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Tuesday, 14 August 2012

We only live once? A worldview that is infinite

By Usha Menon
Click to enlarge. Original image from

Over the lunch break at a board training session, we were sharing snippets from our lives. And one person, very philosophically, said ‘We live only once’. To which his colleague on the board asked, ‘Do we?’ The others at the table nodded appreciatively in unison, while reflecting on this perceptive query.
An interesting and thought-provoking query – I thought.
Many of us have adapted to visible behaviours that could be called ‘western’. Yet, our beliefs and thinking are strongly influenced by our Asian culture, upbringing and religion. A worldview that is cyclical rather than linear – the concept of rebirth being just one case in point. To a large number of Asians, life itself is not considered as one with a finite start and end. Hence when we use management tools developed in cultures that have a logical, linear and finite worldview, we tend to confuse our thinking.
Hence I would like to share three observations.
Strategic planning
Many nonprofits spend hours on strategic planning sessions and well-crafted feasibility studies using tools widely used in domains where reason is paramount. However, the nonprofit decision makers implement strategies based on their instinctive understanding of the environment, making some of the planning a mere technical exercise.
Here is the drawback in this exercise. The vision, values and goals are important concepts. But a linear roadmap generally used in the common strategic planning process and step-by-step action plan does not take into consideration the more intuitive ways in which Asians would like to get to their goals.
Therein lies the frustration that some donors and grantmakers, social entrepreneurs and investors, boards and consultants face when they look at the same thing through different angles. One – where highly logical and institutional thinking is overlaid on social impact organisations run by people who have great faith in their beliefs and intuition and have proved that it works as well.
Hence, an amalgamated approach that takes into consideration the alignment with the philosophies and thinking of the implementer will ensure a better buy-in and hence greater success.
The sea is not just a body of salt water, but one that is filled with many fresh-water rivers.
A recent interview with Ms Yukiko Uchida, Japan’s foremost researcher on ‘happiness’, highlighted a specific example of how cultural contexts mould the framing of research questions to understand the level of happiness. Ms Uchida gave an example from her classes at Kyoto University, where she teaches about the role of culture in shaping ideas of happiness. While her Japanese students usually rate their happiness around five or six, she said studies have found Americans and Europeans usually rate their happiness at eight or nine.
Ms  Uchida said, ‘Japanese judgment of happiness is not just, yeah, I’m happy now, I check 10. They also think about social comparisons and time-frame comparisons’, she explained. Her students have told her that if they check nine or 10, they think they can only go downhill.
‘Absolute judgment is very difficult for Japanese people. But they can judge their happiness compared to other people. Like, “I’m okay compared with my neighbour or my colleague”, which shows that relationship orientation is very important for Japanese happiness.’
Nonprofit leaders and executives in Asia need to be aware of, and develop or adapt materials to, this aspect of our worldview. Blindly providing input into the various matrixes, which are not generally designed with a focus on the relational aspects of our thinking, will provide data that is incorrect, as cited in the example above – that Japanese students are not unhappier than their western counterparts, just that their interpretation of happiness is different.
Yatha dristi, Tatha sristi’ ~ Vedic affirm in Sanskrit, which means that whatever our view is, accordingly the whole world appears.
At a recent seminar in Thailand, a very dynamic speaker shared the importance of activism in civil society development. He then talked passionately about the need ‘to get angry’ with the status quo. And that’s when he lost the plot. The audience, made up largely of Thai nonprofits, shifted uncomfortably in their seats. What was lost on the speaker was that purifying oneself of anger is essential to Buddhist practice, which the majority of his audience was. In Buddhism there is no such thing as justifiable anger.

Being aware of the impact of religious and cultural beliefs and philosophy is the key to communication with any audience. More so in Asia, which is home to over 60 per cent of the global population.  A large number are followers of Buddhism and Hinduism, which are ancient religions with well-established traditions that cut deeply into their followers’ daily life and they are proud of it.
The same is relevant in the cultural context of storytelling. Asian communities, be it through Korean drama, Indian cinema, or Indonesian wayang (traditional theatre), are raised on a solid appetite of non-linear storytelling. Stories of duty, sacrifice, honour and fate resonate very well with the audience. As communicators for the life-and world-changing work done through social-purpose organisations, we have a great opportunity to revisit and learn the basics of storytelling as we know it in Asia.  I will share more thoughts on this in my future blogs.
I would love to hear from you, your thoughts and comments on this post. Have you had experiences that are similar or different from what I have shared?