Last Wednesday, June 21, I had the great privilege of a reserved seat at the Dalai Lama’s lecture at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where I earlier had the great privilege of earning my PhD in Social Policy. His holiness demonstrated his usual indescribable way of expressing the most complex human challenges in a single word or phrase. The one I choose for this blog is: “oneness”.
By “oneness”, his Holiness meant that we are all one and the same: all human beings. He also meant that we are all interdependent. In his case, he succeeds in seeing that every other human being he encounters is connected to himself and that his actions toward all affect him. In my case, I am still working on integrating this philosophy into my interactions with others. So should non-profit organizations.
First and foremost, the Dalai Lama’s view that we are all interdependent is particularly true at the level of a non-profit organization’s role in solving global issues. Where is the non-profit organization not dependent on one or more of the following: donors, volunteers, government, multi-lateral organizations, other non-profit organizations, business, the beneficiaries, outside advisers…? Beneficiaries, on whom all non-profit analysis should stay clearly focused, often depend not only on more than one non-profit (for example, medical aid, water, and shelter in the wake of Haiti), but they also depend on the constellation of other players (directly or indirectly). Take another example: A wonderful local organization called the Mayor of London’s Fund for Young Musicians, a lovely organization that funds music education and opportunities for under-served youth – all whilst teaching through music the benefits and skills of being a team player and creating a whole that is greater than its individual parts.
How does “oneness” manifest itself at the level of a non-profit organization?
Interdependence – oneness – should appear front and center in all management decisions, as well as in the board’s work of governance and accountability, strategic planning, and financial sustainability. It should underlie all organizational policies. It should appear at the individual level of person to person (or even e-mail to e-mail) interactions and at the macro level of organization to organization. Asking the question how actions and/or words will affect others at all levels of the organization internally and in all interactions externally should become an integral part of organizational culture.
In addition, non-profit organizations are increasingly called upon to share learning – mistakes and lessons/successes and achievements. Sometimes, the call comes from funders. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation speaks of its commitment “to sharing the lessons we learn throughout our grant making process. It’s crucial that we monitor our progress, consider what impact our work is having, study the findings of research and reports, and communicate the results”. Entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox’s Antigone Foundation establishes as a grant requirement that the project applying “[s]hare lessons learned with other organizations in their sector “. Other times, the call comes from advisers. At Susan Liautaud and Associates Limited, our clients are required to share lessons learned as well in order to receive our pro bono consulting advice. More generally, my advice to clients on codes of ethics is that they might consider their ethical obligation to share learning – to donors, to beneficiaries, to the non-profit sector (including, yes, potential competitors). I take a similar view on boards on which I serve. More generally, there are simply too many challenges, too many in need, too few resources, and too little time to waste to even consider learning a competitive advantage or organizational secret. Asking how your organization shares learning with others, and indeed learns from others to avoid repeating work done or mistakes made, should become a consistent part of management and the board’s ethos and methodology for the organization.
Finally, the extension of “oneness” according to his Holiness is compassion. Non-profit organizations should adopt an attitude of learning from, and not criticizing, other organizations. It is easy to read newspaper articles smugly when another organization makes headlines for the wrong reasons. Better practice is to take those articles as opportunities to strengthen your own organization and to exhibit balanced grace toward the other. Where is the non-profit organization that has not made a mistake or misjudged a situation and that is not susceptible of human nature – notwithstanding even the best governance and risk management?
Copyright© 2012 Susan Liautaud. All rights reserved
 What We’re Learning, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, http://www.gatesfoundation.org/learning/pages/overview.aspx. Full quote: “The Foundation is committed to sharing the lessons we learn throughout our grantmaking process. It’s crucial that we monitor our progress, consider what impact our work is having, study the findings of research and reports, and communicate the results”.
 About Us, Antigone, http://www.marthalanefox.com/antigone/.