In Dialogue: Magical Thinking Around Money

In Dialogue: Magical Thinking Around Money

A conversation with Team Generosity founders, Jeff Walker and Jennifer McCrea.


Jennifer:  Students in our Exponential Fundraising class sometimes ask how they can tell whether or not they have healthy relationships with their partners.  I think the key question to ask on any side of a partnership is, Can I really be truthful with this person?  Because if the relationship is grounded in a motivation of need—meaning, I something from you and I can’t help feeling afraid that you might withhold it from me—then the odds are that it will be very, very difficult for either party in the relationship to be totally honest with the other.

This issue comes up a lot in the world of philanthropy because many ultra-wealthy, ultra-successful people tend to surround themselves with yes-men and yes-women.  That means they don’t have many places in their lives where they can go to have a truly honest, open, probing conversation with someone who is able to tell them the truth, not just whatever they think they want to hear.

Creating that kind of honest relationship is very challenging, partly because you have to know yourself first.  It’s hard to have the confidence to speak truth to somebody else if you have no idea what your own truth really is.  So it’s very important for all of us who want to be successful in this nonprofit space to think hard about who we are, about why we’re doing the work we’ve chosen, and about the parts within ourselves that are still fearful.

Karl:  So why do we have so much fear around money?

Jennifer:  Jeff, you can speak to this.  You’ve talked to me about using money to win approval and to get people to accept you.  The flip side of that is fear—fear of being rejected.  That fear drives our behavior in lots of perverse ways, including some ways that we’re often unaware of.

For example, I’ve found that lots of nonprofit fundraisers spend a disproportionate amount of their time seeking donations from corporations and foundations, even though statistics show that eighty-five to ninety percent of the charitable donations given in the U.S. come from living individuals.  So what explains the behavior of fundraisers?  I think it’s because it feels easier to be rejected by a nameless, faceless corporation or foundation than it to be rejected by another human being.

Jeff:  And even people with substantial wealth can be saddled with fears about money that hamper their ability to behave openly.  I think about a major philanthropist I work with who is a tremendously effective nonprofit organizer and leader—except that he will never ask anybody else for money.  He says it’s because he thinks it would pollute his relationships, and because he doesn’t want to be beholden to anybody.

The truth is that people don’t like to ask other people for money.  They’d rather have it just magically appear in response to the need.  There’s almost a feeling that, if you have to ask for it, it means that maybe your relationship isn’t perfect yet.  But it’s never that easy, even with your deep partners.

These anxieties reflect the way we infuse all this negative energy around money, which of course is just a piece of paper—a tool for exchange and energy transfer, that should always keep flowing and moving.  Yet we let it get stuck because we attach all these false beliefs to it and infuse it with so much more power than it has.

Jennifer:  When I first met my husband Jack, he told me a great story.  When he was growing up in northeast Philadelphia, his dad worked three blue-collar jobs to put all his kids through private school.  When Jack got to be a teenager, he saved all his money and bought a car.  So when the car broke down, Jack was so upset about not having the money to get it fixed. He was stunned when his dad took a twenty-dollar bill out of his wallet—and he didn’t have a lot of twenty-dollar bills in those days—and ripped it up in front of Jack, saying, “It’s just a piece of paper.  It’ll only have power over you if you let it.”

I think that took a lot of courage.  And I hope the people who read this book will think about that lesson and apply it to their work and their lives.

Karl:  Jeff, having grown up in a blue-collar household myself, I understand the power of money and the fears of people who don’t have a lot of money to call their own.  What about someone like you who is fortunate enough to be in a position to be a philanthropist?  What kind of fears would you have around money?

Jeff:  There’s the fear that the money I give to a worthy cause may be abused or spent on wasteful things.  That the results I expected to see from my donation will never happen, and I’ll look stupid.  That the fundraisers and nonprofit executives who act so friendly to me before I make a donation will stop calling me as soon as my check clears.  It’s like going out on a big date and waiting by the phone for the follow-up call that never comes.  The date was supposed to be the beginning of the relationship, and when that doesn’t happen, you feel used.  So there’s the fear that people are using you for your money rather than creating a true relationship with you.

Then there’s the fear that maybe I’ve given too much—that maybe I’ll run out of resources before I die.  Will there be enough left over to take care of my spouse and my kids and my grandkids?  Will my family shift from being the donors and the providers to being the ones in need—all because I used poor judgment in giving too freely and not wisely enough?

And there’s also the fear that I’ll bring my buddies in, make them part of the team, and then they’ll be frustrated or disillusioned by the experience.  For example, I think about my experience with Millennium Promise: I did five years of work, helped improve life in eighty villages in Africa, helped spin out Malaria No More—I could give you all the benefits it created, and to me it has been a very satisfying experience.  But I’m sure some others who committed their money and their energy to the project feel less than satisfied—that Jeff Sachs failed to accomplish what he predicted and that poverty in Africa is still a huge problem.  And the people who feel that way may be skeptical the next time Jennifer and I come calling with an invitation to join our band, which is something you hate to see happen.  So that is a definite fear that someone like me might have.

Karl:  This really links back to another theme we’ve talked about—vulnerability.  One kind of vulnerability involves being willing to expose yourself in a conversation, to talk about your journey and share your values and desires with someone whom you may not know that well. But another kind of vulnerability involves asking people to go on a journey with you, and then feeling responsible, for where that journey goes and the degree of satisfaction or lack thereof that everybody experiences.

Jeff: These are some of the realities of life as we live it.  It would be great if we could put fears like these behind us, once and for all.  But it doesn’t really happen that way, even for people who may seem to have it all.  Which makes true partnerships, in which we help each other through the tough patches, even more important.