A conversation with Team Generosity founders, Jeff Walker and Jennifer McCrea.
Karl: You’re both involved in lots of causes, no two of which are quite the same. Millennium Promise is about economic development, the Quincy Jones MusiQ Consortium is about the arts, and you’ve also been involved in education and microcredit and Arctic exploration and all kinds of other stuff. There are some people for whom a particular cause, whether it’s health care or women’s issues or global warming, is the driving force. But with you two it seems to be much broader. Is that correct?
Jennifer: For me, the question is always, “Can we give people a vehicle to discover their meaning, whatever that is?” One of the things I’ve been learning from Jeff is that it’s not about institution building, it’s fundamentally about collaborating to make a difference. So it’s less about the specific cause, and so much more about where there is the possibility to add value and to really make a difference.
Jeff: As for me, I’m a connector/networker/collaborator, and I love that. I get energy out of finding fun people to do things with, just like when I was a kid playing in a band. I enjoy making true connections with people. Finding common links with people in a way that’s not driven by a specific agenda is just a lot of fun. I like the process, the feeling of solving a puzzle, and the challenge of figuring out how to make it all come together as much as I do the end result.
The ultimate motive is to have everyone on Earth understand that we’re really the same being in different shapes and forms. The spirit inside us all is the same, and if we can get people to understand that and treat each other that way, then we’re done. So having these connective experiences with others is my joy.
Karl: In other words, the specific project you’re working on is less important than the fact that you’re working together on something good.
Jeff: As for me, I’ll work with Jennifer on anything.
Jennifer: There are a few lines I would draw. I wouldn’t work with you on a project to support the proliferation of guns!
Jeff: We’d have to have a serious conversation about that one.
Jennifer: The question is, where can we create vehicles for change? How are we weaving our network together? How are we building collaborations? How are we mobilizing resources in support of the work? That’s what I find fascinating.
Karl: That’s very interesting to me. I’m guessing that most of the nonprofit leaders who take your class are probably a little different in that they are probably by commitment to a particular cause, whether it’s education reform or racial justice or whatever.
Jennifer: I think there’s a tension there, which can be a very creative one.
Jeff: Here’s one way to think about it. People in the business sector generally focus on return on investment. Therefore, the person is less important than the entity itself. When necessary, you can and should fire people in pursuit of the goal of greater financial returns. And you often make money through artificial constructs—walls that separate one organization from another and give you, for example, control over intellectual property that others don’t have. You make money by not working with others in some shape or form.
By contrast, in a cause space, I believe that it’s more important to find the us—to honor and respect the individual personalities working together for a common cause more than the institution. The institution will change over time, and it should. So we need to get away from the habit of focusing on building or defending the walls around an institution—to define our job as supporting a university, growing an NGO, or whatever. Instead, my job is looking for people I can work with and find those moments where the lights come on and people are able to actually come together and understand one another better. And the work of the next generation of leaders is to figure out how to develop those models that cut across artificial walls.
Karl: Do you think the business world would benefit from dropping the institution-building mindset as well?
Jeff: Companies are playing with this now. This is a bit of what corporate social responsibility is about—lowering the walls that separate you from the community so you can bring it inside, or working for a greater cause so you can get your employees involved. Many businesses actually are better at this than nonprofits. For example, individual companies will join forces to create industry associations because they recognize there are times when they need to link together with their competitors to do something that benefits them all. So the knowledge of how to form creative partnerships is one of the things that for-profit companies can bring to nonprofits, academic institutions, political multilaterals, and others in the cause-related space.
Jennifer: It’s not just about getting past the focus on institution-building. It’s also about getting beyond the belief that things are broken and need to be fixed. Maybe because the news is filled with stories about natural disasters and global tragedies, we often operate from a place where we see the world as fundamentally broken or weak or fragile, instead of recognizing that it may be just our existence here on Earth that is impermanent.
I prefer to see the world as whole and complete, yet offering opportunities to serve. Jeff, I know you don’t really like the word “serve,” but I can’t come up with a better one. I think it helps us reframe the way we’re operating. I think it means that we’re willing to meet any challenge as it arises. I think it also implies a radical acceptance of what is rather than projecting a vision of what we think the world should be. It’s a different way of thinking—less fearful, less controlling.
Karl: Jeff, do you share this orientation that Jennifer is describing?
Jeff: I do believe you’re more useful when you’re in a flowing state, connecting, reacting, and listening, rather than having an agenda that leads you to try to manipulate a situation. The agenda may be a list of good causes. But it’s still an agenda: “I’m here to accomplish the following six things.” Which tends to focus your attention on self: “What’s the cause doing for me? What are they going to deliver for me?” It’s better to get yourself out of it if you can.
Take as an example the health alliance we’re working on. We don’t know exactly where it’s going. We have an objective, which is to work together to improve the health of the world in a lot of different ways. And starting from that basis, the work is kind of flowing. It’s not easy all the time, but the times when it’s more interesting is when it just starts flowing and when we are able to eliminate personalities, egos, and agendas from the picture.
Karl: I think I understand. But when you talk about improving health care, doesn’t that imply an awareness of the gap between the world the way it is and the way it should be? And if you’re aware of that gap, then doesn’t that contradict what Jennifer was saying about radical acceptance of the world the way it is?
Jeff: I’ve never really liked those words, “the way it should be,” because I don’t know the way it should be. There’s an old philanthropic mindset in which the wise white people come riding in to help the poor minorities and show them “the way it should be.” I prefer working with people on the ground and asking, “What are we going to do together?” The spirit is one that says, “We’re all in this together. Let’s figure out the best places to put our ideas and our energy so that we work better together as a team.”
Jennifer: Gandhi used to say, “It’s not that I’m against British rule, it’s that I’m for freedom.” There’s a difference in your orientation when you’re looking through the lens of what you’re for rather than what you’re against. So many activists start from a sense of division in themselves that makes them feel they’re in a constant struggle of good versus bad, right versus wrong. You don’t get anywhere when you’re in that place. I hope we can encourage people to get beyond that place of conflict and fear and instead project themselves into a more gentle, tender place to operate, where I think we can really have much more impact.