By Dana K. Bezerra, former President of Heron (2017-2022)
As Parker Palmer teaches us “autumn is a season of great beauty, but it also a season of change…what does nature do in autumn? It scatters the seeds that will bring new growth in the spring – and scatters them with amazing abandon.” In keeping with Palmer’s ideal, as I announce my departure from the Heron Foundation after nearly 18 years, I offer these reflections on our work and on the work still to come.
In keeping with Palmer’s ideal, as I announce my departure from the Heron Foundation after nearly 18 years, I offer these reflections on our work and on the work still to come.Dana K. Bezerra
Stewarding relationships of reciprocity for mutual thriving
As you might tell from the opening, I’ve always been a big fan of biomimicry and have long explored patterns in nature. The intoxicating swirl of a snail shell gathered in the garden after a rainstorm. The way a patch of fairy ring mushrooms appears in the same shape, in the same place, year after year.
Natural systems can be almost intuitive in their logic. But understanding them requires us to slow down, look carefully, and listen. That’s exactly what the last two years have forced us all to do.
As we emerge from this historic pandemic, we in philanthropy must rethink our approach to monumental social and economic challenges. But the path that will lead us there won’t be newly created by us. Rather, it’s already there, in nature.
It is vain to dream of a wilderness distant from ourselves.Henry David Thoreau
In her essay “The Serviceberry,” the plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer shows how the humble serviceberry – and many berries like it – is a crucial hub in an economy of mutuality, where abundance radiates outward in a web of reciprocity with species who depend upon and propagate it:
Passage through a bird gut scarifies the seeds to stimulate germination. The birds provide services to the Serviceberries, who provide for them in return. The relationships created by the gift weave myriad relations between insects and microbes and root systems. The gift is multiplied with every giving, until it returns so rich and sweet that it burbles forth as the birdsong that wakes me in the morning. If the abundance had been hoarded, if Juneberries acted solely for their own benefit, the forest would be diminished.
Similarly, in her book Finding the Mother Tree, the Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard finds that seeds which germinate in old-growth forests tap into extensive underground series of interspecies relationships that help it thrive. She calls the oldest, most connected nodes in the network “mother trees”:
I learned that this network is pervasive through the entire forest floor, connecting all the trees in a constellation of tree hubs and fungal links… The biggest, oldest timbers are the sources of fungal connections to regenerating seedlings. Not only that, they connect to all neighbors, young and old, serving as the linchpins for a jungle of threads and synapses and nodes… When mother trees – the majestic hubs at the center of forest communication, protection, and sentience – die, they pass their wisdom to their kin, generation after generation, sharing the knowledge of what helps and what harms, who is friend or foe, and how to adapt and survive in an ever-changing landscape.
These aren’t a couple of random examples. Networks, partnerships, interdependence, and reciprocity are the organizing principles behind huge swaths of the biomass on Earth. There is nothing innately natural about survival of the fittest. Contrary to what we all learned in school (or as MBA’s), success isn’t born of competition, struggle, and some innate hierarchy, but rather of cooperation and mutual abundance. And this method of self-organizing and thriving is not some new, untested methodology. It is ancient and validated.
As philanthropists, we should be asking ourselves: Where are these networks, who are these mother trees, and how can we support them?
No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.Albert Einstein
The word philanthropy comes from the Ancient Greek roots of phil, meaning “love of,” and anthrōpos, or “humankind.” Literally, love of humanity. And Americans prove this by giving about $470 billion a year to our industry. Yet despite such good intentions, our sector is mired in systemic bias, power imbalance, and business-as-usual practices that ensure our interests are elevated at the expense of those we’re chartered to serve.
We too often extract local knowledge to inform our decisions about who is funded in their communities. We simplify problems so they cater to grand solutions we create, rather than seeing them as specific to communities who are uniquely qualified to solve them. We approach relationships through a lens of need instead of strength, thus disenfranchising the very people and places we’re supposed to support.
And then we pat ourselves on the back about mission-oriented endowments and ESG framed investments.
Despite our attempts to do better, we continue to fail in our promise to both the communities where we work and to ourselves. And as our world confronts generational change and enormous challenge, we simply can’t continue with the broken status quo. Instead of continuing to operate from the top down and from the outside in, it’s time we ask ourselves: how might we participate as a nourishing part of a thriving ecosystem?
There is symbiosis at every single level of living things, and you cannot compete in a zero-sum game with creatures upon whom your existence depends.Richard Powers
Imagine if resources were not hoarded, but flowed freely through an interlocking network of mutual stewardship? Where there was no incentive to compete in a zero-sum game? Where instead of concentrating power and resources, they were distributed across a web in which all were mutually responsible to and for one another? Where everyone had a stake. Where an entirely new discourse allowed for all voices to be heard. Where the collective agency of the group used its accumulated wisdom to allocate resources.
At Heron, we are already busy redesigning our insides (operations, organizational design) and outsides (how we show up as partner, community investor, and institutional investor) to reflect our conviction and faith in this biophilic design.
We are dedicated to multi-capital investing, allocating a range of resources – social, intellectual, reputational, and financial – towards projects and initiatives that the community prioritizes for themselves, nourishing a network how, when, and where needed; And because the health and strength of such an organization is measured holistically, our commitment to net contribution ensures that, as Robin Wall Kimmerer has written, “all flourishing is mutual.”
We may be one node in a network – if we earn it – but moving forward, we’re ceding power to the “mother trees.” We’re not selecting enterprises to support. They are. Communities are determining how, when, and where to use resources, strengthening the network because of it. Different nodes will activate when needed, and in different combinations over time to work on a stream of ongoing results.
Connectors…are extraordinarily powerful people. We rely on them to give us access to opportunities and worlds to which we don’t belong.Malcolm Gladwell
Partners for Rural Transformation is an organization in the early days of operating as a generative network. Each of the six partners is a complex organization operating with limited resources to solve intractable problems. No single member would describe themselves as having excess resources. But as a network, they are actively moving what they have between and among themselves based on the relative strengths and requirements of any one member, or members, at any point. They prioritize what they can do together as much as they prioritize individual accomplishments. No doubt, when resources are allocated in this way, due to the limited nature of them, individual priorities get subordinated to shared priorities. But there is no winner-take-all mentality in a network like this.
Black Belt Community Foundation (BBCF) is another great example. They have chosen a disposition of abundance, sharing resources, and mutual flourishing, even when some say they haven’t accumulated enough to take such a position. It’s true, they are a lean organization. But they are characterized by interdependence rather than hoarding, and any time there may be the slightest bit of extra anything, it is allocated to whoever needs it.
Some criticize BBCF for not having an endowment. Despite nearly fifteen years of leadership, potential donors tell them that without one they can’t trust that they have any permanence. This is evidence of philanthropy’s completely counterproductive mindset. When this nimble veteran organization leverages the little they have to create what they need, our industry sees it as risky. What about the risk of not getting this work done? The risk of inaction?
If you want to lead people, you must learn to follow them.Lao Tzu
The moment demands that we do things differently. We must evolve from being foundations that decide what and who we fund based on whatever program strategies we’ve decided are worthy. We must break free from business as usual. By relinquishing control, our shared capacity for meaningful outcomes increases exponentially. By not trying to master-plan everything from intention to resource utilization to acceptable results, we just might open space for something more.
Generative networks challenge us to be both coordinated and decentralized. To be able to operate in an environment where we – by design – are not all powerful but divest ourselves of power and privilege in order to hear and act on the wisdom of the whole, to be authentically collaborative.
Networks of abundance promise a future of mutual thriving. And Heron is committed to enacting the principles, albeit imperfectly, to help get us there. It’s not about centering ourselves and our stipulations; it’s about holding space for mutuality, reciprocity, and possibility.
Heron is in the very beginning of its journey learning to identify the “mother trees” all around us. And it hasn’t yet earned the right to call itself a node in their generative networks. But Heron has complete faith in their accumulated wisdom and its trust in constituents.
And I have complete faith in Heron. Turning its back on convention, Heron will walk on and leave a trail documenting the journey and showing others the trailhead to a different path forward.
As for me, it will be my greatest joy to see the possibilities being planted bear fruit in some season yet to come.
What a beautiful essay from Dana. Best regards to all at Heron, a foundation which always has and continues to punch well above its (asset) weight. And sympathies on the death of Ambassador Jim Joseph, who I also had the privilege of knowing and collaborating with during the Clinton Administration. Let’s live his legacy!