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Story of the Fifth Monk

Tom Callanan Posted by Tom Callanan.

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

Story of the Fifth Monk

photography by Nevada Wier, by permission

People often talk in philanthropy about “going further upstream” to address the root causes of problems vs. merely addressing the symptoms.  We talk about gaining greater leverage for change by engaging in “transformational philanthropy” that challenges our worldviews, our habitual ways of thinking, and the way that society is structured and organized.  But what does all this actually mean?  I’ve created the following Story of the Fifth Monk to illustrate the different ways of going about philanthropy and the concept of leverage.

Once upon a time there were four young monks who, seeking enlightenment, sat on a riverbank meditating on world peace. Years passed in quiet contemplation.  One day a basket floated down the river with a crying baby inside.  The monks waded into the river and rescued the baby.  Soon, more baskets and babies appeared, and the monks were frantic with activity.  Suddenly, three of the monks walked away, leaving a single monk to her rescue efforts.

Months later, the flow of babies stopped and the second monk returned.  He explained that he’d walked upstream to a village where, due to overpopulation and famine, the babies were being released downstream.  There he had established an orphanage to care for the orphaned babies.  Happily, the problem appeared solved, and the two monks returned to meditation.

But soon thereafter the orphanage became overcrowded and the crisis recommenced.  Years later the problem mysteriously stopped again, and the third monk returned.  She explained that, in an effort to get at the deeper causes of overpopulation, she’d gone further upstream and established a successful family planning program. Convinced that the problem was now solved for good, the three monks returned to meditation.

Unfortunately, a few years later, a downturn in the economy and a conservative trend in government funding resulted in termination of the family planning program and the crisis returned.  Many years later, after much tumult and upset, and little meditation on the part of the monks, the problem once again mysteriously stopped, and the fourth monk returned.  He explained that overpopulation was just one of a complex set of interrelated issues.  He’d worked to bring together those involved with all the issues into a single, social and political movement for progressive change.  The movement elected into office a liberal coalition that began to provide funding and assistance to all the difficult issues. Happily, the problem appeared solved, and the four monks returned to meditation.

Tragically, four years later, the liberal coalition ran amuck of party politics and was voted from office by a conservative coalition that cut funding for all programs. The baby crisis returned, and it seemed worse than ever.  Or maybe it was just that the monks were now much older and weary from their years of effort.

In deep despair, the monks realized that they needed to transform themselves and their society in some very fundamental way— like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly.  With little idea of how to begin, the monks invited groups of leaders to sit with them in contemplation and dialogue. Over time, a special type of relationship, spirit and collective wisdom emerged within the groups and between the groups and a higher power that they began to call “the fifth monk.”  With her help and following her guidance, the groups began to catch glimpses of the butterfly within themselves and society.  These images began to form a new story about who they were and how they were to live together in new types of compassionate communities.  Simultaneously, new processes of healing and reconciliation emerged from their process that helped them let go of old wounds and patterns. This catalyzed a new spirit of innovation and hope that, step-by-step and year-by-year, helped build a fundamentally different society where the once inevitable and recurring problems of the past were now obsolete.

The four monks, now very old and gray, sat again by the river in quiet contemplation. No longer needing to pray for world peace, they ate chocolate and drank wine in honor of the fifth monk.

The Five Monks and Transformational Philanthropy:  The efforts of the four monks and their discovery of the fifth monk, help to articulate five different types of philanthropy. The following chart articulates these different types and compares them to different models within medicine.


As you can see, each type of philanthropy goes further upstream to solve the problem.  Typically, the further upstream you go with problems, the more the potential leverage for effective and lasting change.  At the same time, upstream efforts are often more complex, risky, and difficult to understand and measure. They also often have longer timeframes and are more expensive.  With the five monks, for instance, the efforts of the first monk (rescuing and caring for the babies) and even the second monk (establishing the orphanage) were immediate, tangible and easy to see and measure.  They did little, however, to address anything but the symptoms of the problem and thus provided no leverage for lasting change.  Compared to these efforts, the efforts of the fourth and fifth monks, who are aimed at social change and transformation, offer much more leverage for lasting change but take much longer and are riskier and harder to quantify.

When it comes to funding, it stands as a general rule that the further you go upstream, the less funding is available.  There are no funding studies that have been conducted using the Five Monks model, but extrapolating from published studies by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, I estimate that giving by U.S. individuals and foundations breaks down roughly as follows: 1st and 2nd Monk efforts: 70%, 3rd Monk efforts: 20%; 4th Monk efforts: 9%; 5th Monk efforts: 1%.

How is it that only 1% of total giving is dedicated to the highest leveraged means for creating change? Our current philanthropic operating system is geared toward measuring its success against fairly short term, tangible, measurable outcomes which often doesn’t include individual and collective consciousness and systems change.  Thus, our way of thinking about and measuring change gets in our way of actually accomplishing deep change!  If we’re to survive the challenges ahead, I believe that philanthropy has to dramatically shift its thinking to a more transformational approach, both by operating by very different principles and by directing its resources toward very different efforts. It’s with this aim in mind that the Wisdom Funders’ Network has begun to come together to serve the evolution of the field of philanthropy.

Evolutionary biologist, Elisabet Sahtouris’s words about caterpillars is helpful here.  She says, “A caterpillar can eat up to three hundred times its own weight in a day, devastating many plants in the process, continuing to eat until it’s so bloated that it hangs itself up and goes to sleep, its skin hardening into a chrysalis. Then, within the chrysalis, within the body of the dormant caterpillar, a new and very different kind of creature, the butterfly, starts to form. Cells within the butterfly…aggregates of stem cells that biologists call ‘imaginal cells’, remain hidden away inside the caterpillar’ all its life until the crisis of overeating, fatigue and breakdown allows them to develop, gradually replacing the caterpillar with a butterfly.”

Using this example as an analogy, I’d like to suggest that transformational initiatives represent the “imaginal cells” of our awakening society. The huge resources that have been amassed by individuals and corporations within our current society exist, much as they do within the cells of the caterpillar, to fuel and support transformational initiatives to develop something entirely new.  It’s this promise of transforming ourselves and society with the help of philanthropic resources that inspires me to continue to call the field of philanthropy to its true destiny.

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