The “M” Word

January 27, 2013 in Inside SWS

I have been thinking a lot about writing this reflection, and I have to admit that I was surprised to find it so difficult to even begin. That is, that the very issue I have wanted to tackle – why do we find talking about money so challenging and uncomfortable – I could not even discuss with myself. We each bring our own experiences and history around this to the table – what psychologists might term “baggage,” I guess. I certainly have my share of discomfort (the repeated “what happened to your allowance?” talks with my dad), yet ironically I have chosen a career in which much of my energy and attention is devoted to the topic – how to allocate money, how to save money, and how to generate more money.

When I initially contemplated this message, I thought about crafting a clear articulation of how the school – a business – is run. I could explain how tuition provides the majority of our revenue, and how we in turn spend the lion’s share of it on our faculty, our facilities, and financial aid. But that is not the dialogue that I wish to begin in our community. Rather, my hope is to provide space for a conversation about how we FEEL about money, and the role it occupies in the life of SWS. Because, while we cannot change how much it costs to heat the building, or provide health insurance for teachers, or purchase flutes for children, we can control, or at least better understand, how we think and feel about this topic.

Among many other things, Rudolf Steiner was an economist, and wrote prolifically about the function of money and its use as a medium of exchange. He delivered a series of lectures and seminars in 1922 that explored the economic history of the world as well as the challenges of the future. I do not begin to profess to have an understanding of Steiner’s thinking in this realm, but one takeaway I can offer is his belief that economic questions cannot be separated from social questions. To guide our thinking about how to address societal needs, and to develop systems that promote integrity rather than injustice, Steiner described three different types of money: purchase money, loan money, and gift money. The latter is the most flexible, and thus in his view, has the greatest potential for impact and change.

At the Board of Trustees meeting on Wednesday evening, we dipped our toes into the murky waters of this money conversation. As we contemplate borrowing $3 million dollars to expand the grade school facility, the “M” word is very top of mind, to say the least. Nettie shared beautifully how Steiner and Waldorf communities view money. In her words, “Money is a reflection of our ideals – it allows us to make our ideals visible and tangible.” She went on to add that by “envisioning abundance we create abundance.”

This reminded me of something I recently read in Peter Block’s book, The Abundant Community. (An aside – the more I read of Peter Block on community, the more I think Rudolf Steiner and Peter Block would have been great friends!) What is abundance? Block offers the following tenets of an abundant community:

  • What we have is enough.
  • We have the capacity to provide what we need in the face of the human condition.
  • We organize our world in a context of cooperation and satisfaction.
  • We are responsible for each other.
  • We live with the reality of the human condition.
  • What does all of this mean for us as a community? How would we describe abundance? And what role does money – particularly Steiner’s “gift money” – hold at Seattle Waldorf School?

I remember when I was hired in my first fundraising role, managing a capital campaign for an area independent school in the early 90′s. (Yes, I am that old.) I was very nervous about asking parents for money, particularly the 6-figure sums we were looking for. I went to the director of development, a seasoned professional and philanthropist, and shared my anxiety. She replied, “Your role is to share our vision and invite them to help us realize it. You are offering an opportunity, not delivering a mandate.” That has stuck with me, and I hope is reflected in the conversations we engage in here, whether about the Annual Fund, Inspire!, or Room to Grow.

I don’t have any answers to offer, or any way to make these “M” word conversations easier, but I feel compelled to begin the dialogue and ask the questions. I think we will be a stronger, healthier and more abundant community as a result.

Wishing you a wonderful weekend!