Oct 31, 2015
Theme: Money as Spiritual Energy and Community Connector
Guest: Don Shaffer
Host: Deven P-Shah
Moderator: Birju Pandya
Deven: When I see the theme Money as Spiritual Energy and Community Connector, one thing came to me is the conversation we had with Jacob Needleman a couple of months ago... [He asked] What is your calling? What is your inspiration? What gives you satisfaction from inside? Money in many ways fulfills our needs. He [pointed out] a big paradigm shift that thinking of money as a way for yourself to relate to the external world. I can think of my own journey. There are times when I have to make decisions feeling insecure about if I have enough money, or am I able to do what I want to do. I am excited about today's conversation and looking forward to [hearing] you taking us on a deeper journey. What are your thoughts on money?
I've known Birju for two years now. Every time I talk to Birju, I learn a way to think about connecting my inner world to the outside routines in a way of enlightening, and it's actually fun. Birju, welcome to the call. Would you share your thoughts and then guide us in dialogue with Don?
Birju: Sure. Thank you so much for that kind introduction. I am on my own way understanding how to be in a relationship with this system of finance, a world I am part of. When you invited this question, I was reminded of visiting my parents a couple of weeks ago. They are living in Phoenix. Part of that trip, one of the mornings, my parents, my wife and I went to visit a local farmers market. A few years ago, when my parents needed groceries, they would go to Whole Foods, and they would talk about how healthy and conscious they were because they weren't going to Safeway anymore. (laugh) It's all part of the process, I guess. They shifted again in the last few years. What they were doing at the farmers market was the most intriguing to me. They would have conversations with the farmers there. They actually have relationships. Consequently, when some of the farmers raised the prices for whatever reasons, instead of saying, "No, I am not buying here. I'll just go to where the lowest price is," my father actually asked "Why did the price go up?" And the guy said, well, this is my reason. The water has been not as fruitful this year, but otherwise, I am not here to become rich off this. I am here just paying my bills. My dad, who usually looks for the best deal possible, bought the same produce from the same farmer anyway. Just seeing how overtime what's become more important than the number of dollars is becoming the nature of the relationship. The reason why it's possible is that [there is] the space to get to know these folks. In some way, that's been my inquiries as well. If we have enough wealth in relationships, maybe we are not so connected to this other form of profits. But we are, otherwise, forced to be the leader. It's because of that I feel very excited about this call. I get to interview my friend, colleague, and mentor, Don Shaffer.
Don is a very successful entrepreneur and now leading, in my eyes, the most innovative and pioneering financial organization out there, RSF Social Finance. I've known Don for about five or six years now. Our relationship is really deepened about a couple of years ago. I was telling him my own interest in wanting to understand the spirit of money more deeply and he gave me the gift of lifetime by saying, "You should come to the west coast." It's partially/largely because of him that I moved from New York to San Francisco. So I am so grateful that we are having this conversation. Don, thanks so much for joining us today.
Don: Thank you, Birju. Thanks Deven. I really am looking forward to it very much. Thank you for hosting, Deven. I am grateful to this space that Service Space provides. I am really thrilled to follow the same path behind Jacob Needleman who's someone I look up to for many years. He is a fellow Northern Californian dwellers here. It will be great to in dialogue with you, Birju.
Birju: Wonderful. Wonderful. First of all, where are you calling from today and how are you feeling?
Don: I am feeling good. I just got up and had a nice breakfast with my kids, my daughter Sabin and my son Samuel, and my mother-in-law and father-in-law, who are visiting from upper state of New York, and my wife Jennifer. Right now, I am sitting in my car because that's the quietest place I can be. (laugh) It's parked in front of my house. I am looking at a beautiful coastal live oak trees, redwood trees, and rock walls, and blue sky. It's a beautiful morning here in northern California.
Birju: Wow. Thank you for taking time away from family to spend some time with us.
Don: (laugh) Sure.
Birju: A lot of concepts you deal with now are really about asking why. It's why question pushing back against societal norms of how we are supposed to do around money. I am wondering if you could just share a little bit with us on the journey of that. How were those seeds planted in you? When did that questioning societal norms really become something important in your journey?
Don: Well. It's been a really fulfilling journey so far, not without challenges, in trying to question the assumptions of our mainstream prevailing culture of money. It probably started when I was 14 years old. My first job was working as a caddy carrying golf bags for Wall Street traders, bankers in New Jersey where I grew up. I started inquiry then because my father was in the textiles business, which is very concrete because I understand the sheets and towels, and things that we all use every day. It was just right there in front of me. I could understand the connection between the work he was doing and me drying myself off after shower in the morning. Then I came into contact with these bankers and traders, who seemed to be the ones that had the most money and power in our town, in society. Yet, when I asked them what they did, they couldn't explain it to me very clearly. There was always a pause related to "what I am gonna say to this 14-year-old kid about derivatives and leverage buyouts." This is when all that was starting in the 1980s. It was actually a big shift in our financial system. During that time, that was just starting and the ultra fast-paced, ultra opaque, and anonymous period of finances really getting going then. That was confusing, jarring, and painful to me, because I saw in the culture of our town that the things were changing in large part due to the accumulation of wealth that was happening on Wall Street. That's where it started. Since then I've been really obsessed with learning about how this financial system worked and who it served, and how best might we heal ourselves and our culture from this incredibly powerful pursuit of wealth for wealth's sake. That was the initial experience for me.
Birju: Thank you for that. I notice that that's the beginning of the rabbit hole and since then you spent a fair amount of time in business, but not necessarily as a banker prior to your work at RSF. Could you share a bit more about how knowing what you knew starting from the age of 14, whatever continued on for you to keep on diving into questioning, how was you approached to being a business owner/social entrepreneur different because you are soul... (unclear)?
Don: Yeah. As my mother describes that I have a non-linear career path and I am not a pedigree banker. I've never actually envisioned myself being in finance because I wasn't attracted to what was being described to me as a teenager about that path. But I have found myself there, and of course, it feels like a natural full circle now. But I've involved in starting and running several business in areas of education, software, and action sports manufacturing. One of the experiences when I was part of the founding the software company in the mid 1990's was that we had kind of incredibly chaotic messy task we were pursuing in terms of growth. We went from three of us to 90 of us in two years raising 30 million dollars in venture capital. It was a period of not unlike a period we are in right now. I was only 28 years old at the time, really didn't understand. I was still trying to learn about business. But things were moving so fast that most of the real learning opportunities were glossed over in this crazy pursuit of growth.
What I witnessed was the venture capitalists who were backing us were essentially governed by very simple equation which was that we need to make as much money as we can in the shortest possible time. Even since, I've thought to myself, how do we question that. And I understand the scale is different for software companies, biotech companies. They can grow quickly. Most often, I think really durable beautiful businesses take quite a long time to grow. I feel like that's just one facet of what I've been trying to learn more about over the years since I had that experience in late 90's.
Birju: So that is happening in your twenties. Simultaneously, the rabbit hole is going deeper. I heard you mention to me that names like Thich Nhat Hanh, places like CIIS (California Institute of Integral Studies). I am just wondering what you are doing simultaneously to be a small business CEO that allows you to keep on going even deeper. Not just staying where you are, and say, okay, I understand this now, but saying, I want more; I want to understand more.
Don: I was very fortunate to receive a gift when I was graduating from college from a close friend, a book called Earth Prayers, which I recommend to everybody, by Elias Amidon and Elizabeth Roberts. It's a collection of poems, and other quotes from wise people over the decades and centuries. She put a big red star on one page and it was Thich Nhat Hanh's poem Please Call Me by My True Names. I can't recommend that enough to everyone. That really had a formative effect on my life, in terms of the path I've been pursuing in terms of trying to understand what compassion means in my own life. So that was in the early 1990's. Then in 1994, I read a book called Mindfulness and Meaningful Work by Claude Whitmyer. He was starting a program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco at the time. There were no terms like sustainability, or other terms there are today. So it was really about spirit and business, spirit and money. It was essentially an MBA program. That was...that as its primary reason for being. It was an exploration of those things. There was small group of us that joined a peer learning cohort, which has now become a forum that many alternative MBAs have taken. Peer learning circle lasted for a couple of years.
We went into incredible depth on all these topics that was phenomenal experience for me. And I was doing that along side the more mainstream business that I was part of. I remember when I went on a bachelor party trip with a fellow founder of the software company. There were a lot of fast money folks on that trip down the California coast and I was the only one who was reading the Dalai Lama's biography. I just felt like I had this sort of parallel path of trying to go deeper, trying to explore as best as I could, while still participating in concrete real life. The word decorporation then wasn't a framework for all of this. The software company was my learning vehicle even though we didn't have any real values per se, they were connected with the work I am doing now. But I was just exploring as best as I could.
Birju: There are a lot of people in the Service Space community who wrestle with this question of how broken things maybe at the systematic level, and how some kind of understanding of wanting to do something about it, having a sense of paralysis and actually bringing into something so big as one's profession. When you are at that formative time, and you are in a place doesn't necessarily having this ethos of values-orientation... What do you do day to day that allows you to keep staying in touch with these values and practice deepening on your own journey?
Don: I was fortunate to become in contact with Thich Nhat Hanh at a relative young age, or at least the early part of my adulthood. So I pursued going whenever he would come to California. I would go on day-long retreats, or five-day retreats, or his dharma talks at Grace Cathedra. He was kind of my primary teacher at that time. I went deeply into reading his commentaries on Buddhist sutras. I had quite a thirst for learning about this and yet I was careful [about] what I learned was not to pursue as an intellectual exercise, but really to bring everything back into the context of my day to day, hour to hour, and minute to minute life. So learning about telephone meditation, walking meditation, and doing the dishes meditation. (laugh) I tried to weave the breath and breathe life this kind of mindfulness into every aspect, including the meetings with venture capitalists. So that was where I stared.
And then I started to learn about others who are wise and had deep practices themselves. I merely tried to pick up what I could from them along the way. The paralysis you were talking about, I felt that. I mean I tried to make decisions as best I could from my gut feeling, instead of my head, along the way in terms of what I chose to do for work. There were risks that I took that were quite difficult in terms of my wife and I navigating our journey together and making life choices.
Our life choices were quite limited because of what I was pursuing and the fact that there wasn't always abundant amount of money to work with. So we lived in a 1000-square-foot, that was actually more like a 600-square-foot apartment for ten years between 1995 to 2005. And that was blissful. That was wonderful, but it just wasn't what a lot of my friends were doing. We lived behind a big house near Berkeley surrounding by redwood trees... and avocado trees, and beautiful garden. But it was literally 600 square feet, so it was difficult to start a family. There were beautiful things about it; there were things that were a little bit delayed based on not having the financial ability to move forward, things like having kids. But we now have two beautiful kids. We had things that I was grateful for, and parts [that] made choices more limited for us in terms of money. But in terms of everything else, we felt great.
Birju: I am hearing this idea that you were building your non-financial wealth. There was a clarity of being able to take this bigger and bigger risk to stand up for what was most important, while making sure the basics were at least covered so that you could survive.
Don: Yeah. We didn't need that much to survive. We had a 1997 Volvo that we used, some of the time the only car. We had very few possessions. We look back on that time period with a lot of fondness now. So yeah, that is true.
Birju: So tell us a little bit about RSF. First of all, what does RSF stand for. How did that fit into that picture?
Don: Sure. RSF stands for Rudolf Steiner Foundation. Rudolf Steiner for those who are not familiar with was a scientist, philosopher, spiritual seeker in the early 20th century in Australia and Switzerland. He lived between 1861 and 1925. The brand name contribution that Rudolf Steiner made to the world, some people may be familiar with, are things like Rudolf Education and biodynamic agriculture. Biodynamic agriculture is a way of working with soil and with the farm as a living organism. It goes beyond organic if you will. So he made contributions to architecture, medicine and economics. So the founders of RSF in 1984 had been studying from 1982 on the subject of economics, which I highly recommend. It's fairly dense, but you can come by the RSF offices on the third Thursday of each month if you want to participate in the study group. We still spend a lot of time going through them. How can we look at money and financial transaction in a more holistic way and how can we look at money really as a form of energy that connects human beings in relationships of service? So that's been my definition of money ever since I joined RSF about eight years ago, as a form of energy that connects human beings in relationships of service.
I've been working with a number of other people at RSF when I first joined RSF. Our purpose statement is to transform the way the world works with money. I felt a need to describe further what we mean underneath that, transforming it from what to what. So the simplest way to think about is to transform the way the world works with money from transactions to relationships. That's the most concise way to put it. We are trying to go from transactions to relationships. And one more a little bit extended version of that would be that today's financial system could be described as complex, opaque, and anonymous, based on short-term outcomes. And where we were hoping to get to is the world works with financial transactions that are direct, transparent, and personal, based on long term relationships. The latest way that I translated this for myself is to say when each financial transaction is direct, transparent, and personal, it would be possible for an economy based on love and mutual respect to emerge. So that's some sharing about how we frame our work. Day to day, we are involved in investing money, lending money, and giving money like a bank and foundation combined. But we are neither of those. We are kind of a uniquely structured non-profit organization that is seeking to work with money in a transformational way, and look at financial transactions as a vehicle for personal transformation.
Birju: I really appreciate you going in depth on this. That one sentence that you shared on our tagline, ['Breath, and be open, really open, to what's possible']. That to me is a tremendously rich sentence. I love just to dive a bit deep into it. When you talked about the from and to. On the from side, can you go into a bit more depth on how it is different from current financial system? Can you talk about where money goes right now?Everybody who is on this call, I would presume, has a bank account, or a fair bit of the them may have 401k. Where is all this money going?
Don: The shortest version of the answer to that is I can't say. Maybe I can explain it this way, in terms of the practice that we have that would be considered comparing and contrast, we have about 1,700 investors in our main loan fund. They invest money in RSF, and we make loans to social enterprises that we feel would not exist but for the social environmental and spiritual mission that they have. And they are harnessing the power of business as the way to achieve those aims. Then we have 100 organizations, nonprofits and for-profits that borrow money from us. Every quarter, we bring together representatives of the investors, the representatives of the borrowers, and RSF staff to meet face to face. This would be like if you had a checking account or savings account at Bank of America, Wells Fargo, or any other bank, and you got a call one day that said we'd like to come down to the branch next week and meet the people who are using your money, [whom] we are lending your money to, so that you can understand their intentions, their needs, and what they are doing with this form of energy that you have brought to us, the steward. And then they would call the entrepreneurs and invite them down to the branch for the meeting, and say [that] we would like for you to meet the people, whose money that you are borrowing, because banker at RSF is merely a financial intermediary between the investors or savers and entrepreneurs or people who are borrowing the money. It turns out that it's a radical act to bring these two parties in the financial transaction together. So I am skipping ahead, a little ahead of your question, Birju. But I feel it's important to [the question] where your money is going when you have a bank account at a conventional bank. Theoretically, it's being used to go right back out into loans in your community, to growing businesses, and others that can make meaningful use of those funds in order to bring out good things in the world.
What actually happens is a little bit different than that, at least with the fairly significant portion of the fund that you have at the bank. Because they are doing various kinds of trading, and so forth, in order to maximize their profits. It's not as straightforward as it should be. What we are trying to get back to is a way of looking at our financial system that is more simple and more streamline, so that all of us can understand it. So when I meet the 14-year-old, I can actually explain to him or her what it is I am doing in finance.
Then on the investing in stock side, it's a complicated picture there because the main actors in the stock market today are not individual investors like those of us on the call today. The main actors are people who are trading. They are essentially buying and selling shares of real companies who are doing real work, but the shares are kind of floating up in the air. They are trading them at high speech, buying low and selling high, but doing so within a second. They are trading back and forth those shares, and hoping they will buy at points that's just tiny fraction below the point at which they will sell them a few seconds later. That's the trading activity that's happening in stock market today. I would love to see us trying to figure out a way to neutralize that activity and make sure that it happens a lot less, if not at all. But I don't think that's gonna happen through regulations. It's gonna happen through choices that each of us makes. I can go on for a couple of hours. That's the shortest version I can provide here.
Birju: I appreciate that. I would imagine, when some of our callers will hear this, it's definitely a really intellectual kind of exercise to even understand where this money is going, very abstract. One of the directions that I see folks who are trying to grow this heart of compassion take is just developing a distaste for money as a whole, basically, couldn't even get one shadow... 'I don't want anything to do with this.' What I see is our self-walking a fine line between saying, look, money exists in the world, and yet we don't want to relate with it in the same way. So what is that middle ground opportunity that you see, so folks just don't walk away or be disgusted with themselves, or self-loathing, self-hatred for using money at all? While simultaneously acknowledging that, yeah, this is the world we live in and these are the limitations.
Don: Right. That's a great question. I've gone through periods in my life of course, when I had a lot of difficulty in my own relationship to money. And we do workshops related to what we call money and biography, or intuition and money, individuals come to closer contact with what our relation to money is, how we make decisions about money, and where that's come from in our lives. I encourage the listeners to [do so]. You don't have to make a full-time job of it. But I think it's a healthy exercise to inquire perhaps with a set of your close friends about your relationship is to money because we never talk about it. Therefore, how can we work on it and evolve our relationship to working with money?
I would urge you not to distant yourself from it, put it on a shelf, or put it in a box somewhere, but to embrace, and maybe just take a slow but steady task to start inquiring into where money is actually going when you buy something at the store. The story about your parents, whole foods, and farmers market, Birju, is really clear, because your parents set an example of becoming closer and closer into relationship with where the money is going ultimately and what it is supporting. You won't have a chance to be able to see always exactly where your money is going. But if you start to inquire into that and see it as part of your practice, whether it's what you buy at the store, or where you bank, or what you invest in, or what's in your retirement savings, however small they may be. The point is just to try to come into more contact with where it's going, trying to understand it a little bit more. And ask questions of the people when you go in to open a checking account, or meet with a bank teller, ask them when you are making a deposit, where is this fund going? And see what they say. Just like when you are in a restaurant, you are wondering where the eggs come from or broccoli, whatever you are ordering at the restaurant, and you are asking, I'd love to know where this comes from. I think asking these questions is a beautiful practice.
Birju: This gets tied into where I see my generation, millennial generation, growing more and more, as we become aware of the limitation of the dominant paradigm, there is this calling that says, look, I want to do something different. So these new concepts and phrases that didn't exist, as you mentioned, in the late 90's, are popping up, like impact investing, or social enterprises. I am just wondering if you can shed a little bit of light from your perspective, how and why these things are 'good' because they are evolving from where, maybe, we were in the late 90's, but also if you could share a bit of your thoughts on the limitations in why they may not be the final answer.
Don: I do think categorically that we are on a positive trajectory. There is no question in my mind because of many of you on this call, many people in the world today, the questions being asked are important and harder questions. We were much more asleep as consumers and investors, even 20 years ago than we are today. There is no question about it. It's quite exciting to me to see the changes. So by and large, I am thrilled by what's evolving, whether it's impacting and investing, or the decorporation movement and other things. I feel that it's starting to have mainstream impact. You have big banks and wall street firms that now the main headline bears an ad that says in the Wall Street Journal on the front page says, 'Capital creates change.' This is the Morgan Stanley ad. Morgan Stanley is a big Wall Street bank. What's beneath that headline is basically saying that we want to help you align your money with your values, and I believe them. I think there are incredible demands now, mainly from many of you as millennial [generation], but all across the spectrum. This is positively thrilling development for me. The key thing of all of these, as I look at any part of what I might call my own personal spiritual practices, is around inquiry. What questions am I asking? How can I be the change myself? And model the change in a way that it isn't thinking about how I can be a leader or pioneer or what I can be proud of later. It's just merely trying to reconcile my gut feeling about how I would like to live and trying to reflect that in how I would look at my money.
I don't really I say that the main part of my answer to that question is being encouraged to challenge everyone on this call to see, for example, I'll just use an example for myself, if I own shares in a mutual fund through my 401k savings program at work, and I am someone who is very passionate about putting alternatives to industrial agriculture. If I am interested in sustainable agriculture, regenerative agriculture, practices whatever you'd like to call it, it's important to me that I examine what companies are part of that mutual fund. If big companies like Monsanto that I feel are creating at least some of the problems that we need to unwind now as a society, [it's] no longer possible for me to own shares in that mutual fund anymore. So I would just encourage you all to do that kind of work. It doesn't need to take you days and days to do, but it would be good just to scan down the list of companies that are part of the mutual fund that you may be invested in, and may say, am I aligned with this work where I might not. So I would encourage everyone to do that.
Birju: I love this because one of the things we talk about at Service Space is this big movement to a small act, specifically small acts of kindness and generosity, and I hear you framing in a sector of investment decision as a small act of kindness.
Don: No doubt. I think it's very significant. Think of it as voting with every dollar that you put into the world, whether it's a dollar you spending in an independent coffee shop versus Starbucks. And again, Starbucks and Monsanto, people work there are, [not necessarily], bad people or they are bad companies, that anyone is evil or anything like that. If we can develop a picture of the world we like to see, think of each dollar we have while we are in this monetary economy. Of course, we, at RSF, would love to see as move beyond working with money; we like to move toward gift economy; we would like to move beyond charging interest with our borrowers. That's a very active discussion that we've been having lately, towards more pay-it-forward ways of doing it that have a spirit of gift at the center of it. That's the next stage I would say what's coming. I feel like that the world is ripe for some of those practices. While we are still (unclear) the money, you can take some of these steps.
Birju: You mention this gift exploration, and certainly this is not something that's new to the RSF world. Two questions on that. One, there is this concern and fear that naturally comes up when we start talking about gift economy, 'How do you survive?' RSF is not a tiny organization. There are a number of people that are on payroll, and right now, there are things that RSF is doing to basically lead into the spirit of gift economy. How do you survive? How do you deal with that push-pull of existing in a regular world and yet operating like that?
Don: Yeah. It's quite difficult. (laugh) But it's also joyous in a sense that all of us see working at RSF as the mission-driven act of our lives, not as the job per se. So we feel compelled to experiment, and be as creative as we can, while still participating in the world the way the world is today. About 85% of our currently 7 million dollar operating budget comes from either the interest that our borrowers are paying. Actually they are paying for us to put the transactions together and shepherd them responsibly and so forth. Then we have other donors at RSF and we help them do grant-making, and we get paid to help them do that. So 85% of our income comes from what we call community contributions which are administrative fees and other things that come from that or are associated with that work directly. The transactional work which again we try to look at as relationships. And the 15% of our budget is covered by gifts from individuals. That ratio seems to work, so we need to appeal to people who are familiar with our work, who are clients, supporters, and partners of our work, to make gifts to RSF from time to time in order to allow us to have enough white space, or research and development space, or kindness space for us to make gestures in the world, and for us to inquire into what's going on, to have the ability to do that does require gifts today. I am not sure what our business model would look like five or ten years from now, but that's the way it works today. It takes a lot of time and effort just to figure out how to do all that.
Birju: I love where you are situating because to me it starts to blur the line and transcend this traditional concept, either you are for profit or nonprofit, here you are, look, we are bankers, we are not profit-driven. Here is the significant part of our budget that's not just nice to have, we need it, and we have people that are employed. It's going to be gift-based. That to me is super powerful. As you talk about this direction that RSF heading, just pushing the boundaries. One of the phases I heard you mention in the past is this concept of 'off the grid" finance. I am just wondering if you can give a little bit of voice what that means and why it's important.
Don: Sure. Since we are not a commercial bank, we don't have the same [support]. we are nonprofit public charity and we don't have the same compliance, regulation requirements over the last 30 years. We have a 100% repayment rate to our investors and we take very good care of the borrowers, the organizations or companies that we decide to support through our loans. And yet, we are seeking to do things that are as catalytic as possible and make loans that commercial banks wouldn't be able to do. So in terms of 'off the grid,' if I make those choices, we also don't receive any support from the federal government. You as listeners may not know that, in 2008, what was required because the banks said the big banks made some bad decisions that they needed to be bailed out by all of us as American tax payers, those of us here in the U.S. Giving financial support [to those big banks] to stay in business, or else they would all fail. So this phrase called "too big to fail" because those banks were deemed to be necessary for our financial system. If they are all going out of business, then they would've been significant problems across the entire economy. We don't have any of the kind of insurance to supporters. That's part of what we mean by 'off the grid.'
Every decision we make is community-based. Every one is based on how we, as a community, can come together be visible to each other, weather it's RSF staff, the intermediary, or investors, or the borrowers, the entrepreneurs. With those identities at least as part of how we show up in the world, how can we get to know each other, be in relationships with each other, and therefore, if there are difficulties, we can rely on the trust that has come up by virtues of making an effort to be in a relationship as opposed to everything being abstract and anonymous, because when you get to that level, you have to rely on [more] legal agreements than other things, and often times people are battling over what they actually say this and other thing. When you take this 'off the grid' community-based approach, you can be more in control of your destiny, and really listen to what the different community members need. It's not unlike an intentional housing community, but just a little bit of bigger scale where every decision is made as a community.
Birju: For those who are really intrigued by this kind of approach, this is called middle ground in some ways. Is this something that is available to regular Joes? Can regular people get involved with RSF?
Don: Sure. We are one of the few impact investing funds that's available to anyone. So you don't have to be what's called the credited investor and you can invest as little as 1,000 dollars with RSF. The way you look at is the same way you look at putting money in a bank with a certificate of deposit or savings account. So you won't get a big return but also no one has ever lost money putting money in our social investment fund. You have the satisfaction of knowing it's been used with 110 incredibly inspiring companies and organizations that are trying to do good things in the world. And you can see all the organizations we support listed on our public website. That's one way of participating in RSF community. But of course, there are other ways. If you sign up for a [RSF] mailing list, or go to our homepage regularly, you can see other ways to participate in RSF.
Birju: One thought that came up to me is that we haven't really dived into and I know that RSF is really known for its wish to be catalytic to really push the boundaries, to go deeper in what we call in this socially-minded business. So beyond the investing in the 100 plus companies you mentioned, can you talk about where these boundaries really being pushed? I heard you mention the study sessions already. Where are the other places where you are going off the defense, so to speak?
Don: (laugh) The first thing that comes to my mind is cognisant and I think it's very relevant to this call this morning. I am aware personally that all of us, staff people and board members, are self-aware that there are own personal practice, awareness level, and consciousness. Our relationship to money, how we show up in money conversations, money relationships, and money transactions is of paramount importance. So we spend a lot of time and energy on our own individual practices and then what we call our culture at RSF. Money brings up very intense feelings for people, weather it's inadequacy, or sense of self-worth, or even traumatic memories of what the role of money played in our relationships as young people. It's fairly intense medium to go into individuals at times. We need to be sensitive to that. Therefore, develop ourselves as human beings and our capacities.
We have retreats, weekly staff meetings [where] we participate in 21-day kindness/gratitude challenges that Birju and Service Space have helped us to work on. We do a lot of... We do artistic activities. Even at our board meetings, every single board meeting that's ever been held at RSF, we have the same verse that we read at the beginning of the board meeting; we have time for artistic activity, weather it's working with clay or acting out doing interpretive dance. This happens at every single board meeting because we feel we can tap into a different place than just our analytical minds in order to come up with the best decision for us. Longer conversation, but it's been an incredible learning journey for me. I had much more limited view of how to work with myself, my own personal spiritual practice, and how I related to money before I got to RSF. That's just something that we do and how we look at it.
Birju: Thank you so much!
Deven: Awesome. I love that the kindness challenge also makes into the business world. Let me get to our caller right now.
Pallavi: Hello, good morning, my name is Pallavi. Thank you so much Birju... I am trying to figure out my intuitive sense. I always believe that money is another form of energy and it is also like force... I am trying to figure out how to price something. I am curious about what thought you may have to offer on how one goes about doing that intuitively. How to price something you are offering?
Don: That's a great question. And I love your phrase of "life force" to describe what money holds and what it represents. I am not sure what kind of product it is you are working with, but I would encourage you to involve producers of whatever product or service that it is.
The first thing that comes to my mind is to picture yourself like the farmer that Birju's parents were talking to at the farmer's market because they are able to. At the farmer's market, they are able to contact their customers like Birju's parents every time they come to the market, and they are able to have a relationship and also check in with those people, like Birju's father, what he is interested in paying for what the farmer is offering. Birju's father is making that only counterintuitive choice relative to our general culture, but he is also making a choice that sounds like different than [the] choices that he's made in the past to willingly pay more for the produce because he is able to be in relationship. He is able to know where it comes from. So I would just figure out a way. What' the way that you can come into contact with your customers or perspective customers to involve them in the pricing itself and have a conversation and dialogue about it. You can be as honest as you possibly can about what the costs are, and have people understand that, and then hopefully they will have the willingness to not only cover your hard cost, but also to honor your time and energy that you put into it.
Pallavi: I want to go a little bit deeper into this... Another thing I experienced, not [related] to money but to other parts of my life, is manifesting abundance. It's more like lots of abundance just flooding in, and it's almost like I don't know how to handle it. I am an artist, I put an intention that I would like something to ... someone offered up an entire studio... He just gave me the whole thing and I could not handle it. It's too much and I don't need that much. If you price it, you are limiting what's possible. ....abundance that I am becoming wear off. It's like a spiritual edge that something you experience, you play with or... There is no limitation.
Don: That's beautiful. Maybe you should be involved in doing one of these calls sometimes soon yourself. (laugh) Beautiful thoughts. I do experience that. When I experienced that kind of abundance, it's coming from transparency and being direct with whomever we are working with because that allows for someone to make a choice around gifts beyond just price. So in your case, there are other artists on the call, it's not always easy to make a living as an artist, but if you can come into contact with people and share with them what your costs are, what your time and energy are going in, and you say, you know what? It's not really that easy for me to make ends meet, and I have other needs, desires for me to be of service to this world. If you can express what those are which sounds like you either have or you develop a relationship with someone to the point where they just feel that gift energy coming out of them. That's what's allowed for them to come out, the directness, and the transparency. That's a beautiful story. I am happy for you.
Trevor: My name is Trevor. It's a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for your time. I believe you spoke about how RSF is also engaged in conversations around re-imagination of what a society looks like posts money or, essentially what a gift economy could look like. I am curious to understand what that conversation looks like while you are still actively engaged and invested in the financial system as we know it, versus thinking how others are minimum invested in so far just to survive, and use the bulk of their time spent in terms of the gift economy. I am curious how you approach that in terms of conversation or framework.
Don: That's another excellent question. So I would give you an example. We will have a meeting next week with someone who has been a financial supporter and co-creative partner with RSF for many years. Instead of meeting with her individual investment advisors and investment mangers regularly to monitor the performance of her investments, she brings us all together at once, twice a year in the same room. We have various meditation exercises that we do. And everyone shares. Each of the investment advisor and manger shares with everyone else their financial performance in investments, what's going well, what's going wrong. It's quite profound what happens. Out of that circle, there come various forms of gifts. They would listen to the woman, who is the wealth holder in this case, and try to really listen to her intentions as she is describing her journey, how it's evolving. People would spontaneously say perhaps I should have fewer of your financial resources for the next period of time because you are not as interested in international investing right now. Maybe later you will be more interested in that, but it doesn't sound like right now you are. [They] involuntarily take less. So this is quite dramatically different than the way normally works, where the asset manger and investment manager trying to capture as much someone's assets as they possibly can.
It relates to the previous caller about abundance. What has she been able to do by pulling us all together in the same room for at least ten years, I've been participating for 8 years, twice a year, there is a culture there. There is a trust level that allows for abundance to service, for people to make decisions based on abundance and the quality of the community that's taking place. I so look forward to our meeting this coming Friday. Highlights for me each time we do the meeting because I've never heard anyone else revealing their investments this way with their advisors and managers. That's just one concrete example. We try to do as many things like that as we can to enhance (?) the spirit of gifts into everything we do.
We are doing a book club or study group next Friday. We are reading a book called Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber. We all read it together, and then we are gonna have, essentially, a book club discussion and dialogue on this book. We are contemplating how is it that we can get away from charging interest at RSF. But instead, have it be subjective in each case, tapping into this spirit of abundance because we have borrowers that say that actually I can pay you more because I am so thrilled to be part of the RSF community. And we have others say, for now I am really having a hard time paying you this interest. Or agriculture organizations say that I would love to base on our cash flow. I would much rather be able to pay you interest seasonally, as opposed to the same amount every month. We are going into all these questions. It's just constant practice to try asking as many these questions as we can. That's a great inquiry, a great question you asked. There is only so much I can say in a short period of time. But I love the question and I think that's a little bit about our methodology, how we go into it.
Trevor: Thanks for sharing.
Deven: Thank you so much for this question. This whole idea of investments is stirring up a lot of juice and meat right now, Don. You mentioned Monsanto and Starbucks, and mutual funds, I am thinking [funds] like OMG (OM Group, Inc.) could be investing in so many companies. I think, for many callers here as well, I want to do the right thing, [but] I just don't know how. So for example, I want to find out the right companies that are really conscious of what they are doing, and more aligned to [their] principles. Do you know the resources that you can share with us? What I can do is to email the links to our callers as well.
Don: Sure. I just do a few that come to my mind. Understand this is just scratching the surface. If people like to follow up with me after, I'd happy to provide more resources. So let me start. There are so many. In terms of investing in big publicly traded companies, which a lot of us need to do... because those are the main options available in our 401k plans and so forth, I will encourage listeners to do a bit of investigation into what's emerging, that's called ESG Investing that stands for environment, Social, and governance practices. There are now mutual funds and other investment managers that are screening companies based on their practices related to the environment, their social meeting, their human practices, whether it's how they treat their employees, how they interact with communities, where they have operations, and then governance, how they govern themselves, and what's the level of transparency that they have, and so forth. There are various mutual funds that are involved in these activities, listeners can go to the US Social Investment Forum (US SIF). Some of the language on the site is geared for financial advisors and may seem... That's one of the very comments I have about the financial system we have today. There's a lot of intimidating language and lingo that makes it hard to take actions because then the advisors have something to protect. I feel it's actually part of the problem that the language itself is so impenetrable. The other site is the Global Impact Investing Network. You could Google that. Too, a lot of it gears towards financial advisors. Then there are sites like Invest With Values. I could go on. But those are three that at least you can start with.
Deven: If I may, Don, I'll send an email. If you would share more links, I would be happy to share with all our callers. How you want to do the right thing and how you do that, any help along the way is very helpful.
Don: One other quick point. I would urge the listeners to think about where they have their banking accounts, and who they bank with. If you're currently banking with the large multinational Wall Street banks, I would urge you to consider changing to a community bank, to a bank that's making loans right in the town or city or region where you live. It's much more straightforward how it works that way, as opposed to participating in the big international capital markets as you are, if you have a checking or savings accounts at Chase, Wells Fargo, or City.
Deven: For example, local [bank] like Union [Bank] is probably more sustainable. In a sense it's more consciously driven.
Deven: It reminds me of an Awakin call we had with Mark Dubois. He has done some incredible work. One thought that he had was thinking of where your money is going. When you buy a thing, or investing, you are stealing, supporting, or suppressing something. (laugh) Just think about it. It stirred me quite a bit. It did make me a little more conscious. One more call we had, Don, you probably know this person, Michelle Long on conservational local living economics. If you would share more in email about local resources, how to look for them, that would be very useful for us callers.
Don: If you are interested in agriculture, you could go to the slow money site (slowmoney.org) and learn about direct investment club. They are in different regions all over the US, starting to be international as well, where people try to make direct investments in locally own agriculture, farming, and food and farming related enterprises in your region. Something that a lot of us thought about is what if we can invest a significant portion of whatever we have within 100 miles of where we live. That way we can essentially, through investing, have the experience that Birju's parents had at the farmers market. So I think that will continue to evolve as a practice and there will be more and more options available to people. Right now, they are relatively limited for those who have relatively small means. It's a longer subject. But I love that question that a lot of us spending a lot of time working on. How to make it easier, and certainly with crowd funding and various kinds of online investing options, Kickstarters to the world, but many of them you can't make a return. You essentially are involved in making zero interest loans available, which is a beautiful gesture, in and of itself. But if you are someone who feels like you need to make a return, most of those options are still easier to look at as philanthropic gestures, gift gestures or zero interest loans.
Birju: Don, you are familiar with the Service Space community... With the kind of folks we have, with the longing that audience has, what can we do to be furthest support of the mission of RSF?
Don: The biggest thing I can think of is to keep going with your own individual spiritual practice or practices, however you approach that. And essentially due to two things in the context of your spiritual practice. One is to go into an inquiry within yourself about what's holding you back making different decisions around money. One of the caller's descriptions of tapping into the abundance...is just so beautiful. That's a frist step. You can seek out a small group, or maybe just one other person that you know well to talk about it. Your partner or someone you are spending lots of time with day to day. Maybe it's a close friend that you can go into that inquiry, to share among yourselves what blockages might be there around choosing different ways to invest or where to bank, things like that.
Secondly, I would inquire, I said earlier in the call, wherever you go, even if it's uncomfortable, take the step of asking questions at the bank, ask your teller, where my money is going exactly. If the first person you talk to doesn't really know, you could ask to speak to the manager. Not in a sense of interrogating somebody, making them feel uneasy or uncomfortable. But just wherever you go, I would engage with others, when you put any amount of money out into the world. How can you look at it as expression of your most deeply held values and part of that is around trying to understand what happens with that dollar, with that 10 dollars, as you are expressing yourself in the world with it. Just take small steps to engage others, who are strangers, in a conversation, and see where it leads, because I found that to be a fascinating and really fulfilling journey.
Birju: Thanks so much for that invitation, even when I asked you how we can help, you are telling us how we can help ourselves. So beautiful. I am just reflecting on the time we had here together, and I want to say thank you for the narrative arc that you presented to us. In my head, it kind of all started with your own personal experiences and journeys, not intellectually, just going through things yourselves, and now reading these very high-ceiling value statements that sound beautiful. But it's not just the sound of them, to me it's been so inspirational. I've been hearing you talk about how you operationalize, how you institutionalize, not just for yourself, but for a whole community of individuals through dozens of practices that gear towards transformation. And doing all that with money, not just doing it in a place that isn't rife with that inner conflict. I was reminded of this statement that I heard from a neuroscientist recently that we build our habits and our habits build us. That's what you've been articulating it. My gratitude for you sharing that with us today.
Don: You are welcome. It's my pleasure. I really appreciate being part of what you all are doing.