Don Beck and the New Face of Philanthropy

October 2012 / Notes from the Field

Rafael Nasser

Rafael Nasser

It has been years since I experienced Dr. Don Beck work his magic in a crowd. The last time I saw him in action was in NYC about four or five years ago. It was wintertime, and before the event, I recall him describing with childlike glee the excitement he felt walking past the Macy’s storefront that was ornamented with bright Christmas lights. It was an endearing moment that revealed one of the lesser-known faces of a man whose life mission has been to facilitate the cultural transformation of nation-states and Fortune 500 corporations. Some of his “patients” include: South Africa, Iceland, Mexico, Singapore, Israel, Palestine, and Holland, Southwest Airlines, Disney, and Whole Foods.

Don Beck, the co-founder of Spiral Dynamics, likes thorny, complicated problems. To grasp the magnitude of the complexity in question, picture a ball of yarn the size of the planet made up of threads of multiple colors. Envision each colored thread as a particular set of life conditions and values that form a knot whenever a chronic problem arises that can’t be resolved by the system. The Purple threads represent tribalism and the purple knots include internecine blood feuds, genocide, famine, epidemics, and social destitution resulting from the destruction of the natural habitat.

The Red threads represent societies under sway of self-righteous egocentric leaders who dominate through force, threats, and the application of raw power, such as Afghani warlords and Sicilian mafia dons. The Red knots represent social problems that arise within the Red system including ethnocentrism, racism, misogyny, despotism, corruption, ethnic cleansing, and draconian tyranny. The Blue threads represent societies ruled by ideological absolutists that preach the one and only truth and demonize the other five to six billion lost souls on their slide to perdition. Blue knots reflect dogmatism, militant fundamentalism, anti-Semitism, ideological “witch hunts,” political repression, and religious persecution.

The Orange thread is all too happy to dismiss wacky Blue ideas for the sake of progress, innovation, and the sweet smell of success, at whatever cost. Despite impressive contributions that have led to an increase in the quality of life, Orange industrialism has created enormous knots such as climate change, pollution, deforestation, and the degradation of the food supply, which has resulted in a groundswell of disease and suffering.

The Green thread formed in reaction to the excesses of Orange and represents the capacity to recognize the inequity that plagues the planet and to identify with the suffering of others. Green becomes acutely aware of the multicolored snarls that are digging like sharp thorns into the flesh of Gaia. Green perceives Orange greed nonchalantly destroying the balance of nature, as Blue absolutists driven by fundamentalist ideologies seek WMD to purge the world of evil, and charismatic despots plunder their own nations to aggrandize their fortune and tighten their hold on to power, even as millions die. The planet is bruised and bleeding and as Green feels into that pain, a Green knot forms it wants to scream.

Earth is crying out for help and if you are motivated to heed the call, you have Green blood pulsing through your veins. From that place in consciousness, I invite you to follow me into a guided visualization. Imagine that you are incredibly wealthy – I-just-won-the-lottery kind of wealthy. Maybe you were born into a wealth; maybe you are a self-made multimillionaire. Either way, you are prosperous and you feel the planet’s pain and you want to make a difference in the world. And let’s throw another wild card into this thought experiment. You are relatively young, possibly inexperienced in world affairs and clever enough to realize it.

Picture that prosperous, caring Green version of yourself entering a lavishly decorated room on the second floor of a historical building on the West 51st street in New York City. Long drapes sweep over the edges of large windows that filter the crisp autumnal light. Round tables constellated with golden chairs fill the room. You sit as the room fills with other individuals who, like you, are wealthy, care about the planet, and are committed to global change.

Welcome to NEXUS 2012, an event led by visionary Jonah Wittkamper and co-sponsored by Search for Common Ground, an organization that implements projects that center on children and youth, leadership training, and sustainable business in over thirty countries, and the Memnosyne Foundation, an international non-profit known for using a strategy it created called “social acupuncture” to innovate programs across the globe aimed at helping diverse communities to pave a healthy evolutionary path for themselves and future generations.  Memnosyne’s holistic strategy involves collaboration across diverse fields of knowledge to encourage harmonious development.

A woman stands at the head of the room. Her name is Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk. She co-founded Memnosyne along with her husband Joshua whom she met at the University of Texas as a student. Mary Ann is wearing a white dress that contrasts starkly with her black hair, and when she speaks, fire flows from her lips and flames leap from her eyes. Behind the socializing smile and elegant strut there lies is a soul driven by inexorable passion for global transformation.

The program Mary Ann designed for today’s event is intended accomplish three goals: To raise awareness among members of her generation about where the world is headed if things don’t change, to offer a common a language designed to facilitate the communication of complex ideas in simple terms, and to share organizational tools that can enhance collaborative efforts across multiple domains. Through the harmonious integration of a compelling vision and a new language and skills, Mary Ann hopes to transform the enthusiastic cohort of guests into an empowered nexus of “conscious cultural creators.”

Mary Ann lives in Dallas, Texas, which happens to be the city Dr. Don Beck calls home. Two powerful beings sharing the same passion for global transformation living the same neck of the country were bound to meet sooner or later. Mary Ann is young, and despite having already led her organization to implement programs across the globe, she is wise enough to recognize the need for mentorship and sound counsel. She recognized in Don a like-minded and like-hearted compatriot, but one who has been around the global block once or twice.

After attending Don’s Spiral Dynamic training several months ago, Mary Ann recognized that system as the “common language” she had been seeking, and invited him to present some of his ideas at NEXUS 2012. A few days before the event, Don emailed and asked me to assist him and I gladly accepted. Russ Volckmann, editor of ILR, suggested that I cover the event and I agreed.

First to speak at NEXUS 2012 was Dr. Ervin Laszlo, the noted philosopher and systems theorist. With wit and brilliance he described the existential problems confronting the world and stressed that these problems are systemic, that is, their resolution requires a complete systemic overhaul. The main symptom of our debilitated system is the incoherence that we experience with the world. This unease cuts across all domains of life. Laszlo explains that systems resist change but that they can be changed and that a new kind of philanthropy can play an instrumental role in creating holistic solutions that transcend “manipulation,” encourage synergistic projects, and lead to holistic change. One exciting example cited by Laszlo is the Giordano Bruno Online University, a project he is steering alongside Francisco de Paula Leon Olea, and  NEXUS member, Sebastian Carducci. The university hopes to offer first-class educational opportunities at an exceedingly low cost and expects to eventually attract hundreds of thousands if not millions of students from across the globe who would otherwise not have access to a first-world education.

After Ervin Laszlo inspiring presentation, it was Don’s turn to address the group. I scribbled down the first words he spoke to the young and wealthy audience. “You’re not special. At least, not yet. You’ve got to earn special.” Those words, spoken lovingly by a tough old bird loaded with medals and battle-scars, made an immediate energetic impact on the room. Texting stopped, necks craned, and eyes widened.

Don’s presentation lasted half an hour. In that time, he briefly described the master code of human emergence as envisioned by Spiral Dynamics. He explained how life conditions set the stage for the emergence of value systems. As those life conditions change, new challenges arise, and new ways of thinking and values emerge organically to resolve new problems. That dialectical process drives human emergence and social transformation towards higher levels of integration.

Don explains that life conditions on the planet are changing yet again. For the first time in the history of the planet the problems of the ages are flaring up in synchrony. We live at a time in which Emperor Nero is playing with nukes, as Torquemada presides over human rights groups at the United Nations, and Dr. Frankenstein is experimenting with the planet.

Don tells the guests, “Billions are passing through multiple levels of development simultaneously. And despite your good intentions, you’ve all got a lot to learn. It is naive to believe that anyone can be changed into anything simply by sending them Oprah videos.”

He warns the audience about the pitfall of one-size-fits-all solutions. Unique problems require unique kinds of thinking and solutions. Don considers Spiral Dynamics the master code of human emergence because the model describes the kinds of solutions required to solve the problems that arise at various stages of development. When the Purple system is bogged down, Red values are required. When the Red system implodes, Blue values are needed. And so on. Don quotes his own mentor, Professor Clare Graves of Union College whose research established the scientific foundation for Spiral Dynamics: “Cometh the time, cometh the thinking.”

Don’s message is clear. The resolution of the problem perceived by Green requires the emergence of new capacities and values. A new colored thread must be spun from the creative yarn of the human imagination. The shorthand codeword for the next system whose values and capacities can untangle our planetary snarl is Yellow.

Chief among the values and capacities that emerge at Yellow is the ability to recognize “verticality”—the developmental dimension of human emergence. Consciousness operating from a “flatland” worldview will be overwhelmed by the complexity of the nested problems sourced in multiple causes. Don stresses that without a proficiency with the algorithms of human emergence described by the master code, we don’t stand a chance. Yellow realizes that we have reached a pivotal stage in human evolution in which all our problems are interconnected. Therefore, we can’t address one problem at the time. We must address them all simultaneously, in an integrated and systematic way. How many balls can you juggle at once? If you’re operating at Yellow and are interested in global transformation, be prepared to juggle six billion balls all at once.

How can philanthropic organizations contribute in an integral Yellow system? Whereas foundations of the past had single focus outcomes, Yellow foundations focus on connecting all the dots. Whereas foundations of the past tend to operate along one dimension using piecemeal approaches and goals, Yellow foundations help to establish an integral framework that enables all the other foundations to interact synergistically in the context of a an open system in which everyone can benefit form the contributions of the others.

Don calls this new breed of philanthropic enterprise a Meshworks Foundation. To “become special” and truly make a difference, Don advises the guests to utilize their vast resources and goodwill to align and integrate power and authority across multiple domains simultaneously in order to facilitate sustainable global transformation. It’s a tall order, but then again, it’s a tall problem.

By the end of Don’s presentation, half the room is leaning forward on the edge of their chairs and half the room is leaning back texting. I noticed a few faces radiating the kind of light that accompanies an epiphany. Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world.”

Perhaps, today, Don found a fulcrum with which to move the world

About the Author

Rafael Nasser is writing a novel about reincarnation and the evolution of consciousness. He is studying Qigong and collaborating on other projects with Robert Peng. I’m doing consulting work. I’m exploring various other modalities relating to health and nutrition. And I’m wide open to serving the Kosmos as I can.