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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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA