting and I looked to Paul at the foot of my bed. Without a word, he knew. All the talk of love was now in the steps between us. He swept past the curtain. Our arms locked and he crossed over, no longer watching. He was part of the trauma and everything—the bedrail, the tube, my face, his face, the curve of blanket rubbing the tube, the doctor pulling the tube’s length as I held onto Paul—everything pulsed. And since, I’ve learned, if you want to create anything—peace of mind, a child, a painting of running water, a simple tier of lilies—you must crossover and hold. You must sweep past the curtain, no matter how clear. You must drop all reservations like magazines in waiting rooms. You must swallow your heart, leap across and join.”

When Mark finished reading, Therese began to spontaneously play (over the conference call line) on a small wooden instrument like a harmonium called a shruti box. The melody was haunting and spellbinding. When she finished, we sat again in silent reverence. My whole body was tingling.  Then Joe said, “That was incredible. How about if we do the CD in this same spirit. Mark will read from passages of his work, and then during regular intervals Therese will play.  Everyone immediately agreed and the following month Mark and Therese met at a sound studio in NYC and the recording session went effortlessly and flawlessly without a single hitch.

It’s taken me years to fully grasp what happened during that conference call. My understanding now is that Joe invited us into a participatory space where he very purposefully held an intention for full participation by everyone but had no predetermined set of instrumentally-oriented goals and strategies.  Our personal sharings deepened the intimacy and trust between us, and Mark’s writing about dropping “all reservations” and “crossing over” inspired Therese to begin playing. From a place of unity, sacred connection and Spirit, the project then unfolded naturally and easily.

I’ve since tried to engage this participatory domain with every possible project. I’ve learned that there’s unfortunately no recipe to follow. There are, however, a few things that you can do (as Joe did), to create the right conditions for participation to happen.

  1. Match the right approach with the project: Participation isn’t the right approach for all projects. It works best with collaborative efforts that are seeking innovation and creativity. It can actually be counter-productive to use this approach with straightforward projects that have a clear path forward. Because participatory projects often require more time and attention to unfold on their own timeline, I’ve learned that I can engage this approach with just a few projects at a time.
  2. Set clear intentions but release pre-determined outomes: Participating doesn’t mean letting go of all control. It’s essential at the beginning of every project to set very clear, collective intentions and boundaries, particularly around shared purpose.  It’s important, however, not to get too specific with our visions and goals, or we’ll enter an instrumental space and limit what’s possible.  Foundations need to realize that their standard practice of requiring grantees to outline clear goals, strategies, timelines and budgets, although necessary and important for instrumental efforts, effectively limits and even kills innovation and creativity in participatory projects.
  3. Equalize power: Participation works best when all players are on equal footing. If Joe had begun our conference call in typical foundation fashion by asking me to outline what Fetzer wanted, it would have reinforced a power dynamic and invited a more instrumental response. Instead, Joe asked what “we” were going to do together. The imbalance of power between grantors and grantees is usaully so great that siginficant energy and attention is required (on the part of the grantor) to establish something remotely close to even footing. This usually requires that the grantor both refrain from jumping into the lead and participate in taking risks or exposing vulnerabilities. Without knowing it, I think this is what I was doing when I  shared the experience of my dog’s death.
  4. Focus on intimacy, relationship and connection before impact: If your focus begins with imact and outcome, it will usually remain there, and you’ll be limited to an instrumental path. Participation requires trust, and you can’t trust someone if you don’t know them.  The quickest way to get to know someone is by sharing personal stories, particularly those that reveal stong emotions and vulnerabilities. Although standard philanthropic practice suggests creating an objective distance between grantor and grantee, I start many meetings with personal check-ins. I know a great deal about the personal lives of my grantees (and vice versa), and I count many grantees among my closest friends. Powerful impact often comes naturally once strong, trusting relationships are established.
  5. Find the common work and put it at the center: At the heart of any successful collaboration is a powerful shared purpose that’s much bigger than any individual. Our personal sharing during the conference call revealed a common commitment to alleviating the suffering of those with serious illnesses.  Once this common ground was identified, and once we held lightly our different images of what the project was to look like, all energies fell into place to support our shared purpose, and all potential distractions dissappeared.
  6. Engage diversity and multiple ways of knowing: The doorway to participatory consciousness rarely comes through the conceptul mind, and rarely does it take a linear, rational, or neat path.  A diversity of perspectives and ways of knowing which often conflict with each other and make things more complex, is often the essential ingredient for creating the kinds of breakthroughs that participation delivers. The strong personalities and completely different visions carried by Mark and Therese (which led me to fear for the project) would probably not have come together so easily through discussion, negotiation etc..  But when we engaged multiple ways of knowing through story-telling, poetry, and music, our hearts and bodies came present and the path forward was made clear almost effortlessly.
  7. Listen for the unexpected, follow inspiration and act immediately: Ultimately, the gold that we’re seeking from participatory processes is often an unexpected insight (or series of intuitive knowings) that arrise spontaneously. These insights are often subtle and fragile.  They can easily be nullified if we engage our conceptual minds and immediately evaluate them as soon as they surface.  In collaborative efforts, solidarity and ownership is built and momentum is gained as multiple partners take risks, speak their hearts, act on their knowings, and inspire each other to do the same. During our conference call, for instance, Joe wasn’t duanted by our lack of agreement. He had faith in the process. Each of us followed our hearts by sharing unexpected parts of ourselves during our sharings. Mark acted intuitively and boldly by beginning to read from his work. Therese built on the momentum by playing on her shruti box. Joe didn’t question or analyze what was happening, but immediately moved to suggest that our experience serve as the model for how the CD would be structured.
  8. Engage other modes of consciousness when called for:  One of the traps of participatory consciousness is that we become attached to it and continue to use it even when other modes are essential for forward movement.  Once inspiration arrived, Joe moved immediately to action and to a crisp, no-nonsense instrumental mode that produced the audio CD in record time.  I’ve unfortunately seen a number of groups who demonize instrumental modes and make participation so precious that they rarely arrive at effective action. Three types of consciousness are always better than one, and the practitioner of masterful philanthropy knows how to engage and appropriately utilize all of them.

I offer the above ideas as a “work in progress.” It’s a reflection of my ever changing and growing personal philanthropic practice.  I’m reminded of Nietzche’s words: “This is my way. What is your way? There is no ‘the way.’”  I welcome hearing about your way and enriching my personal practice as a result.

I’m drawn to close with one of Mark Nepo’s poems.


              Getting Closer

Go on, the voices say, part the veil.
Not with your hands. Hands will only
tangle the hours like a net. Get closer.
So you can part the veil with your breath.
The world keeps moving in on itself. It’s
what it does. Cobwebs. Opinions. Moss.
Worries. Dirt. Leaves. History. Go on. Put
them down and get real close. Open your
mouth and inhale all the way to the begin-
ning, which lives within us, not behind us.
Then wait. When something ordinary starts
to glow, we are even closer. When the light
off the river paints the roots of an old willow
just as you pass, the world is telling you to
stop running. Forget what it means, just
stop running. When the moon makes you
finger the wet grass, the veil is parting.
When the knot you carry is loosened,
the veil is parting. When you can’t help
but say yes to all that is waiting, the veil
is parting.  

Mark Nepo















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