Economic worries and divine intervention

Jonathan Dawson discusses the financial problems at Findhorn and the village's unique way of dealing

So, last week, I left the Findhorn Foundation dangling over the edge of a cliff (in the form of an £800,000 debt) and torn between divine guidance and economic discipline as escape strategies, with its bankers getting twitchy. In fact – I am afraid it is always thus with cliff-hanging episode-enders – the camera angle made the situation look more perilous than it actually was.

Though by 2000 the Foundation had run five straight years of deficits, a good chunk of this debt was incurred in one single necessary expenditure – the rewiring of its one of its two campuses, Cluny Hill College in the neighbouring town of Forres. Moreover, the Foundation had several million pounds worth of property assets and was never in any serious danger of going under.

Nonetheless, the very real liquidity crisis and the string of operating losses did raise important issues that went right to the heart of the community’s self-definition.

As explained in last week’s blog, guidance has always been core to the community’s decision-making processes. This has led us on many merry adventures that we would have been most unlikely to have embarked upon had we been governed by left-brain rationality and economic logic alone.

For some, this colourful and cavalier history appears to seen as proof that we are, in fact, exempt from the humdrum rules of the market. A number of senior members of the community, for example, left in protest when in the mid-70s the Foundation bought the hotel that now houses Cluny Hill College because it took out a bank loan to do so.

Such a course, so the argument went, was proof of a lack of faith in the community’s ability to manifest the cash necessary for the purchase. Since the decision to buy had been the result of guidance, so the logic went, we should have trusted that the cash would come in.

Similarly, by the late 90s, there was a voice within the community that the path out of our financial difficulties was by way of guidance and manifestation rather than self-imposed economic discipline. The former was presented as representing ‘abundance’ as opposed to ‘fear-driven’ thinking.

The then head of the Foundation’s management team, Mari Hollander, sees the period as an important turning point in the development of the community. Accounting systems and practices were improved, with each of the Foundation’s departments becoming more like cost-centres, with awareness for balancing costs and income. The Foundation received a few generous donations and sold several substantial property assets to members and supporters of the community.

Meanwhile, Foundation members rallied to the cause. A good number tithed and, where they could, deferred payment of their income to ease the squeeze.

In parallel, detailed decision-making, which had previously been in the hands of all the Foundation’s co-workers, was mandated to a management team – where it remains to this day. This team consults with a council of co-workers that sets strategic priorities on all key issues.

A five-year plan to get back into the black was designed. The goal was achieved in two years and the Foundation has made operating profits for each of the last five years.

Mari took a no-nonsense approach to the need for greater efficiency and financial savvy: “If we are to manifest our needs, we need to know what they are. If we are subsidising departments, we need to know.”

This is a down to earth wisdom that allows for the possibility that the divine may be found in the balance sheets as well as in the meditation sanctuary. That economic rigour and guidance allied with manifestation may be bed-fellows rather than in competition.

The trick, it seems to me, is to be aware of the financial bottom line but not necessarily to be driven by it. To leave space for the miraculous to happen, and to see economic intelligence not with suspicion but as a potential tool in facilitating the process. Do we have the balance right? Who knows? This is an ongoing and lively debate within an ever-evolving community.

An old traditional story has it that as the storm waters rose ever higher, a house-owner climbed up onto the roof of his house to escape the flood. Three times, rowing boats passed offering to take him to safety. Each time he refused to jump on board, declaring his faith in the Lord who he knew would come to save him. He drowned and went to Heaven where he asked God why He had let him down.

“I tried three times!”, God replies.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.