Wednesday, May 21, 2008

On Wealth and Ethics

I was encouraged by Brent's appreciative comment to write a little more about Peter White's philosophy about ethics and wealth. Mr. White's principal interest is helping people find meaning in the context of material abundance. I am quoting liberally from Alice Cornwell Strauss who wrote a wonderful article on her fellow alum from Kenyon College. The full text can be found here. I have excerpted a few points that can apply to any business.

After returning from a summer at a dude ranch at the age of 13, Mr. White said, "I learned that there were other things of value besides the material things on which we tend to place too much emphasis. Once you have satisfied the basic survival needs, you must find meaning in your life. If you find meaning, the rest flows."

He applied this to his current business. His work stresses facilitation over advice. "Getting the family to decide what it wants to do and where it wants to go is the sine qua non of effective consulting. The real work is listening, making sure that everyone who has a stake in decisions also has a say, creating a safe place for the group to come together as people trying to solve a problem or reach an answer together, and moving the group toward resolution."

By age 32, Mr. White had achieved material success, was a partner at the fourth largest law firm in America and was deputy counsel for the House Ethics Committee. After chasing success but not finding happiness, White founded International Skye Associates, to provide personal counseling services in the field of private wealth and philanthropy. He stressed "taking advantage of opportunities and solving problems according to the needs and goals of each family as defined by them, integrating modern thinking about business and finance with timeless wisdom from religion, philosophy, and the social sciences. The Rockefeller Family was an early client.

Mr. White's concerns led him to expand his services to offer the Skye Summer Institute, an educational program for young adults who had inherited considerable wealth centered on living a complete and purposeful life, helping them to realize what's important to them in life. An heir to the General Electric Company fortune, remarked that White's "emphasis on finding meaning in their lives--and not focusing on their money--helps them evolve from being merely wealthy people to being wealthy with a cause to spend their money on."

In Mr. White's opinion, you can "indoctrinate people when they are young, or you can shame them when they are older, but real philanthropy comes from going beyond one's own immediate needs, being connected to the world and realizing that the world is hurting in many ways and that one can do something to alleviate that hurt."

In the words of the "king of soul" Sam Cooke, if we all took this view, "what a wonderful world this can be".

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