|Great things are done by a series of small things brought together. --Vincent Van Gogh|
The Pollination Project: An Interview with Ari Nessel--by Awakin Call Transcript, syndicated from awakin.org, Jan 31, 2016
Rahul: Thanks, Deven. Your analogy around the drip irrigation is such an apt one. Two things that come to mind when you share that analogy. One is this aspect of efficiency -- timely and efficient input of water. The other is proportion -- too much water, or too little water, kills you. There's a great amount of wisdom in how to apply just the right amount of water to let something to flourish. That right amount of water is something that's correct for each stage that a plant may be at.
As I think about Ari and his work in the Pollination Project, it occurs to me that there is a deep amount of wisdom involved in this aspect of small. I think the first aspect of wisdom that really comes to me from the world of philanthropy and the way that, I think Pollination Project is a little different, is that typically when folks engage in philanthropy, it is after they've gone really big. We're used to hearing about the Rockefeller's and the Gates' Foundation. We're talking about billions of dollars and the notion of flooding the world with abundance of wealth. There are unintended consequences that we know of, that come from that kind of approach. I think Pollination Project is just one of these things that embodies the wisdom of small in a very apt and appropriate way. It doesn't seem like it ever felt or fell to the temptation that normal philanthropy falls to. It embodies this wisdom in how it operates at every step of the way. I'm very excited to be moderating this call with Ari.
Ari Nessel, someone whose heart, mind, and spirit I deeply, deeply admire is the founder and originator of the Pollination Project, which is what people would call "small-scale philanthropy" -- although operates at quite a large scale, depending on how you look at it. The Pollination Project will deliver $1000 a day grant to early stage change makers all around the world. It's now in its 3rd year running, which means there's been over 1000 grants in 55 countries, around the world.
Ari, thank you so much for joining us today, especially in the midst of what I know is a family vacation right now.
Ari: I'm grateful to be on the phone with you, Rahul and Deven, discussing something that makes me come alive. Brings out the best in me.
Rahul: Wonderful. Ari, I'm very curious about how the inspiration for beginning the Pollination Project started for you. Typically, the reaction that most people have when they come across their first wave of wealth isn't to figure out how to give it away. What was going on for you, in your life? What was happening that it triggered this notion of getting the Pollination Project going? How did it get started for you?
Ari: I go way back. I go more to the part just before it began. It came from a longing to connect more deeply to the goodness within me on a more regular basis. To connect to my own sense of generosity. Wanting to express that on a more constant basis, and then wanting to do it in a way that allowed me to be in greater relationship with more people and others. To be in this conversation more frequently, is where the impulse came from.
Then I had the blessing of being really close to my sister-in-law, Stephy, whose wisdom I hold with great admiration. Through our conversations together, we co-created, we co-founded the Pollination Project and came up with a concept. Then we knew this woman name Alissa Hauser, who you know as well, and who was able to build a foundation under our castles in the sky.
Rahul: Wonderful. We've talked about this notion of wealth versus abundance. I feel like one of the things that's at the core of what drives Pollination Project isn't wealth, as much as it is abundance. Can you share a little bit about what you feel is at the core of the engine of Pollination Project, and also this distinction between wealth and abundance?
Ari: I want to first answer that, but I really enjoyed the analogy that Deven gave about the drip irrigation. One thing to add to that is that, one of the powers of drip irrigation is that if we give too much water to a plant, it's not so much that it dies a lot of times. It never develops a very strong root structure. Its roots don't have to go very deep because the water's so accessible higher up. It never gets really strong. With drip irrigation, what it does is augments the nature and it still has to seek in its own, to develop its own root structure to go deeper, wider. Often, it crosses its roots with other plants. It supports other forms of the plant world around it. I think that's a really beautiful analogy for what we're doing.
This question here, about wealth and abundance. There's this inner wealth that we have, what I was speaking to what encouraged me to want to create the Pollination Project is wanting to express my goodness. We have this inherent nature, a unique expression of goodness that we all have, that we're looking to put out there in the world. Sometimes it's that little amount of drip irrigation is all it needs. The financial abundance, in that case, the wealth can supplant the inner abundance that can be put out there. That inner abundance might be more the abundance of relationships one's built, the cultivation of kindness, of love, or of various skill sets we might carry in our community or through our education.
Rahul: Yeah, that's a beautiful extension of the analogy, especially because we talk about deepening roots so much. I know that there's a lot of people on the call, perhaps, who are either grantees of the Pollination Project, or are maybe prospective grantees of the Pollination Project. I wonder if you can share a little bit more about how you guys go about finding people, and then ultimately, what the selection criteria is for ultimately deciding to offer a grant to these folks doing their work.
Ari: Sure. First of all, one of the things that are key aspects of our values orientation is not making it difficult for people to access us. A lot of foundations, or grant making organizations, they're not even open for grants. You have to be reached out to first. Then, asked to apply. In our case, anyone can apply and you can apply as many times as you want. We even give feedback on your application if we think there's some ideas that we have to make it a little stronger. It's open to anyone, anyone who feels a calling. Anyone who's in a state of inquiry about how they can use their resources to improve the world and improve themselves at the same time.
We do have some qualifications, though, that are included in that. One is that everything we support is volunteer based, it's service based. None of the money we provide can be used to pay yourself for your work. It's an orientation towards service. Some other qualifications are that we look at ... This is early seed. We're trying to water seeds and not to water oak trees. If you're part of a larger organization, or any organization that has full-time paid staff, any paid staff, then that would not qualify for the Pollination Project.
We work across all issue areas, all geographies, all unmet needs that exist in the world. As long as it's something in our view that spreads compassion. Compassion being this ability to see yourself in others, and others in yourself. Wanting to reduce our collective suffering or collective injustice in existing world, and to co-create more kindness, more generosity, more love, and more connectedness.
Rahul: Right. Finding a grantee a day seems like it's quite a challenging prospect. How do you guys actually go about ... Is it just that there's so many people that are applying? Is there a mechanism in which Pollination Project staff is searching for folks as well, who are prospective grantees?
Ari: At first, we partnered with a lot of different organizations that were training people on what they can do in the world. People that are training people on how they can create sustainable jobs, or environmental jobs. Those who are getting trained on how to take a yoga practice off of the mat and into the world. People who were training others on mindfulness. Those who are training people on permaculture and partnering with those groups who already had a number of people who were inclined in this direction.
Right now, it's come to fruition, which was always a little of our hopes, is that through the people that we've already funded, that they become inspiration for others that have that same inquiry. Like, "Wow. Look, my cousin, my friend, my neighbor, my child. Look what they're doing. Look at the grant they got. I wonder what I could do." The idea that this hopefully, in a very positive way, becomes a contagion around the world for people having the same inquiry. That's how we've been getting most of ours. That and Google search.
Rahul: With so many people coming through, there must be many, many stories around projects that you've found to be moving or ones that have inspired you a little bit more. Is there anything that comes to mind around a grantee that's particularly touched you, that you feel called to share?
Ari: There's hundreds of them that I feel connected to, but right now there's this woman name Anita Kraznick, who founded a group called "Toronto Pig Stains". What they would do, is they would go to the outside of the slaughter house where they slaughter pigs in Toronto, and hold a vigil. They'd bring candles and they'd bring water bottles. These pigs would arrive in these slaughter trucks, having taken part in a hundreds, maybe essentially thousands of miles journey in these trucks that are very overheated and crowded. They'd put water bottles into the truck so they can get some water, and they just bear witness to this suffering that was going on there. She used the money to help build her marketing mechanism to invite other people to join them.
Within a few weeks, within a month or so of us giving the grant, the slaughter house closed down. It's hard, you know you can't connect the dots that because of what she was doing, the slaughter house closed down, but it's something that shows the power of something that's so subtle as bearing witness. We don't know the energetic manifestations it creates.
Rahul: Wow. That's amazing. That actually might be a great place for us to transition into this other aspect of your life and work that is very close to your heart, which is veganism and the animal rights movement. You've shared a story with me in the past around how this idea of veganism, or maybe at first vegetarianism, came to your mind, involving a man that you once met. Think it's a beautiful story if you'd feel comfortable sharing it with the group.
Ari: Yeah, it'd be my honor. When I was 13 years old, I was visiting family n Venice Beach, California. I'm walking down this boardwalk area along the ocean where there's a lot of people who are selling different things, or putting out information about different issues. He had put up these posters and they were labeled "The Tools of the Trade", and it had showed all these different ways that animals were mutilated, confined, and slaughtered for food production. It was targeted towards McDonald's. I read it very intently -- this was all news to me. This is an image quite hidden from the public eye, especially children in the United States. I read it and I moved on my merry way, seemingly unchanged.
Ten years later (I was 23 then), I had moved to California. I'm walking down the same place and I see the same guy, maybe 50 yards ahead of me. Everything I read 10 years earlier clicks. I remember how these animals were living, how they were suffering, how they were dying, and I just ... In a moment, without even walking up to his booth again, "I decided I can't eat anymore land animals. I don't want to participate in this anymore."
That seed that was planted by him, that took 10 years to bloom in some way. I ended up becoming full vegetarian, vegan after that. What it really did for me, even more than that is it led me to morbid inquiry, of questioning my unexamined assumptions. How many other things was I not told about, or things I was told were not the full truth, or not accurate? I needed to find out for myself and do a deeper external and internal search. That continues to this day because I'm still filled with so much ignorance and delusion and prejudice. I'm slowly uncovering more and more of things that I've been diluted with societally, karmically, who know where it's come from? That we're out causing harm to others and I'm just not aware of it, or I haven't really paid attention to the consequences of my choices.
Rahul: Wow. That's such a rich story to me because it speaks to a kind of a fertile soil, and also some kind of protection that went in around that seed, so that the contact 10 years later could lead to it giving fruit right away. That doesn't come accidentally. That, to me, feels like there is such a deep richness. An inquiry that's been happening. A fertile soil of cultivation in which lots of these seeds have landed. I know you have a spiritual practice, but I'm curious, what was the background from your perspective in which these sorts of seeds and inspirations happened? Was something happening in your family where you guys had these kinds of discussions around compassion in the world? What do you attribute to the origin of this desire to bring out your innate goodness, into the world?
Ari: I think there's some things in our life, where we can do things to plant, to make a tree grow, but we can't control when and if the fruits fall. I can't point directly to anything.
When I was a child, my mom used to always take insects out of the house. She wouldn't kill them. She would pick them up and move them outside. I always learned to do that, to not intentionally kill insects. I think that was a seed that was planted. My sister was a vegetarian for many years. She didn't really discuss with me why, but there was someone who demonstrated an alternative. I had a girlfriend that cared a lot about animals and she used to do all this work to help animals. I asked her, "Why aren't you a vegetarian if you care so much about animals?" I saw the lack of congruency between how different people were making choices to help one set of creatures, or beings, yet hurting another set. I saw that lack of consistency being a moral conundrum, or at least a lack of integrity that existed. I think those things all helped, but in terms of when it happened that day, I can't speak to why it happened.
Rahul: Yeah, there certainly is a mysterious aspect to how change occurs, at least for us individually and probably, therefore, society as a whole, which is one of the reasons why this metaphor of pollination and timely input makes so much sense. Committing to small things because you never know which seeds blossom, or even which pollen actually fertilizes where. It just is something that really flows with nature.
Ari: One thing I just want to say about that is I think there's also a question about the length of gestation period, of something being born, of something given birth to. He planted that seed 10 year earlier. Who knows, some person there had been instant karma or instant realization. In other people it may be (depending on your thought processes and the way you believe) multiple lifetimes. The beauty to me is people who do that kind of work, what that person Jingles did for me, was a direct realization that everything we do has a consequence. We can't choose how long it takes those consequences to arrive, so we don't know the timing of it, as you said, or the depth of it, but there will be a consequence for our choices.
Rahul: Right. It very much seems like that hunger for the knowledge. Both the self knowledge and the societal systems knowledge was also implanted in you in that phase as well. It feels like that is very much a core of what is at the Pollination Project. I'm curious if you can reflect on that. I think one way in which someone completely unfamiliar with you and your work, could look at the Pollination Project, is to say that what's driving it is the wealth that you generated in real estate. It doesn't seem like that's true at all. How do you frame what's at the center of the engine that funds Pollination Project? At the external parts of it, it certainly is this $1000 a day that's going out, but what is it that you feel is really at the core of what makes it happen, what drives it, what keeps it going?
Ari: The core is non-financial wealth. The core is being amongst a group of people who have a strong caring concern for creating a more sustainable, meaningful, and just human presence on the planet. I think that the people that are engaged, and it's not just the people who work at the Pollination Project, but also the board, founders, grantees -- almost all of our grants are given out by other grantees. Grantees choosing future grants democratizes the giving. So there's all these people who feel like they've got choice, and they've got equity in the organization. To the point, I feel me or other donors stepped back. I feel very comfortable that a new energy, green energy as in money, or other forms of energy, capital, would supplant it and keep this thing alive. There's just a lot of love in what we're doing and a lot of people are benefiting from it. I think that breathes its own life.
Rahul: Right, absolutely. That's beautiful. I was also thinking about this aspect of statistics around wealth and happiness. There's the often-quoted data that talks about how people's well-being increases up until a certain level of wealth, which is maybe around the $70,000 in this part of the world. After that, increased wealth sort of results in a declining sense of well-being, a declining sense of happiness. I think that what also is true is that when wealth is used for generosity, it creates a different experience around happiness. That may start to grow in a different way, such that more wealth may equal more happiness. You're someone who has experimented with this in ways that very few people have. I'm curious if you can reflect upon how your sense of happiness, interconnectedness, joy has grown as a result of the work with Pollination Project.
Ari: First, the addressing of the wealth thing is, I notice that when it comes to money, it's really difficult to ever have a sense of "enoughness". There's a feeling around money that whatever you've set as your benchmark, when you reach it, it no longer seems like a relevant amount. More seems better. I think that's the problem with money creating well-being. In my special practice, which is Buddhism, there's this notion a hungry ghost. A hungry ghost is basically someone that no matter how much you eat or consume, comes right back for more and you never feel satiated.
I see that, this predisposition in my work. What generosity does is helps reduce the sense of greed in me. That helps breed more contentment, which helps bring presence and more equanimity. That equanimity helps me to be available to life. When I'm available to life, I can see suffering. Whenever I see suffering, it calls for an open heart to address that suffering. This is really beautiful process that really opens me to a greater well-being in my life.
Rahul: Right. It seems like such a positive domino effect, or tornado, or mutually enforcing positive feedback loop that it seems to have opened up for you. Is it something that you feel everyday? Do you think about these grantees everyday? Does every grant give you the same level of joy, a new level of joy? What happens? When this is your practice, day-to-day, what does it feel like inside to go through that on a daily basis?
Ari: I'll be honest, I had this really Utopian idea that everyday I would write a check for $1000 to someone and it would fill me up inside. What's happened more, what fills me up inside more is to know I'm part of this group where I'm not writing the check. Just as much of the check is being written by someone from Kenya, or Uganda, for all intents and purposes, who's choosing who the money goes to. I feel part of something bigger than myself, and somehow that reduces my ego, which makes me feel more connected. I guess, really in this regard, I would say I've learned more from Service Space than I have in my Pollination Project, about going even smaller with acts of kindness. I thought I was going smaller, moving to $1000 a day. Really, to me, smaller is more like when I see someone who is holding a lot of groceries, making sure I run back to get the door for them. Service Space has really provided me this insight and supported my well-being. It's really just doing as many small things as possible each day, really is having a more ... I guess, is impacting me as much, if not more, than the Pollination Project.
The Pollination Project and that process allows me to touch ... I guess what you call "Sympathetic joy", the goodness of others and seeing what they're doing in the world. It becomes a mirror for me. When I get to read about every one of our grantees, or get to be in a relationship with them, I'm able to see myself more fully. I see, "Wow, there's such goodness in them." I'm reminded that's in me as well, and it just brings this kinship.
Rahul: Yeah, it does seem like this element of community is so strong in what you do. We were talking the other day about how your sense of community changed and shifted, I guess, from Dallas to the move to the Bay area and, in fact, was the reason for that. Can you share a little bit more around the community aspect of what you just shared around feeling connected to people through these small acts? How that has changed your overall experience of life and what you do as well, with Pollination Project and outside of Pollination Project.
Ari: I think it's really easy for someone who is ... I'm white, I'm male, I'm heterosexual, I'm wealthy, financially. I've got all these things that are these privileged blasts. You don't recognize how you're privileged. You only recognize how you're out of privilege. It's really easy for me, in my position, to not be aware of all the suffering that's in the world, or how I'm contributing to the suffering. The Pollination Project, being part of this and being in relationship with people who I'm in constant conversation with -- about how we can we be more contributory? How can the work we're doing support the world most ably? How can we better support our grantees? Asking these questions, I get to have these conversations with people. I get to learn about all these issues, and I get to learn about things that I would never be present to.
I think of things like how we've given a handful of grants to different people around the world who provide reusable sanitary napkins for women, for girls mostly going to school. How would I ever, in my circumstance, ever recognize that all these girls around the world are lacking it and can't complete their education because they're menstruating for a week a month. They can't go to school because they don't have any sanitary napkins, so they're missing a week of school and they end up dropping out. These are things that are well beyond my purvey, my vision, where I live because I live in such a privileged location in some ways.
It really opens my heart and it helps me deepen my relationship with people, and be in conversations with those people, about things that are really meaningful for me.
Rahul: Right, right. I know that a lot of these things really grab you. Certainly, we already touched on this notion of the animal rights' world that you feel so powerfully about. You shared that there was a time when you felt so drawn to this goodness in the world that you considered leaving the business world, and then decided not to. Can you share more about what was happening in your life at the time, and what the insight was that ultimately kept you in the business world in this way?
Ari: Yeah, I had had some successful projects. My vocation is real estate redevelopment -- buy and renovate apartment buildings. I had some successful projects, and I felt like I had enough financial resources that I'd rather do something more meaningful with my life. I felt very connected to reducing cruelty to animals. More specifically, cruelty to animals mostly known as "breakfast, lunch, and dinner" to most people in the world.
I started inquiring with these groups that I was financially supporting, and people I was friends with who were in this movement in America, about what I can do. There seemed to be a consensus among a few of my friends who I spoke with, saying they really appreciated my interest, but they said, "There's a lot of people who really want to devote their life to doing this, and it's beautiful that there is, but there is a scarcity of financial resources to support them in doing this as their vocation. To the point that you can go ahead and create more financial wealth, we can have more people working in this movement and help more animals, and help transform society."
It made a lot of sense to me. That this could be my unique contribution in the world -- creating financial wealth and being generous with it. I started doing that, and I continue doing that with a different intention about why I was creating the money. As opposed to being for personal comfort and for building a higher, bigger number in my bank account, it had a more ... Altruistic goal.
Over the years of doing that, it felt like there was an emptiness that came from me working 50 hours a week to make money and then writing a dozen or so big checks a year to organizations I cared about. It felt like I was spending 99% of my time caught in greed, and 1% of my time spending it in generosity. While there may be some more evenness to it than that, but that's actually how my time was spent. It wasn't filling me inside.
What I came to realize was really, if I'm going to continue doing this, this is something I want to stay in, I need to make it so that my practice in the business world would move more towards feeling the things of inherent benefit that I feel in working in the Pollination Project. Where the process of making the money could feel as good as the process of giving it away. So I didn't feel like the left hand was doing something different than the right hand.
That's what I've been really trying to cultivate the last few years, and deepening in the process of how do I create financial wealth, and do so in a way that is in integrity with my values, and where it feels like I get to express my heart.
Rahul: I know that you've been very thoughtful about what that actually means in real estate development -- this element of bringing integrity in all aspects of your life. It's been kind of a core driver of that. Can you share a little bit about how that's actually manifested in the professional work?
Ari: Yeah, I sure can. I want to first of all say that this is an evolving process for me. I feel as though it's really difficult to live in this world. In some ways I feel like I was always planning my escape from the business world, thinking it was too difficult for me to bring these values to this world because greed and delusion are so prominent. Not just in that environment, but in me, that pulls it out in me. It's a lot of baby steps.
I think the first step is really where I felt a lot of ... it's who I bring in, who I work with. Hiring people who have a shared interest and who have a shared [vision] as I do. Some things we do, you know, from an environmental standpoint, some things we do were putting solar panels on our properties. Even though it doesn't affect our bottom line per se, in the apartment units, we put in compact fluorescent light bulbs, and we put in low flow water lines, aerators, super low flow toilets. We put in every insulation so our residents can have lower bills, and it helps the environment as well. We just planted 200 fruit trees along the street at one of our properties so that when they mature, not only our residents, but an entire street will hopefully have fruit available to them that they can just pick off the vine and pick off the trees. For years, we've been offering yoga classes and meditation classes at our properties. We actually now offer cooking classes on plant-based cooking, so people can learn about how to eat a healthy, whole foods diet, that's good for their body, good for the planet, and good for the animals. We've been doing as a company, we've been doing these 21 day challenges through Service Space. We've done 2 gratitude challenges, we've done a kindness challenge. I think we've done a generosity challenge. Just deepening in those areas.
Then, I think more important than any of these things that I point to is how I show up, what my intention is around everything. Catching myself a little more about where I can acknowledge people for their work a lot more. Really, one of the things I've learned from the Pollination Project, probably more than anything, about the grant making process is that it's not the money we give. That it's the nourishment, it's the acknowledgement to people that their dreams, their efforts, are worthwhile and that we want to support them and that we care about them. That they're doing good work, or their intentions are beautiful.
Taking that wisdom from the Pollination Project and how that supports people, in terms of their well-being and wanting them to wake up with more energy. Bringing that to my work and being able to point that out to people who work in my company.
Rahul: It's so beautiful. I'm smiling so big as I hear you share what you share. I was thinking that if I didn't already live in such a beautiful place, I would want to move into a Nessel property. It sounds like it's such a wonderful, a breath of fresh air to be in a community like that. Have there been any stories, I wonder, of tenants ... Any kind of feedback that you've gotten from folks who are living in your communities, around how this has impacted them?
Ari: I just want to speak more broadly about that before any anecdotes is that it's interesting -- these things that we see. One of my managers will always tell me, it's beautiful if you're going ahead and you're providing these resources, these teachings, this energy. But if people's toilets aren't working, or their roof is leaking, or they're having things like that, it's hard for them to pay attention to those things. I noticed I've had to balance out this altruism, spreading this energy and this spiritual living, with an equal commitment to making sure we're doing the basics for people. That they can come back to a home that they feel safe in and their basic needs will be met. There's been a lot of learnings for me around that, where you can't do ... It's like Maslov's hierarchy of needs. You can't focus on the high end of the hierarchy unless you've gotten the basics done.
Rahul: Right. Speaking of the high end of hierarchy of needs, we've touched on this aspect of how your spiritual tradition is a foundational factor in the work of Pollination Project, and also seems to infuse Nessel development. Can you share more about what your practice is and how it got started?
Ari: It got started very much from that insight I had about not eating animals, which made me question things. I started seeing ... I saw this future self where I was going to have everything I ever wanted, all my dreams were accomplished, but I felt unfulfilled. It was this realization that, "Wow, I'm on the track to getting what I want, but I'm not going to be happy. I need to pick new things that are worthwhile, that are worth endeavoring for."
I went on a spiritual search and what felt most nourishing to me as a practice, and reading about in practice, was Buddhism and specifically, there's a philosophy -- a moral ethic -- that encompasses all beings. It wasn't just human centric, and didn't require me to believe in things I couldn't have a direct experience of. That's cultivated for me, helped me to cultivate a practice of meditation. I go and I meditate at least once a day. I go on retreats a couple times a year, usually for a week or so. I try to bring it into my work, just like we started this phone call off with a minute of silence before we started off. We try to start all of our phone calls off with a minute of silence when we meet.
This practice, it helps me to be less resistant to things that are going on, that I don't want to have happen. Less grasping for things that I do want to happen, having to happen right away, and more available for things that are subtle, that I usually don't pay attention to. Meditation has really allowed me to be more available to life and for me not to be reactive to things, to life, but to be more proactive in a way that wasn't available to me before.
Rahul: It sounds like it's so beneficial across the spectrum. When did the practice start? How long has this been part of your life?
Ari: My first experience was in 1999, so about 15 years ago. It really became very earnest for me, the practice, when I moved to Dallas. Before that I'd practice in groups in Sangha, and I found all these great teachers. Where we live, in the Bay area of California, there are innumerable numbers of great teachers and teachings. I would rely on the teachers to come around and be inspired.
When I moved to Dallas, I didn't really have a connection to anyone there. That really inspired me to develop my own inner light a lot more. I began practicing much more earnestly, meditation and yoga on a daily basis without a teacher. At some point, I realized for me to go deep in my practice, I need to be around other people, a community of spiritual aspirants. Moving back to the Bay area felt really ... Was almost going to support my life and well-being. Moving back there, now I'm surrounded by people like you, Rahul, and others who ... Just being around them and sharing our own longings for being contributory, for living in love, feeling connected and helps me grow and deepens my resolve.
Rahul: Staying on this theme of the way that spirituality's come into your life and infused all aspects of this ... in the spiritual path, there's a force that pushes you forward, which is a deepening of the practice and a deepening of wisdom. There's these forces that hold you back, and maybe erode the practice a little bit. It feels like a lot of the striving around what you've done to build integrity has been, in some ways, an aspect that's deepened the practice and put a protective shell around it, but also allowed the process of growth to continue in all aspects. I wonder if you can reflect on what you felt the interactive ability has been between your spiritual practice, your work in the world, how you show up with the business, and even how you show up in community, in the rest of life. How would you characterize the interplay of these things, and what they've done for each aspect of life? Many of us, I think, tend to silo. Here's my professional life, here's my spiritual life, etc.
Ari: I think that's right. I think there's this tendency to silo, which I've had for many years. What meditation has done for me is it's made me [more aware]. If I bring mindfulness into my daily, moment by moment experience, I realize that there is only one me. To try to break me into separate people, it provides a disharmony within my body. If I go to work and I'm just going to put on my hat of being a businessman, and maybe the spirit surrounding a businessman. Then I come back to go on retreat, I carry with me the residual energy from my business experience of wanting, a sense of not enoughness, of a certain kind of ambition that can feel unhealthy in other aspects of my life.
What's helped me in this meditation practice is really breaking down the silos and seeing that there's only this one me. If there's a value I want to orient myself to, I have to orient myself in it in all aspects of my life. Otherwise, I create a ceiling for other aspects of my life.
I think of spiritual practice. There's a lot of people who maybe think there's a spiritual bypass -- where they too quickly want to become deeply spiritual and have these extreme experiences of samadhi, but in their daily life, they're not acknowledging. There's a lack of acknowledgement for the injustices that exist in the world, or the opportunities for where they're contributing to suffering for others. They may grow the sail of their boat really deep and be able to move really quickly into samadhi in some ways, but the problem is the orientation of their boat is in the wrong direction in some ways. They become greedy for wanting more samadhi, of all those feelings. Then that becomes ruined ambition and they can't find contentment around that.
If I don't deepen in all aspects of my life in those qualities, and it's only in certain areas, then I find that it really inhibits the other aspects of my life as well.
Rahul: For me, the gold standard is when someone in a previously siloed aspect of my life notices that I'm bringing something a little different into that world. I think that the true gold standard is when Asha, my wife, notices that my practice has changed me, or impacted me. That is something that feels like a deep and strong validation. Is there a story or a moment that you can share from your experience of when you felt this strong validation, both internally and externally, of the value of bringing that holistic integrity? Not the value, but really the validation, I would say, that you felt like something that wouldn't have happened before, really happened in a way that landed deeply for you in that space.
Ari: I just think of the trip I'm on right now. One of my sisters is suffering from depression. My family, in various ways, have been trying to support her and help her. In some ways, I see through their habits, their way of supporting her can actually have the opposite effect. They want her to be different than she is, and it creates resistance to her depression, which makes her feel uncomfortable about the depression and deepens it in some ways. When people want to change you, it can feel very hurtful. That's, something that I've noticed when I can be with my sister, I feel it from the feedback I get and from seeing directly. She seems more joyful and more available and more energetic and more alive because when we're together I'm not needing her to be different than she is.
Some people say, "Why are you spending all this time, away from your family?" They'll have a negative outlook on that. But I'm not providing for them well, as a father or a husband, because I'm not [fully] there for them. I find this as an example. Because I'm working and cultivating myself, when I am there, the energy that I can bring back encourages [my family's] light to shine more strongly. I'm sure you've had that experience as well.
Rahul: Oh yeah. Absolutely. That's such a beautiful way of sharing it. It's not that we step away for a selfish inner pursuit, it's really that it's creating the time and space to deepen so we can be more available and more present for so many other people. I totally relate to that.
Deven: There's a question from Eileen in Canada: can you tell us a bit more about the process of grant review?
Ari: Yeah. All of our grant applications are done online. You go to thepollinationproject.org and there's a list of 5 questions it asks you before you fill out the application, just so you don't spend a lot of time filling it out, to make sure you qualify. Things like I said, "Are there paid staff?" One of the things our qualifications are is that none of the money can be used for buying meats, or animal products. Things that help us keep integrity around our values. If all your answers are consistent with what our requirements are, then you can fill out an application. If you've thought about your project in some depth, and you know what the money would be used for, it probably takes a 1/2 hour to fill out the application. Then, you'll be given notice after you fill out the application how many days it's going to take us approximately, to get back to you. I think it's usually around 45 days to get a response. What ends up happening is the application goes into a docket. We figure out which docket it should go in. We have different groups of people that review different dockets. We have a whole group that just focus on applications that are around animals and environments. There's a docket around health and wellness. There's one around arts and culture. People who have backgrounds in this, or former grantees, or in their livelihood, they'll review those. They read a number of grant applications, and then either by phone call or by email, they rate, they score each person and they give feedback.
Some people will get awarded their grants on the first try. Some people will get feedback to it, and maybe apply again and they get it in the future. We've had a person who applied 4 times until finally got a grant approved. Some people will do a conditional grant. "We'll give you the grant, but we request these things, if you're willing to do those things." So yeah, it takes about 45 days. We send out the money and we announce their grant in social media and Huffington Post, and we try to find other ways to support them by connecting grantees to other grantees.
Stephanie: Hi, it's Stephanie.
Ari: Hi, Stephanie. This is Stephanie, my sister-in-law, who's the co-founder of the Pollination Project.
Stephanie: It's great to be with you and hear so many inspiring words. I was curious, I was thinking about this subject of the call today, which is focusing on the power of small scale philanthropy. I was curious, after 3 years of doing this, thinking about it in 2 different ways. First, it's as a donor, what have you noticed over the past 3 years or so, in terms of the difference between just writing checks to a large organization, versus giving money away to individuals? In terms of how it feels being a donor.
Ari: I think there's a difference in individuals. It's a great question. One of the things I'm thinking for this year that's been really important to me, is I've been thinking about how I adjust my giving. One of the things I've set aside money for this year is I want to be able to give spontaneously all the time, to give to individuals. Where I carry around money for me to feed a parking meter, or when I go to get a juice, I buy for the person behind me. I think those are the small acts that I was talking about that I think really fill me up. Then there's the giving on the philanthropic scale, the family, supporting families in different ways. Then there's the giving that is giving to organizations like the Pollination Project, where it's small scale. You're trying to deal individual to individual in some ways. Then there's the giving to larger groups, maybe like the Humane Society of the United States.
To me, they all have value, but I think having some balance amongst them is really ... It's almost like a portfolio of goodness and trying to be part of my portfolio in different aspects of giving really fills me up.
Stephanie: Great. Connected to that, for potential grantees, what have you noticed in terms of the impact that an individual person can make, versus a larger organization? Why it's worth it to work toward something when you don't have the funding of a large organization?
Ari: We had this grantee in Liberia, in Africa, who was working on helping different tribes treat animals more nicely. Kids don't have much to do there, and for fun, they would throw rocks at dogs and wild animals. This person wanted to help instill a different vantage point, a different view, of how we relate to animals. Not long after this person got the grant, the Ebola crisis hit. Here was this Ebola, everyone around the world's trying to help, trying to stop the spread of Ebola, which had become a huge international health issue. This grantee, we supported them after that. They transformed what they were doing because they were from Liberia, and they had relationships with all these different groups. They started helping train the different people on how to prevent Ebola from spreading. About washing their hands if they use the bathroom, and spreading disinfectant, things like that. The local people were ... Didn't trust all these international people coming from outside the country to help them. They may have had hundreds of millions of dollars to fight it, but they saw them as witch doctors. They didn't believe what they were saying. There wasn't a receptivity to them, but because we were dealing with people who knew what was going on in the local communities, they could have more impact and many times the resources. That's just an example that comes to mind.
Stephanie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Thank you.
Ann: Hello, and thank you so much, Ari Nessel, for all your brilliance and generosity. It has transformed my world, personally. I'm a very proud 3 time grantee and I cannot thank you enough.
Ari: Who is this?
Ann: This is Ann Pollick, in New York. My organization is Crossing Point Arts.
Ari: Yes, hi Ann.
Ann: Hi, it's a real pleasure to speak with you. I just found myself wondering if other philanthropists are listening, leaning their head in your direction, getting curious, and if you have it in your sights at any point to talk to your fellow philanthropists about your approach and hopefully have them take a few notes down and hold their cards a little bit differently. I've noted in our grant application process, in a broad sense, that in some ways we feel like we're just working with Wall Street as we fill out a grant application because so much of the funds are sitting there. I'm just very curious when and if that might happen in your world.
Ari: I think it's people like you that are encouraging those people with the big pockets that want to reallocate their wealth to groups that are making small grants, versus large grants. When they see the success of someone like you, the impact you're having with $1000 and having those kinds of stories, those stories start spreading. You live in New York, you tell a story about what you're doing and you have a friend whose family is a Wall Street banker. They start hearing about it, they start reconsidering, "Wow. Maybe I want to change, I don't want to give to the United Way. I either want to form my own Pollination Project type endeavor, or I want to give to groups like the Pollination Project."
I think for Alissa Hauser, who's the executive director of the Pollination Project, that's going to be a big focus for her. We've had 3 years of doing this now. We really think we have a lot of great stories and a lot of evidence to show that this is a really powerful way of giving that hasn't really been considered.
There's this understood idea in philanthropy that you need critical mass. The more money going at something in a specific area from a large organization, can be used more effectively. I think we're providing evidence to show that there's an alternative approach. I'm not going to say in all situations it's the better approach, but it's like -- I don't know if I always love the analogy -- but it's like having a portfolio. You don't want to have all your giving in just one place. You want to have it spread out. For a philanthropist, I think they should consider having a more diverse portfolio, including not just big grants, but small grants. Supporting the individuals, as opposed to large organizations.
I think that's something that Alissa is really going to focus a lot more on in the years to come, through these 1250 stories we have now of people who are making a big difference, and showing them just how far a dollar goes. Just how far one person moves the needle. I thank you for what you've done, and I think it's because of people like you that this is becoming something well beyond the Pollination Project. We have so many people that have brought it to our attention, like examples where they've seen stories of other organizations that are giving out $1000 grants and small grants. I think it's starting to have an impact.
Ann: That's a very inspiring answer. There's just a tight hold on the world that the fear around money has. I really commend you for your alternate example. It's a complete otherness, and it's so welcome. Thank you very much.
Ari: Thank you very much.
Aryae: Hi, this is Aryae from Half Moon Bay. Ari, just so inspiring to hear your story and thank you so much. I've got a kind of practical question about this. As you say, one of the people who have the privilege of living in the Bay area, here in California. I'm trying to picture what a grantee, or some examples of what grantees actually do with that $1000. I'm thinking, "How can $1000 make a big difference in someone's work?" I'd be curious just to hear an example or two of how that actually works.
Ari: Yeah, I'd be happy to. First of all, I want to just point out that we have many grantees that ask for less than $1000. So much of what they might be doing isn't about financial resources. It's a very small amount; it's more about rolling up your sleeves and putting in their sweat for things. Really, our money isn't meant to be like the predominant form of capital that they're being given. It's human capital, it's heart capital, it's community capital.
Just with that as a basic background, I think of something like a number of organizations we've given money to were for them to apply to become a non-profit. So they can go deeper in their organizations. So they can start raising money on their own.
I'm thinking right now ... What comes to mind? There's a woman who created these murals, there's a prison in Chile. Her name's Claudia, and it was a place where a lot of people were in prison and never, they disappeared. They never returned, so it's a place that has a lot of stigma around it. For a couple dozen years, the generals there would put people fighting against the government, put them there and they probably died in some terrible way. This person, through the paints that we supplied them the money for, the paints to draw murals there for the community that created murals of peace and of acts of kindness, for the goal of reconciliation for the people there. A place to come and visit and have a new energy around it. She was doing all the drawing, or bringing the community to draw. She just needed the money to buy the paints, as an example.
There's a gentleman named Thomas Pont, who at the time he got his first grant, he was a 12 year old boy. He created a website called "Lobby For Animals". He created all these directions, in all 50 states, of how people can find out about what bills are coming up in their government around them, so they can be aware. They can be aware of what was going on. How they can call their Congressmen, their representative in the state offices or the federal offices, to have their voice heard. We helped fund his website to get things you can do or help people sign up for automatic notices through technology, to get it to their phone or their email, to let them know when something was coming up that they should be aware of.
Those are just some examples.
Aryae: Beautiful, Ari. Thank you and nice to have those kind of pictures in my mind. Thank you so much for what you do.
Ari: Thank you, Ariyae.
Deven: Thomas Ponce was our Awakin Call guest 4-5 months ago. What a story and what a journey to become of service -- very inspiring!
Deven: Couple of questions came over email, Ari. I'm going to read them here. The first question is from Tiffany, from the United States: "Thank you for your service work. Have you ever thought about writing a book about your experiences?"
Ari: A book I really would like to do is I'd like to have a book called "365 days of giving", and to have a book of 365 of our grantees. I think a lot of people are asking themselves, "What can I do? What's my unique expression of goodness?" We have so many easy acts. They think, "That's something they can do. I don't have that skill. I'm not a web programmer. I can't create a website that does those things." Or, "I'm not an artist so I can't create those murals."
I'd love to create a book of our grantees, telling the stories of what they've done, so that other people can go through and say, "Oh, I can do that. I can do that in my community. I have that skill." So they can get excited about how they can emulate or copy in some way, other things that are being done around the world. There's very little that any of us do that's really original. We always adjust things that are unique to us, but nothing that's entirely unique on its own. We can get inspired by other people and say, "I want to do that as well," or, "I want to be part of what they're already doing." That's a book I'd like to create.
Deven: Margarita from Oceanside, California: "This is Margarita, calling from Oceanside, California. I have had the pleasure of interviewing some of your grantees, and then having a post in the Pollination Project. I cannot tell you what a wonderful experience it is for me. My question is, how can anyone listening to this help the Pollination Project?"
Ari: Thank you very much for that, asking how it is you can help. I think the biggest help of anyone who is on this call, who has an inclination for how they can be of service, or more of service, and they feel like we can be of support to them, is to apply for a grant. That's the first sense. Or to share, to spread to their networks, information about what we're doing. Some people, one of their skills -- their forms of capital -- is time. They can roll up their sleeves and participate that way. If one of your resources is money, then [donate]. At one point, for every grant we made, we'd have 2 or 3 applications. Now we're up to like 6 applications for each one we give out. We're getting so many good grants now, but we don't have enough money to give as many grants as there are people worthy of them. If more people contributed to us, we can give out more grants every year. We can give out follow up grants. Some people, we've got all these great grantees who've done great work. They got $1000 and now they're ready to go deeper and do more. We like to be able to help support them to their next level. The point that we can have more financial resources, we can help them move onto a whole new level of creating their own movement. Those are things that come to mind for me. I appreciate the question.
Deven: Thank you, Ari. I love the thought that transformation happens in the fringes, or in micro-areas and within an individual. Not just at the large scale. It happens from all these people coming together in communities. Is there a story that is close to your heart, from all these projects? If you could share with us, like one story that has touched you so well and you remember.?
Ari: One that comes to me right this moment is there is a person we funded who goes to communities and trains them on non-violent resistance. This person went to Cambodia, where they were going to a large Chinese utility company was going to put in a hydroelectric dam. They were going to flood this beautiful, this area of Cambodia which is lush with forests and so many different animals, many that only live there, and a lot of communities. He trained this community, many of which were Buddhist monks, but among other people as well, how to practice non-violent resistance. To bring the whole community together to fight the building of this power plant, which would have destroyed the fabric of where they live, their community.
They succeeded! This was just with $1000 -- Aryae asked the question, "What do you do with $1000?" -- that we helped provide him resources so he can get there and train people, and pull them together. That community, together, stopped the building of a multimillion dollar hydroelectric dam that would've affected many thousands of people and dozens of species. That's something that comes to mind that I really like.
Another story that comes to mind for me is not anything particularly, but it was in reviewing all these grant applications from around the world. The things I'm learning about areas of injustice, I just never knew existed. I just found out a couple weeks ago, we have a grantee who's fighting against illegal sand mining. I think of sand as this ... ocean water. It feels like it's everywhere. How can we not have enough sand? I guess what's happening, especially in parts of Asia, there's so much construction going on, sand is a vital input for concrete. What they're doing is they're going to places where there are these ecosystems and where people live, where sand is really important and helps filter the water, protect oceans and water from flooding in areas -- and these illegal pirates are pirating sand and stealing it from the community. They're leaving these big holes behind, and hurting fishing industries and fish, and creating more flooding. We're supporting these people to publicize the issue and bring community together to prevent illegal pirating of sand.
What I love about that story is that I'm learning, I'm growing, I'm learning about all the problems that exist in the world in ways that I never knew were possible.
Deven: Awesome. How touching. We have one more comment and a question that came in on the email: "Have you noticed a trend where grantees are wanting to focus their work? As in areas of the world? Do applicants need to identify the category for the grant, or does the Pollination Project assign the most appropriate category?
Ari: Grant application has changed, but I do believe that we pick the area that is most appropriate for the grant docket. It doesn't matter what area it is, as long as its something that's based in compassion. We just try to figure out what grant advisors are best to review it. In Africa, for instance, we don't do it by subject matter. It doesn't matter what subject matter it is. If your grant application is from Kenya or Uganda, we have people from Kenya and Uganda review the grant application. They'll go out and meet the people, and talk to them. We're cultivating a different kind of Pollination Project in Africa, because we see what maybe works best for United States or works best for India may be different than what works for South America. It's evolving, but the answer to the question is, you do not need to have a specific issue area. In fact, many people who apply have problems they're dealing with that are across many issues, which is what we love, cross-pollinating issues. A lot of times, the things we're working on don't easily fall into any single issue area. They fall across issue areas, and that's where I feel like we're really connected to issues where mindfulness helps address issues of justice. Where issues around the prejudice intersects with issues around financial equity. Where issues come together.
Rahul: Just to underscore some of what is really revolutionary about what you're doing with Pollination Project, this approach around the providing of feedback and the transparency around the timeline, and the criteria, and even allowing the reapplication process on something that's been declined, it's truly very revolutionary. This doesn't exist in the foundation world, and I think the seed of Ann's question prior, maybe the book question, had an element of that. I'm curious around what you feel the growth frontiers are for the Pollination Project. Where you would like to see the aspect of your approach, or your focus, expand in the future.
Ari: Margaret Mead wrote this article, which I'm sure you're familiar with, about how we create movements in the world. There's this idea that we create nodes. We have a small group of people who have a shared value and connected system, and they go really deep. They sort of, rather than try to grow what they're doing, they try to support the growth of other nodes around the world. This is very much the prose of Service Space, right? Would you agree with that, Rahul?
Ari: I think we're probably wanting more to move toward and emulate that. Having nodes around the world that may be like the Pollination Project in East Africa, like we're doing right now (where the people in East Africa are creating their marketing, if you will, or trying to find other potential grantees, or reviewing the grants, approving the grants, supporting the grantees). Having little nodes around the world is one way I think we're expanding what we do. We're doing that right now. This upcoming year, we're going to be doing that in California schools. Specifically, working with the California Endowment Foundation to focus just on kids in schools in California so that they apply for grants and they grow in that area. That becomes a burgeoning area.
I think, really, what I see as where we can hopefully affect some more positive changes is to encourage other philanthropists, other philanthropies that are foundations, to make small grants as well. Maybe spending more of our time sharing the stories, and sharing the news of how successful this approach has been, and how its impact, what it's been. Then trying to encourage other people to do more of the same.
Deven: Beautiful. Ari, if I may, we always like to ask this question to all of our guests, and that is adding onto what you just mentioned. On behalf of all of us Service Space volunteers, how can we help you even more? What can we do for you, in furthering your cause that is so beautiful and that is making such a big difference in the world?
Ari: The best thing you can do for me is develop within you, the highest happiness that's possible. Learn to love yourself and to accept yourself, and from that place of self acceptance to build the confidence, and the wherewithal, and the compassion with which to help others. It's sort of like Service Space says, "Change yourself, change the world." That's my request of everyone, is to find ways where they can step into their inherent goodness. Then find a unique expression of that in the world. Not to spend too much of their time thinking about it, but actually at some point, to roll up their sleeves and to step into it.
Deven: Wow. What a thought and what a ripple. We always say, "Be the change you wish to see in the world," and I love the way you connected that to accepting yourself. If you want to do greener work, start by accepting yourself. Such a beautiful thought, and how grateful we are for today's call.
Ari: Very much that. It's a blessing to feel heard.
This article is a transcript of an Awakin Call conversation. It is community of listeners, who start with the idea that by changing ourselves, we change the world.
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