I too have been thinking a lot lately about human values and what constitutes personal integrity in this changing world of ours...as a businessman I'm assaulted daily by stories in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere about corporations and individuals who committed fraud and betrayed the trust of their clients and investors. Washington too is full of stories of politicians who have embezzled and taken bribes. Even spiritual and religious leaders have taken a beating for not upholding the values they teach, most recently in the Catholic Church, but increasingly all over the world. As the media reaches more deeply into everyone's lives and communication becomes faster and less controlled, especially on the web, we are treated almost daily to stories of fraud, scandal and misbehavior at even the highest levels of society.
I meet regularly with a group of like minded businessmen and consultants and these topics come up again and again...In my career as an investment manager I've had to ask myself over and over again, "Are my actions consistent with the values I express to my clients? Am I walking my talk in terms of putting my clients' interests first, communicating honestly and acting with integrity?"
For the past twenty two years I've also had to ask those same questions in the context of the work I've done with the Art of Living Foundation and it's founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
I met Sri Sri in 1988, took a course from him, and almost immediately began to volunteer for his organization. I was a founding board member of the Art of Living Foundation when it was created in the U.S., served on its board for 18 years and was its President for eight years.
Early on, we had very little money to work with, often only enough to put on the next course. I remember once when we had just enough money to fly Sri Sri to a course in San Francisco. One of our students appeared with a long face that morning and announced that he was about to be evicted because he couldn't pay the rent... it turns out that the money that he needed was almost exactly the amount that we had for the plane ticket... Sri Sri told me to give our student the course money to pay his rent... I protested, worried about how we were going to pay the plane ticket, but I did what he asked... Later that day someone donated a sum out of the blue which allowed the plane ticket to be bought...
Lesson One for Me: Stick to your values and mission and have faith that your work will be supported. I have seen that same perspective on money played out again and again in the foundation over these past two decades. We've never had an overabundance of money and yet we've always had what we've needed to do our work. Money is seen as a necessary tool to advance the work of the foundation, to support our humanitarian projects, but never as an end in itself.
As the Foundation grew and its work began to spread all over the world, the same questions would come up about money; how best to use the resources to affect as many as possible and how to invest them in a way that reflected our values as a spiritual and humanitarian organization. We always tried to be as conservative as possible in our financial management...volunteers who needed stipends or expenses were given what they absolutely needed but no one including our founder was given anything like a real world salary. I remember the first time I entered Sri Sri's cottage (kutir) on the grounds of the Art of Living International enter in Bangalore. I was shocked... it looked more like a well appointed college dorm room in the U.S.than the home of a founder of a worldwide organization. It was comfortable certainly but not lavish by any means. Over the years as the Foundation has grown and the flow of its resources has increased, I have seen the breadth of the work expand (more schools and more programs in more countries), but I have never seen that commitment to the values of simplicity and service fade from view.
Recently I've read some articles and blogs asking questions about Sri Sri's personal wealth or that of his family. I had to laugh when I was reading them. Sri Sri's family lives in the same middle class Indian home that they have lived in for over forty years and that home and their way of livinghas not changed much in the twenty some years I've been visiting them. The last time I rode in Sri Sri's car in Bangalore, it was a Toyota van. Clearly the foundation has more material resources at its disposal now than it did in earlier years, but those resources are being allocated to its work, and not into the pockets of its members or founders. We now run over 100 schools in India alone and we serve over 10,000 meals a day to volunteers and students in Bangalore! That service costs money!