The giving field
  • It seems simple now.

    But I had to hear many voices say it in many different ways before it became simple to me.

    Two of those voices, Patrick and Luis, are from a small organization in Montreal called L’Abri en Ville:

    Patrick: “Before I came here, I slept all the time. After I ate, I went to bed. Now I go out. I go to the library. I go out to eat. We know a lot of people. We talk a lot. It gives me a chance to socialize. I enjoy my life much better than before. “

    Luis: “ I was always working, always with duty and things to do. Here we share, we talk about what is going on and what we’re going to do. We go for a coffee, a sweet. It is the first time in my life that I’m doing social life.”

    L’Abri en Ville coordinates communal, independent living apartments for people with mental illness. Volunteers share in the lives of apartment residents. It is a special, vibrant little organization, dedicated to what one board member calls nurturing “authentic community.”

    Patrick and Luis describe their experiences at L’Abri in strikingly similar ways. What is astonishing – what feels almost miraculous to me still – is that Patrick is a resident and Luis is a volunteer. Patrick is someone who has been struggling with mental illness for many years. He is the “client.” Luis is a retired engineering professor from McGill University. He is the person meant to serve in this context.

    I think most people involved in a reasonably healthy social purpose organization will feel that they are benefiting. But there is something different at work here. Luis doesn’t feel good simply because he is helping someone else or because he is acquiring new skills. He is receiving the exact thing that Patrick, the person he is meant to be helping, receives. He is receiving the thing that is at the heart of the organization’s reason for being. L’Abri exists to develop community, break isolation, and engender meaningful relationships for people who may have struggled to find these things. Though L’Abri’s explicit focus is people with mental illness, in a sense, L’Abri makes its offering to anyone who walks in the door.

    Over and over again, in the most vibrant organizations I know, I have seen the same sort of parallel experiences that you can find at L’Abri. I have heard people from all different roles describing the gifts they receive from these organizations in essentially the same terms. These parallels continue to surprise me. I continue to find them beautiful.

    We are used to thinking of social purpose organizations in a directional, vectored sort of way. Staff, volunteers, and other supporters are the instruments the organization employs to further its purpose – to serve clients, to transform a specific community, to change social policy, etc. But I have come to believe that a social purpose organization can truly come to life only when that giving vector becomes a giving field – something that radiates in all directions, from each to each.

    The first place I really began to understand the concept of the giving field was Santropol Roulant. It is an intergenerational meals-on-wheels program whose foundational purpose is not simply to feed people but to build community for those living with a loss of autonomy and in isolation. Here is a reflection from a volunteer. She is a young, healthy, mobile woman, who would not qualify in any way to be a client at the Roulant.

    “I arrived here in Winter. I didn’t speak French. I was living with an older Portuguese couple, so I wasn’t meeting people my own age. When I walked into Santropol Roulant, it was like it was the Garden of Eden. It transformed my solitude. It helped me the way it helps others who need it. It was a space to go when I was feeling cold. It was a smile when I was feeling really lonely. It was a ping pong table when I needed to have fun.”

    Sometimes I wonder why all of this seems like such a discovery to me. Why wouldn’t a community organization want staff and volunteers to experience community? But in practice, it is rare. Tana and I have worked for and with quite a variety of social purpose organization over the years, and almost all of them have taken a primarily instrumental approach to doing what they do. Caught up in developing programs and projects and structures to meet their missions, they spend little time considering how people are experiencing those programs and projects and structures, or how those experiences might affect the ability of the organization to further its overarching goals. An expressive approach to social change starts with the assumption that our organizational experiences matter, that those experiences are what anchor the organization’s mission, give it life, and allow our understanding of that mission to deepen.

    “We’re not just teaching students how to understand what their quality world is and what their highest needs are. It’s that for the faculty too. It has to be that alive. The purpose of this place is self-awareness so that vital questions are asked and anyone who comes through the door, whether student, faculty, or other, feels the quality of their life enhanced.”

    That quote is from a teacher at Southwest Baltimore Charter School, a public elementary school in a downtown Baltimore neighborhood faced with any number of stubborn social issues, from poverty to crime to drugs. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that students, staff, and parents find the school remarkable. “It’s the best place I’ve ever worked.” “I’m finally learning how to teach.” “This place saved my life.”

    So for me, the expressive shift has been a revelation. And now through Organization Unbound we are taken up with trying to share the idea and to understand how such a shift takes place. What are the practices that sustain this perspective in a social purpose organization? What are the beliefs, the behaviors, the structures, and the relationships that constitute a giving field?

    In this blog, we hope to discover those practices with you. We’ll talk about the people and organizations we visit and the little ‘aha’ moments we have, and we hope that others will join us to extend the conversation.

    February 4th, 2010 | Warren Nilsson | 13 Comments

About The Author


Click here to learn more about me.

13 Responses and Counting...

  • Michael Stephens 02.04.2010

    Hi Rennie,
    I have experienced this ‘giving field’ you speak of once before in my life, when I was a volunteer and then Co-Coordinator at OPIRG at the University of Ottawa in my early twenties. In fact it was the only time in my adult life that I actually felt part of a community—a sad consternation. I catch it in snip-its from time to time which keeps me hopeful. My own feeling is that it is really hard to create the enabling conditions for this to happen in most organizations in the North given the distinction our culture makes between our personal lives and our public or professional lives. This can set up “islands” rather than ‘fields’ (to continue your analogy Rennie). The good news is that it is not impossible because many of us have experienced it at least once in our lives but my sense is it is more alchemy than recipe. It probably starts with this ‘giving field’ which can also possibly be called ‘love’.

    Good luck and thanks for involving me in your experiment guys!


  • Thanks for you thoughts, Michael. I’m optimistic that we can create a giving field dynamic in any social purpose organization, though I agree that it certainly won’t happen through a recipe. The alchemy is describable and it’s rooted in specific ways of relating to each other. The bad news is that, as you say, we don’t see much of this dynamic in our current culture. The good news is that, based on the research and work we’ve been doing, the giving field dynamic seems to be very resilient and self-sustaining once it is seeded. It appears to be quite natural to us.

    I also think that ‘love’ is a very fair way to describe it. The giving field involves getting beyond the idea that there are separate people with separate interests involved, which implies that we should be focusing on things like negotiation, compromise, trade-offs, reciprocal exchanges, sacrifices, etc. Instead, organizations I know that have a relatively resilient giving field dynamic seem to reject the idea that one person (e.g, a client) can ultimately benefit at the expense of another, (e.g., a staff member). Although it’s not easy, they seem to develop a sort of profound commitment to finding the place where the whole idea of separate interests dissolve – where we grow through each other’s growth, where we create through each other’s creativity, where take joy in each other’s joy. In other words, the giving field implies a blurring of the usually fierce and immovable line between ‘you’ and and ‘me.’ And that blurring is what I think love is.

  • Rennie, it was such a pleasure to read “The Giving Field”. I have seen the “instrumental” to “expressive” shift through the eyes of those few people I interviewed, though they did not exactly label it so. But I see the deep connection between your terms and the experiences that I heard about during my fieldwork.

  • I’d love to hear more about your experiences, Abhijit. Can you share an example or two?

  • Rennie, sorry for the delay in reply! It is crazy busy as you know….a race against time. My fieldwork took me to what used to be a remote part of India, but what has now become a vibrant center of, and a veritable testament to, the spirit of human cooperation. I was fortunate to witness the entire panoply of human emotions unfold during my fieldwork – which I would describe as the most memorable part of my doctoral journey. Everything else, especially the formal part, I would love to relegate to “footnotes”, especially in light of the insipid “McGill” experience.

    Early on, I think I was lucky to run into a bunch of committed pioneers (most of them in their late 70s or early 80s) who started of as animal husbandry experts at the coop, some 50 years ago. The coop that they started working for was relatively unknown then, the town fully of dusty roads that would turn into swamps during the monsoons. To put it, as most North Americans would, this was a shantytown “in the middle of nowhere”. This town, was however home to some great Indian nationalists (freedom fighters) who were deeply committed to the grassroots, to “service to the farmer”. The cooperative which came up to protect the dairy farmers from exploitation at the hands of middlemen, started off very small and fragile, but with a determination that would put quite a few cash-rich MNCs to shame.

    Soon after being launched, the coop realized how valuable the milk producing bovines were to their farmers. The farmers treated these buffaloes as family members, as they would be tied just outside their kitchens, with women folk mostly tending to them. Most farmers were however seeped in tradition, and so, when these bovines suffered from some illness, they would have the traditional village quack come over to dispense unscientific treatment, sometimes resulting in the death of these animals, causing much pain to the farmer. Access to animal care was very remote in those days. On average these farmers had 1-2 bovines each. Many of them were either small or marginal farmers. For many landless laborers, the income from milk provided by their 1 bovine would be the predominant source of income.

    When AMUL started off its Animal Husbandry services in response to a bovine epidemic, they had little idea what they were getting into. The veterinary profession was not a very reputed profession, jobs were few…those who got into it, did either out of compulsion, or out of compassion for animals. I was privileged to listen to the stories that some of the pioneer Animal Husbandry experts told me in rich detail. These were unforgettable stories, as far as they were concerned. These stories had little to do with the coop’s cheese production. But, they had everything to do with the pioneers desire to put their learnt skills to some good cause, a cause that was larger than them and gave them a sense of being useful to society.

    These stories, had everything to do with, how in their desire to put their skills to good use by “serving the farmers” the pioneers mutually enacted change – a change so profound that it would transform not only the most tradition-bound farmers, but it would also have a profound transformative effect on the pioneers understanding of their own selves…of who they were and what they were doing. These stories connect with what you call expressive change – a profound social change, which is so encompassing of people living the change that, one becomes the other. In effect, a change, that tranforms how people make sense of who they are – only possible through deep interaction. In the case of this coop, the pioneers lived a process of change that started off with the pioneers being treated as “neglected” bystanders….to a point where they felt accepted as “family members” of the coop’s farmer-members. The blurring of identities that you talk about is something you see happening.

    I need 400 pages to tell my stories…I know there is a book waiting to be written. This I hope to do, once I am done with this damn PhD. For now, back to writing my dissertation….what a pain!

    Do let me know your thoughts.

  • for a long time now… i haven’t felt at home like this, as i felt after reading this.
    seems, after all… i am not from a different planet.
    or a freak.

    thank you warren.
    you don’t know how much a relief it was to read this.

    biren shah

  • Thanks, Biren. I think if there is one idea really at the heart of Organization Unbound it is The Giving Field. I still it find both the concept and the experience (as they have been taught to me by these organizations I mention) so beautiful. And I think everyone who touches one of these places responds. They are hard to find (right now) but universal in their effects, so no, you are not from a different planet. (It’s just that most of the time this planet is disguised.) I think what these places reveal to us is something fundamentally human that we all share.

    Love to you, as well,


  • […] is generative, it creates a giving field. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. Leave a Comment Leave a […]

  • […] 2 Posts I Appreciate Caught up in developing programs and projects and structures to meet their missions, they spend litt… […]

  • […] to re-imagine the way we think about and engage in social change. Highlights from the Archives "The Giving Field" "The Experiential Turn" "Whole-person, whole system" Meet our Contributors Motaz Attalla :: Aerin […]

  • […] calls this type of blurred line “the giving field”. To read more about it, click here… but please, not till you’ve read till the end of this […]

  • love it.sbobet

    nice blog.judi bola

    good blog.ibcbet

  • I love this,

    “He is receiving the exact thing that Patrick, the person he is meant to be helping, receives.”

    I remember having this experience at Santropol Roulant. And this experience often causes eruption of gratitude everywhere, so that a funder is grateful that they get to be part of the magic just as the client is grateful.

    and I love this,

    “I have come to believe that a social purpose organization can truly come to life only when that giving vector becomes a giving field – something that radiates in all directions, from each to each.”

    I believe it too. It is how we experience cleaning at Zenith.

    At Zenith, I am a Cleaner and I am being cleaned and since we are in a field, everyone participates in/experiences cleaning in many different ways, regardless of their roles. The transformational power of the cleaning act, practice and metaphor can be experienced by people as well as spaces and objects. Everyone and everything, every actor and factor is immersed in the field…

    Engaging with the organization at whatever point along its “value chain” is an immersion into its giving field and an opportunity to share in what everyone else experiences. A beautiful thing about the giving field is that there is always room to be more immersed in it (we can grow from only clients experiencing it to including staff, volunteers, suppliers and so on) and I think it can apply also to organizations who may not be considered social purpose organizations.

Leave a Reply





* Name, Email, and Comment are Required

kurumsal reklam