Monday, September 13, 2010

Making Good Use of Donations - Haiti Project

In one of the comments to an earlier post, someone wondered how much money we made on our Haiti project. For a reference point, below is some information on the project, provided to me by the program director, Uma Viswanathan. For those of you that don't know, IAHV is the International Association for Human Values, a sister organization to the Art of Living Foundation, which plans and executes most of our service projects in the U.S.

With all that's happened in the U.S. with highly publicized cases where non-profits haven't made the best use of donations, it's not surprising that people can be doubtful. To get a broader sense of how the Art of Living has made use of funds, I'll invite Uma and others to share some of their experiences with service projects they have organized and run.

IAHV gets audited every year, and is an accredited charity of the Better Business Bureau and Best in America by Independent Charities of America. This means that donating to us gives people maximum bang for their buck.

  • Donations collected to date: $165,000
  • Donations spent to date: $54,000
  • Remaining donation $ to be spent on TTC and operating expenses (mostly in-country)
  • 96% of donations go directly into the service work and training of the youth leaders. (This is actually a conservative estimate)
  • Number of team members giving 50% or more of their time to this project: 23
  • Number of full-time (40+ hours/week) team members paid stipends: 3 (Stipend amount: $1000-$2000/month

Successes to date (since January 12 earthquake)2,332 AoL course graduates
  • 5,130 Breath Water Sound course graduates
  • 605 orphans and families trained to develop home gardens through permaculture
  • Contract through the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN for 3 month pilot of our permaculture programs (who definitely did their due diligence on our organization before awarding the contract)
  • 16 youth leaders undergoing training prep in: project management, budgeting, media and communications, community organizing

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Art of Living and Money

I want to share some thoughts with you about money and the Art of Living. First, let’s look at some basic concepts. I work for a for-profit company that makes financial software for not-for-profit (nfp) organizations and I can assure you, money is a big topic in all organizations both nfp and for-profit. Why is money necessary? In a for-profit company it’s obvious – money is needed for rent, salaries, capital expenditures and, of course, profit. In an nfp, it’s less obvious. Of course the expenses are still there, salary, rent, etc., but money is not the goal. Rather, it’s an enabler; it helps organizations accomplish their mission.

In the west, it’s very difficult to do anything without money. Cash flow is the financial heart of any organization and when income falls below expenses, it’s only a matter of time before the doors close. Nfp’s can ‘go out of business’ just as easily as for-profit companies, and their officers and board need to manage finances just as carefully as for-profit organizations.

There are many types of non-profit organizations and all require money to operate. Depending on the organization and its members and/or benefactors, funds may come from many sources, such as membership dues, donations, fees, endowments and grants. Organizations like churches pass the collection plate on Sunday. Some organizations have fundraising events such as telethons or walkathons. Others rely on grants or endowments. The YMCA is a fee-based membership organization. The United Way solicits donations and major grants. Most education nonprofits like schools, colleges and universities charge course fees (tuition) for their programs. Like other educational organizations, the Art of Living foundation is primarily funded via course fees with added support from donations for specific programs. The common theme of course is that organizations depend on income from one or more sources in order to accomplish their missions.

The Art of Living has very low overhead compared to most other nfp’s. Except for a few full time staff members, all the work done by the foundation is done by volunteers. I would say that the foundation is one of the lowest overhead organizations in the world.

So why charge at all for courses? First, as mentioned above, the organization needs money to operate. It’s a fact of life. Second, from my experience (and that of many other Art of Living teachers), is that people tend to value something more if they have invested in it. Finally, on a subtler level, it’s important to give for something where you have received.

So why not just rely on donations? First, operational costs tend to track with the number and variety of courses that we offer and a course-fee approach to revenue works well to make sure that costs are covered. Second, donations tend to be seasonal at best and highly variable at worst and this makes it very difficult to forecast revenue and plan expenditures. Finally, there is a bit of a catch-22 with donations – if you don’t ask for them, they tend to not be given. If you do ask, people can feel some pressure from it.

Sri Sri and the foundation have always placed strong emphasis on keeping expenses low and making good use of the funds we do collect. Every approach to funding an nfp organization has advantages and disadvantages. Fees have generally worked well for the Art of Living in balancing the needs of the organization for covering expenses with the needs of participants for affordable access to the foundation’s programs. In my experience with the foundation, we’ve always put more emphasis on availability. In the 10 years I’ve been teaching in the Prison SMART program in a federal prison in Denver, I’ve donated my time and travel expenses and we’ve never collected any fees.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reviewing the Positive and Negative Press About Sri Sri

Great posts everyone – thanks for sharing your inspiring stories. To be fair, it’s not very surprising to see posts coming from a group of long-time Art of Living members sharing the common theme of Sri Sri’s positive values and character. On the other side of the coin, as MF points out in his post, not everything you find about Sri Sri on the web has a positive tone. This is unfortunate, but also not surprising.

Everyone has a different perspective on the things they observe around them. The well known Rorschach inkblot test, where psychologists analyze and interpret a person’s response to random images, hints that we all have a different point of view, a different reaction to what we see and hear. You can present the same set of facts to several people and be surprised (or not surprised) to hear the variety of conclusions!

I remember clearly as a young college graduate being extremely excited to land a job working for the Hewlett Packard Company (HP). I grew up hearing stories about this amazing company. My mother worked there before I was born. The parents of many friends worked there. At the time I was hired, HP had a reputation for being the best place to work in the United States, if not the world. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were legends in the tech industry. Well, I can tell you, I was sold! I was going to work in heaven and I was going to be paid for it! My admiration for the company and its founders remains today, but after getting to know some of my co-workers over a few months, I realized not everyone shared that opinion! People, depending of course on their own perspective and hot buttons, took issue with many different aspects of management, benefits, product decisions, etc. I learned that this is a normal, everyday part of running a large organization. Some of the criticism was valid and was acknowledged and acted on. Some was based on ego and emotion and was treated appropriately. Some was just plain wrong.

One of the things we learn in the Art of Living course is that the mind tends to hang onto the negative and that we tend to doubt in the positive. I’ve seen this over and over in my personal life, my career and the organizations I’ve been involved with. When someone can arrange the facts of a situation into a negative picture, for some reason it has more ‘Pop’ then when the same facts are arranged in a positive picture. Pollyanna, the dear character that always found the silver lining, usually ends up taking a back seat to the pessimists and conspiracy theorists. Go figure, but it seems to be a fact of life.

Unfortunately, for those in positions of responsibility, or that live in the public eye, or both, there are more facts floating around to arrange into pictures. Add to that our tendency to start treating the pictures we create as new facts. And don’t forget to include that we all have some real flaws to throw into the mix as well. The result is that it’s really difficult to find anyone (people or organizations) without critics. None of this means, of course, that any given point of view is right or wrong, true or false. That you should decide for yourself, with direct experience rather than anecdote or inference.

We’re an organization made up of human beings, with real flaws and real challenges. Sri Sri, to his credit, acknowledges this and adjusts the organization and our approaches when needed. And he expects us to do the same at our level of contribution. He solicits feedback and is always looking for ways to improve the delivery of our courses and events. Despite our best intentions, there are times when things don’t go as well as planned. It’s unfortunate, but we do our best to learn and move on.

I’ll come back to one of the main points of the previous posts: Sri Sri’s is a life lived for others. There are just too many facts that point in that direction; too many people whose lives have been uplifted. If your life has not yet been touched by this amazing human being, or the work the Art of living is doing, don’t let a few voices steer you away.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar - A Life of Service

After reading various blogs discussing the values of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the Art of Living Foundation, I was looking for a forum to share my personal experiences of being involved with the Foundation. As one of the founding members of the organization, I have worked closely with Sri Sri for more then 22 years. Having spent countless hours in his presence, I have seen him in many diverse situations that have shown me again and again that his is a total commitment to a mission of eliminating human suffering on this planet. Besides sleeping just a few hours a day and taking meals, all of his time is spent in teaching, serving and uplifting others. He doesn’t seem to have any personal agenda or a separate personal life.

Yet in spite of Sri Sri’s dedication, he has received criticism from a few individuals who want to portray him as a fraud.

As the current president of his organization in the US for the last 5 years, I see where every dollar goes. The finances of all of his organizations reflect this emphasis on service. Because all of our organizations are registered 501c3 non-profits, all of the foundation’s 990 financial information is available to the general public to view on the Guidestar website after taxes are filed each year.

Sri Sri has a very Gandhiesque approach to running his foundation. He is more concerned about the future growth and expansion of the organization rather than in any personal gain. He refuses to take any of the honorariums he receives for his personal use and insists that all donations that have been given to him are to be used to support the numerous social service projects he has inspired in India and abroad. In fact, if his staff did not look after his personal needs, I’m sure Sri Sri would still be living in his original hut-like room at his ashram in Bangalore. His life is an open book. When he is not flying across the globe meeting political, religious and business leaders, sharing wisdom and collaborating on ways to improve the quality of life on the planet, he is either sharing knowledge, answering the plethora of emails he receives form Art of Living members and volunteers from 154 countries or spending personal time attending to all the individuals who come to meet him and receive his guidance.

At all hours of the day and night there is a sea of people waiting outside his room eager for a few moments to meet with him. And inside his room or hotel suite there are numerous volunteers assisting him in whatever way they can. Besides the few hours he sleeps or meditates, Sri Sri doesn’t have any alone time. I’ve often played the roll of being his secretary and spent more then 16 hours a day with him. There are so many interruptions, that getting work done is always a challenge. Getting a few moments alone with him is very rare. There is a constant revolving door to his room with someone entering and grabbing his attention at almost every moment.

Many times I’ve questioned Sri Sri’s motives for adhering to a daily schedule that is so grueling and physically demanding. No matter how many demands and challenges he faces, Sri Sri remains exuberant, posed and attentive to all who came to meet him. He is clearly there for one purpose, to ignite a spark of self-awareness and compassion that can help people lead a more fulfilling and productive life.


Friday, May 7, 2010

Help from Around the World

Another story, this one from Hurricane Katrina:

A few years ago I watched in horror as Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast of the United States. It’s a tragedy that remains in the minds and hearts of millions of people the world over today. I was in Texas when the news flashed across the screen. It touched me deeply as an American and because I taught in New Orleans and had many students there. The next emotion was shock as along with the rest of the country I was dumbfounded by the lack of support from the United States during this horrific crisis. No food, water or any kind of support was in place for days. Crying, I called Guruji’s secretariat and told her what was happening and that we needed Guruji’s help. He was across the world in Rishikesh, India but as soon as he got the call, he called me back immediately. I asked him for help because the people were drowning, dying of heat, lack of food and water and just being dumped on the street to die or left to die on rooftops. Guruji told me we would do something and that he would come himself. He then gave me a plan of action to take so the Art of Living and IAHV could immediately provide disaster relief. We had never done this before in our country so we needed his guidance. Within 24 hours we had a team assembled in Texas and Baton Rouge, LA. Devotees who were also impacted by the hurricane who were doctors were providing trauma relief on the ground. Others were jumping in their cars to bring supplies and support in any way possible. Funds were being raised for Katrina relief throughout the country by Art of Living devotees. While my own country wasn’t taking immediate action to help the victims of Katrina – I knew I could rely on Guruji to immediately respond and find a solution – even a world away in India.

True to his word, just a few weeks later, Guruji, arrived in Texas where most of the victims of Katrina had been sent. He tried to get to New Orleans itself, even considering a helicopter. But by that time, the roads and air travel were being managed by the military, the city was in such a dangerous state of emergency that even medical personnel were being booted out. As it turned out the night before Guruji arrived, another hurricane arrived in Houston, Texas. The city, including our volunteers who had been helping the Katrina victims, was forced to leave. Guruji told us all not to worry, he’d be there soon and then he gave us more instructions on how to comfort the victims. 24 hours later we were altogether in Austin, Texas, with Guruji lifting our worry, grief, fear and anxiety. He stayed a few days, met with many of the Katrina victims in Austin and Houston lifting their hearts and spirits, met with city officials and disaster relief volunteers and held many meetings to see what more our organizations could do to help people get back on their feet.
While it may seem like an extraordinary effort on Guruji’s part to come all the way to Texas to help us, if you know him at all, you know this is how he moves through life each and every day. He IS selfless service in action wanting nothing and only giving.

-Patty Montella

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Ethics at Home, at Work and in the Art of Living

I too have been thinking a lot lately about human values and what constitutes personal integrity in this changing world of 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!

J. O.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Compassion and Forgiveness at Home

Hi Jim
I was inspired to read your blog entry. It reminded of some of my own experiences with the Foundation...

I remember an amazing story about a woman who was caught stealing at our Indian ashram last year in 2009. It seems that during satsang each night this woman went around cutting the locks off of people’s doors and stealing their things. The woman was caught and handed over to the authorities. However, it turned out that the woman was pregnant and the jail had no room appropriate for her. Guruji was called and his instruction was to return the woman to our ashram, the very place where she had been stealing, where we would care for her. Guruji then asked some teachers to sit with the woman to hear her story about why she was stealing. He also told the teachers to bring the woman gifts of clothes and other things. Our ashram made her comfortable until the authorities could make other arrangements. Since I have known Guruji I see him patiently extending extraordinary compassion and understanding to people again and again – no matter what their mistakes or attitude in life have been.