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Organizational Culture

How the Spirit of Generosity Can Help Renew Our Organizational Ecosystem

A call for a generous spiritual stimulus plan at companies across the country

In “Working Through Hard Times,” the Introduction is an essay I wrote back at the beginning of the pandemic, called “Things Fall Apart.” As we approach the one year mark of the arrival of COVID-19, I’m imagining the inverse. Sometimes things come together, often with an unexpected elegance. My belief is that by gently and consistently calling forward the spirit of generosity in our workplaces and our lives, we have the power to push that coming together forward in caring and positive ways.

If you keep even half an eye on the national news, you’ll already know that Congress is moving slowly forward towards the passing of President Biden’s economic stimulus package. Biden’s bill is intended to help the country right its economic course, and put us on a positive path as we try to get past the impact of the “earthquake” that the pandemic has imposed on us. Hopefully the trillions of dollars in the bill will provide particular help to those on the periphery, to help people have jobs, pay their rents and mortgages, to keep their lives, and their livelihoods intact.

At the same time, it’s safe to say that people’s emotional “bank accounts” are also running low. Millions have lost loved ones, jobs, businesses, and homes. Collective emotional exhaustion is likely at an all-time high. All of which made me think of the spirit of generosity and the idea of putting together a spiritual stimulus package to help move us effectively through what might, just maybe, fingers crossed and arms ready for vaccinations, be the last six month push of this pandemic. I believe we could, by leading with generosity, create a complementary companion to the fiscal stimulus. In the process, we might do what Ron Lippitt (whose creative work led to what we now know as “visioning” here at Zingerman’s) meant when he called on us to find “ways to raise the appreciative and spiritual standard of living.”

In contrast to the Federal economic package, a spiritual stimulus program won’t require more cash—just more care. It’s about the willingness to make ourselves vulnerable; to share social capital, ideas, creative solutions, hopes, dreams and losses. To live, caringly, in humility. To ask for, and offer, help. It’s about coming together to talk through tough issues, and also to grieve together. It’s about changing beliefs to begin with the positive; betting on quality, care, and collaboration instead of relying only on aggressive competition.

The President’s proposal, if and when it’s passed, will be written and run from Washington, gradually working its way out from the capital to the rest of the country. A spiritual stimulus, though, would go in the other direction—it starts with each of us as individuals and in our organizations, and then will gradually work its way back towards Washington. It would be an excellent example of what Wendell Berry was thinking about when he said, “It seems likely that politics will improve after the people have improved, not before. The ‘leaders’ will have to be led.” By starting here—where we live and work—significantly increasing our commitment to living a spirit of generosity in the coming months, we can start ourselves on the way to more loving, more compassionate, more inclusive and more inspiring futures in our own organizations. As Raj Sisodia and Michael write, “We are at an inflection point where business must take the lead in healing the crises of our time.”

This sort of spiritual generosity and mindful collaboration is what anarchist Peter Kropotkin wrote about in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid. I tell more of Kropotkin’s story in Secret #46, but in brief here, he was born in 1842 into a noble family in Russia but later gave up his noble birthright. He was imprisoned by the Tsar in Siberia for anarchist advocacy, studied wild life while he was there, and escaped from prison to Western Europe where he went on to write over two dozen books and pamphlets. He became an internationally recognized scientist and writer, a creative thinker, and a persistently gentle soul whose kindness and generosity of spirit belied the efforts of others to paint anarchism with images of crude violent bomb throwers. In the spirit of the spirit of generosity, Kropotkin wrote: “Struggle so that all may live a rich overflowing life, and be sure that in this struggle you will find a joy greater than anything else can give you.”

During the pandemic there has, happily, been an increase in attention to Kropotkin’s work, a “coming together” around his now 120-year-old appeal for Mutual Aid. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in May of 2020 about the rise of mutual aid and the spirit of generosity under the coronavirus:

I believe the generosity and solidarity in action in the present moment offers a foreshadowing of what is possible—and necessary. The basic generosity and empathy of most ordinary people should be regarded as a treasure, a light and an energy source that can drive a better society, if it is recognised and encouraged.

Last month marked the 100th anniversary of Kropotkin’s passing. It came in 1921, the year after the Spanish flu pandemic was winding down. He had gone back to Russia after the 1917 Revolution (the Tsar abdicated on March 15 that year, the same date we opened the Deli in 1982). Thousands marched quietly in his funeral in Moscow, which turned out to be the last public act of anarchist presence before the Communist crackdown. Emma Goldman gave one of the eulogies, and called Kropotkin “my beloved teacher and comrade, one of the world’s greatest and noblest spirits.” Kropotkin was a quiet advocate for Mutual Aid, kindness, collaboration, and generosity. As we mark the 100th year since his passing, it seems fitting that we make these part of our own modern day organizational realities.

In my organizational ecosystem model, I imagine the spirit of generosity as water. When we lead with the spirit of generosity, good things will emerge from our work. As Leonardo Da Vinci wrote, “Water is the driving force of all nature.” The other morning, I was appreciating the sun and the unseasonably warmer weather and watching the snow quietly melt. I realized in the moment, that if the spirit of generosity is water, then we already have all we need—it’s just trapped inside the frozen and unwelcoming parts of our world that we have unwittingly created. But in the ecosystem construct, when the sun comes out, hope increases, the long-frozen snow starts to melt, and the spirit of generosity is released to flow more freely in our organizations. I start to imagine organizations with spiritual springs and thriving, diverse and healthy intellectual gardens that the abundant moisture makes possible. To make generosity the default in our organizations will require the same sort of vision, diligence, and discipline that it takes to learn LEAN or implement Servant Leadership. It may sound “soft,” but it requires a lot of hard work. In an interview on the Sounds True podcast, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard drives home the point: “You do all kinds of training, adult training, all this stuff. So, why [should] human qualities […] be an exception to the rule?” I agree. Like sustainable gardeners, we will have to work hard to build rigor around the idea.

In Part 4 I wrote,

Toby Hemenway posits that we can mindfully build gardens to almost, if not totally, ensure that water will always be present. “With a conscious ecological design,” he writes, “water becomes an integral part of a landscape, designed in, not added on.” It’s the same in business with the spirit of generosity. The framework that follows is a way to take Hemenway’s admonition to heart, ensuring that we infuse generosity into every aspect of our own existences, all our relationships, and our organizational ecosystem.… In the garden, good design dictates that the soil should retain sufficient water at all times. You may not see it, but it’s there, below the surface, keeping the earth supple and open, holding nutrients so that they can later be pulled up by the plants that grow in it. The image works well. A rich, moist soil in the garden would correlate with a gentle, healthy, rich company culture.

There are many examples of how this self-generation of the spirit of generosity can be seen around the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, and, if one looks for it, everywhere in the world. Here’s one that happened this past week. Six years ago, we started what we came to call our Community Shares program to help staff buy a share ownership in the organization more widely. Each year there are two months—February and August—during which eligible staff (anyone who’s out of orientation and has taken the requisite training classes) can purchase a share (we can buy only one each). Last week we were closing in on month-end. A newer hourly staffer was just barely about to finish his orientation on the second-to-last day of the month and he wasn’t going to be able to get to the required class in order to qualify. The spirit of generosity saved the day. Another hourly staff member, who’s on our Governance Committee, offered to stay after work to teach a special version of the class. The accounting and payroll staff were alerted and ready to process the paperwork with the staffer’s check and get him in under the deadline. Best news of all in this story of the self-generating spirit of generosity? No “boss” was directly involved in any of it! Peter Kropotkin, I’m pretty sure, would have been pleased with the whole thing.

From the 22-point program for the spirit of generosity that I wrote out in Secret #46, here are five that have been front of mind for me this week:

Begin with an abundance mentality

This is all about the positive belief that if we work together, we can all come out ahead. It is Kropotkin’s call for Mutual Aid in action. That the more we collaborate, the more we share what we have, the better we will all do. In our new Statement of Beliefs, the first on the list says: “We believe applying the spirit of generosity in every action benefits the business, everyone in it and everyone we interact with.” This work is also about defaulting to positive beliefs, which helps us steer clear of the negative stereotyping and constant streams of criticism that have become so common in the national news.

When in doubt, give it out

This is a little rule of thumb that I made up years ago to help make the spirit of generosity my default. Throughout any given day I will often imagine an act of generosity I might undertake. But before I can complete the action, my rational mind pushes back. “No one even asked you to do this—you don’t really need to do it.” “He can afford it—why give it to him?” “I already worked late last Wednesday—why stay late again this week?” You know the drill. We mean well, but our cynical side can get in the way of our naturally generous nature. When that happens, I gently bring my brain back to this rule and then go ahead and take the generous action I’d imagined. It rarely costs much, and it always, always works out.

Understand how hoarding hurts everyone

Hoarding resources is akin to trapping water unnaturally by damming up rivers. The dams can create what look at first like lovely lakes and they do generate short term power. But in the long run, the dams destroy the ecosystems. This is true on all fronts—ideas, information, ownership, resources of all sorts. And as Margaret Heffernan says, “Like a great idea, power is at its best when given away.”

Make a point of taking, and giving, second shots

So many people have been hurt in life, and in the last year, that’s all the more true. Difficult circumstances, understandably, can lead many to shut down, and shut off—it’s the spiritual equivalent of self-quarantine. In the process, it’s easy to want to respond in kind—to cut them off and close them out because they’ve made mistakes. The spirit of generosity leads us in the other direction. If we can avoid “freezing them in time,” we can help them reconnect to themselves and to those around them by generously giving them second and third chances. It helps us remember that all of us have erred and that even the “hardest” person you encounter has a soft vulnerability inside. There are, it turns out, stories of water trapped inside stone. Kathy Lewis writes in The Rise about how Michelangelo would say that the best material for him was “pietra viva, the living rock,” because, “there was still moisture in this marble.” I believe strongly that second chances for folks who made mistakes, who’ve been incarcerated, held hard-to-handle political views, acted badly, or failed to follow through, can yield generous outcomes. Some of our most loyal staff members are folks we once fired, then later, when they were in a better place, re-hired.

[On a personal level, another—yes another—rescue dog joined our family at home last week. He was being abused and Tammie generously saved him. He’s only a puppy, but he looked oddly old, tired, and exhausted. After a week of love, care, and good food, he’s playing and calm and happy and looks his young age. He came to us with the name Chase, but we quickly decided to change it to (Second) Chance. I will use his happy puppy presence to remind myself to continually give second—and third and fourth—chances to others even when hard hearted logic tries to lead me in the other direction.]

Be generous of spirit with yourself

Looking at a pool of water, we see the reflection of our own image. Our generosity does the same. In both cases we won’t get a perfectly accurate picture. Looking at ourselves in water allows us to own our imperfect humanness. The lines are fuzzy. They shift with the wind or the passing of a fish or a wave moving through. We can only do the best we can to be true to ourselves. The fuzziness of the image is a good reminder of the beauty of nature’s—and our own—imperfections. Making peace with ourselves is clearly the first step towards a more peaceful world and the spiritual regeneration we all seek.

One thing I didn’t write in Secret #46 was the idea that generously sharing ourselves, our art, and our emotion with the world in caring and constructive ways is, itself, an act of spiritual generosity. It’s scary sometimes, but done well it can lead to a more loving, better connected and generously abundant emotional ecosystem. As Annie Dillard advises, “The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive.” When I say “art,” I’m not just talking about painting, poetry, or performance—it could just as well be cooking, house cleaning, engineering or epidemiology. Anything that mindfully manages to bring beauty, that reflects our image in a way that’s as relatively true to form as we’re able to get in the moment we share it. As Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, born in 1936 in the height of the Great Depression, says, “The moment a woman comes home to herself, the moment she knows that she has become a person of influence, an artist of her life… the resurrection of the world begins.”

Which leads me to another story of small but significant spiritual generosity. I’m sharing it here because sometimes things come together in cool ways, and this happened, unexpectedly, while I was already at work on this piece. I’m including it too because it made me cry, and John O’Donohue reminds me that tears are a rare and special sort of water, and hence also an element of generosity in the metaphor of the human ecosystem. When we share our tears in honest vulnerability, we do so as an act of spiritual generosity. In the spirit of the restoration of spirit, I will share that it took me about two years in therapy to re-learn how to cry in public.

The story starts on Sunday morning, when somewhere around 7:30, I opened my email to find a beautiful note from Laurie McCauley. She’s the dean of the Dental School, but I know her because nearly every Saturday—Farmer’s Market day—I saw her and her husband Jessy Next Door at the Deli for a few minutes when they quietly got coffee while I was sitting at the back table doing my journaling and getting my day going. That came to an end last March. When I spotted her email in the stack, I realized immediately I hadn’t seen her in a year. Here, shared with Laurie’s generous permission, is what she wrote:

Dear Ari,

What a year it’s been! I’ve often thought about you and how Zingerman’s has been doing but have been so wrapped up in my own Coronacoaster. Jessy and I have missed our Saturday mornings at the Deli yet were glad we could still pick up bread, pimento cheese spread, and a few pot pies during this year—thank you!

Running a dental school and clinics has not been at all easy. Coupling our major renovation project with a pandemic has been nearly catastrophic. Unlike a business—we couldn’t lay off people nor could we get PPP loans. Our revenues are cut in half and you know what that means for a non-profit. Fortunately, we have a robust cadre of faculty and staff who have “kept the lights on” and our focus on advancing health through education, service, research and discovery.

Friday evening was the first time in a year that I stepped inside the Deli. I had a mix of feeling tentative and euphoric. We were going to visit a friend in the food business who admires Zingerman’s from afar and I always like to bring him something. I headed straight to the books/pamphlets and picked up “Working Through Hard Times” thinking our friend would enjoy that. I picked up a few other things too. When I got home and glanced at the pamphlet I realized that I should read it for my own benefit. I poured through it in one sitting. At times with tears in my eyes and desperately wanting to underline sections. Of course, I couldn’t underline if I was gifting this pamphlet, so I decided to take snapshots of important points with my cell phone. I now have 15 photos on my phone of various pages. What a beautiful concise and compassionate composition!

I am directing a seminar course with 12 dental students this term on leadership and part of their final assignment is to write a personal vision statement. Next time I’m in I am going to pick up 13 copies for them to read (at least the last chapter) and one for me to underline and keep myself.

Thank you so much for your ongoing investments of—food for the body and food for the soul!

Looking forward to seeing you in person again soon!

Kind regards,


Everything about Laurie McCauley’s note is generosity. Her going to buy a gift for a friend, her willingness to share her own emotional response to reading, to tell me about her tears, and her decision to buy more gifts for her students. The beauty and symmetry in it all—caring personal art inspiring personal connection, which in turn created more connection and more personal art again still—is what this sort of spiritual stimulus program I’m imagining is all about. The financial costs are small, but the creative impact on the ecosystem is large. Ice melts. Tears flow. As John O’Donohue says, “The greatest flow of presence comes from the depths within us… It is here that the wells of emotion await us and in freeing these silted sources we may yet flow back into rhythm with ourselves.”

The 22 points in Secret #46 offer a “watering” regimen for us to use. If I alone do each one of the 22 weekly, that’s over 1000 generous acts a year. If everyone at Zingerman’s did the same, our work alone would account for over half a million more. If the whole country did it… by my math, it’s over 300 billion acts of generosity a year. While Congress is doing its work in Washington, we can get going in our own small corner of the world. We don’t need to wait.

(Happily, President Biden’s plan includes a slimmed down version of the RESTAURANTS Act to support independent restaurants around the country. The Independent Restaurant Coalition, because of whom this section of the bill even exists, has been one of the most positive parts of the last year. Its members and its work have stayed persistently positive throughout the year, and the spirit of generosity has been embodied by the whole group, week in and week out. On this morning’s call, after a review of the House passing the bill last week and the hoped for approval in the Senate still to come, Robert St. John, a long time restaurateur in Mississippi, gave the closing remarks for the day’s meeting. He referenced one of the state’s great writers, Willie Morris. Morris, St. John said, wrote about what he called, “A common mutuality.” Hearing the concept, a couple tears formed in the corners of my eyes. Sometimes, even in hard times, things come together in wonderfully generous ways.)

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!