In this article, Jennifer Garvey Berger discusses a crossroads that redefined her relationship to success and to making a difference in the world. Instead of selling the small leadership consultancy she founded with three friends, they decided to create a small foundation and give the company away. Hear what she learned about how even small players can make a big difference.
If you followed the news recently, you’ll have seen the flash of a good news story between the more depressing stories about new variants, inflation, and war. Yves Chouinard, the founder and owner of the wildly successful Patagonia, gave his company to a foundation. Now literally all of us are Patagonia stakeholders as its profits help create a more sustainable world.
But there’s a risk that this great deed might make us think that it’s other people who shape the world. I am someone who writes and teaches about complexity, so I know that in a complex system, it’s not just the big players who can make a difference—it’s anyone who plays. And as someone who recently gave her organisation away in the same way Chouinard did (albeit at a tiny scale), I put that belief to the test in a real way.
I used to own a quarter of Cultivating Leadership (CL), a small professional services firm I founded with three friends more than a decade ago. We wanted it to be an organization that did good in the world, that improved the lives of leaders, their organizations, and their communities. Our focus on leadership and complexity meant that we were always helping people to reconsider their actions in order to be both more effective and happier. But somewhere along the line, CL itself—which grew from four to nearly a hundred people—became valuable.
We discovered that selling CL would make the four of us rich (not Patagonia rich, of course), but we also knew that selling an organization has a series of perverse consequences for all who come in contact with it. By cashing out, we worried we would ruin what had made us special to all of our colleagues and clients. We had promised to never make money our chief objective. We wanted to make the biggest difference, not necessarily the biggest income. To stay true to our beliefs, we wanted to find a way to use the value of the organization to make a bigger contribution to the world.
Over the last three years we have been slowly giving the firm away to an organization we call the Tilt Foundation. Tilt invests our profits in activities that attempt to increase the odds of tilting the world towards a path of justice and sustainability. While we will never have billions of dollars to give away, we’re trying to use what we know about leadership and complexity to leverage the good our money can do in the world.
To this end, we have begun to explore and practice a new form of trust-based philanthropy based on our values and our understanding of what change requires. We’ve made our first grants now—money offered without any particular strings to organizations at the intersection of sustainability and justice. While we’ll never be on the cover of any newspaper for doing this, there are things I’m learning that might help you think about your impact in a different way.
Three Things I Learned Giving My Company Away
1. It can be scary to give up something that’s yours for something that’s ours.
As I read the news about Patagonia, I wondered whether Chouinard had sleepless nights, whether he worried about losing control or status or money. I was surprised to find myself worrying about those things in my small scale. Because this move aligned so strongly with my values, I thought it would be fairly straightforward to carry out. But each time I sign the papers chipping away at my ownership (and there are so many papers to sign), I feel the quick grab of fear, of the desire to hold on to what’s mine. I watch myself create stories to justify my compulsion for safety. Some days I even wish for things to remain more or less the same.
At some moments, fear of loss can be stronger than the strength of my principles. But humans are ultimately entwined with each other and with nature. For the thousands of years before safety deposit boxes and land deeds, humans knew that our fortunes rise and fall together; that we have literally evolved to be entangled—from our nervous systems to our financial systems to our water management systems. To consistently lean into what’s mine at the expense of what’s ours is a fool’s approach. I have learned that I am only sometimes a fool.
2. The people you surround yourself with make the ecosystem that shapes you.
The past couple of years have taught me how we can be bolder and more principled when we are surrounded by wonderful people. My three partners happen to be generous, thoughtful, and fiercely committed to making the world a better place. We have each been able to carry the others through whatever doubts or confusion or worry we have had along the way. If I had had three different partners, I would have created a different company and I would have made different choices.
I have long been watchful of the nutrients I put inside my body. As the saying goes, We are what we eat. But I am ever more thoughtful about the people I choose: We are who we’re with. If we choose our friends well, it should be easier to do hard things and to live by our principles. The four of us together have been an ecosystem of support and innovation, and we have made each other more creative, more committed, and more brave.
3. You don’t have to be a martyr to do something amazing.
One of the challenges is that our stories of change require either that we have a lot to give (like the Gates foundation or like Chouinard himself) or that we give up a lot (like those who lay down their lives to save the lives of others). I sometimes catch myself thinking I can’t achieve the first and hope never to do the second, so maybe I should just go back to separating the glass from the plastics while I live my life as usual.
But that won’t work because the world is in trouble. We have a climate emergency, the threat of nuclear war, and economic pain from our wobbling financial systems. Being a vegetarian and composting my orange peels is not going to be enough. We have to change our lives—each of us individually and all of us collectively.
But we don’t have to lay down our lives. My partners and I are lucky enough to still do work we love with people we love for clients we love. We still work for the firm we don’t own anymore, and we still find purpose and meaning alongside our paychecks. We can still pay for tuition, our mortgage, and an extra hot low-foam latte. It’s not an all or nothing charge. We don’t have to cut until we bleed. But we do need to color outside the lines that were drawn before us. We do have to give up some of what we could have for ourselves so we can do something different.
Big Change is Needed
We need big things to happen for the world to change. We need governments to cooperate with each other; we need organizations to care about their communities as much as they care about their profits; and we need to shift the structures that contribute to injustice around the world.
But we also need small things to shift. We need to connect with people with different views from our to learn a bigger perspective; we need to pay attention to our values more than our anxious desire for more stuff; and we need to understand the parts of ourselves that keep us boxed up by the past rather than innovating for a better future for us all.
We each need to come up with some innovation that scares us a little, that requires we lean into our friends, and that attempts to do something amazing. Together, we can tilt the world toward a more just and sustainable future.
Jennifer Garvey Berger