The following is a letter I wrote this week to my fellow directors concerning a small housing estate that the charity owns. It contains about 9 houses all of which are in a state of some dilapidation and a number of which are pre-fabricated and past their sell by date. The aim was to develop the site but it has hit obstacle after obstacle over the fourteen years that it has been in process. Directors who were part of the Council (the board of directors for the charity – a Steiner School) set up a professional group to manage the development which was to be paid a percentage of the profits on completion of the project. No-one had envisaged the obstacles which would hold this project up for fourteen years. Having been part of the Council for thirteen and a half years and Chair for some ten years or more, I have now decided to resign and yet this last project felt like unfinished business as I outline in the letter. Having asked for Life’s help in resolving this last loose end, in typical fashion, Life delivered by creating a crisis which forced me to think about it more deeply but which generated a insight about something which had baffled me for many years (I have changed a few of the names):
Brickwood – The Tale of the Golden Goose
The planned Brickwood Development was initiated the year before I first became involved with Council but has remained unfulfilled throughout my tenure. With my impending withdrawal from Council it was the last outstanding issue that felt like unfinished business and I wanted to resolve it as far as I was able. With this in mind, I asked for Life’s help. The result has been that Brickwood has hit crisis with Brickwood Development tendering their resignation and demanding payment for their services. This was not quite the resolution I had in mind, but it has prompted a realisation about Brickwood which has eluded me all these years.
Like many before me, I put my time and energy into Brickwood and wanted to realise the aim of the housing development there, yet however much energy I put in and however many obstacles we resolved, fresh ones always cropped up and I could never see clearly why there should be such an impasse with the project, an impasse lasting fourteen years! As you all know, my perspective on Life is that if something is blocked then there is usually a good reason and something that needs to be learnt or brought to consciousness.
It was only at the end of last year, that I began to see more clearly and my heart began to speak more fully. In a conversation with Jim, following a Brickwood meeting, he pointed out that Brickwood was a contributor to the charity in terms of income rather than a drain (as had always been thought) and that we might well be better off developing it on a gradual basis and preserving the asset and income for the school. At the same time, I realised that my heart was not comfortable with the proposed crowding of twenty nine houses on to a relatively small site nor the design of terraces that would have to be erected. I realised that we were in danger of spoiling the site and creating something that no-one wanted.
In thinking about this more over the last few days, I had a breakthrough in terms of the pattern of Brickwood and why it was stuck; I could see a recurring theme. Everyone who has been involved in Brickwood has been caught by a desire to profit from it; this desire has often run for a number of years but has then ended up turning to dust in people’s hands. Phil and Jane at Homing House were caught by greed at the prospect of holding the school to ransom for the land needed for the sight lines and so was their agent, yet in the end their greed meant they ended up getting nothing as the sight line needs were changed by new planning directives. John, our neighbour, held us to ransom for years over the need to move the road yet, again, his greed defeated him as the resentment at this caused others to challenge his right legally and it was proved invalid. The initial residents at Brickwood were full of plans for how the development should be tailored to suit their needs even though they did not own it and again it came to nought. Colin Ford and others wanted to create a community for themselves, but that also came to nought.
Thinking about Brickwood I realised it was a trap and the analogy that came to mind was the Grimm Brothers’ tale of the Golden Goose, where each person that sees the goose tries to pluck one of it’s golden feathers but in doing so becomes stuck to the goose or the other people. It feels very much that this is the issue with Brookthorpe; everyone is stuck to it by their desire to profit from it. Sadly, I fear that for all their best intentions, this includes Brickwood Development, but it also includes the the charity. We have been blinded by our greed and are part of this chain of people stuck to the goose. In our case, I think the covenant is a particularly dangerous trap. Our greed and fear causes us to hold on to a covenant which has soured and continues to sour our relationship with our neighbour and our conviction that there is more gold to come than to simply restore the site and generate an income and provision for staff causes us to spend more and more money and neglect the site. In selling the nursing home, I am conscious twenty years later that no-one now remembers where the profit was spent but everyone still regrets selling off a gift and asset.
I think the lesson I derive from all this is that profit should not be our motive; there are more important considerations. Profit, as far as I am aware, is not one of our objects as a charity. When I sold my last house there was a dispute over the land that came with it, which our neighbours had tried to buy before we moved in since it was actually connected to their house not ours. We were not aware of this when buying but when we left the house, we sold the field (against the advice of our property agents) to our neighbours, because we wanted to leave the property cleanly without being responsible for perpetuating a conflict. I am not against making money, but I am against putting it first in our considerations. I think that if we build something which goes against the wishes of staff, which is out of keeping with the village, perpetuates the badwill with our neighbour and which ruins the gift given to us by the founders of the school then we will be responsible for that and it’s impact will far outweigh any monetary gain.
For Brickwood Development, my own perspective would be that to be involved with a charity must be free of a motive to gain financially on a personal level. I know Martin and Chris have given a lot to the school and Chris continues to do so but I think they may have got caught in the Brickwood trap. It is probably most painful for them, as I can’t imagine they will feel comfortable in their hearts extracting a payment of the level of £70,000 from the charity and they have also been caught for fourteen frustrating years.
The other and better known version of the Golden Goose is the tale of a goose that laid a golden egg each day. The owners were dissatisfied with this and sought to find the lump of gold inside the hen that was producing the eggs in order to be richer (or to feed it to get it to lay 2 eggs a day depending on the version). In each case they killed the Goose and lost the egg. I think this Golden Goose tale also applies to us.
I recognise that others may disagree with my perspective and am willing to be proved wrong but, for me, Brickwood has served its purpose as a last lesson which I am only sorry I did not see more clearly earlier. I do not think anyone is to blame, everyone has suffered (perhaps Brickwood Development most of all) but I am keen personally to learn so that we do not repeat this mistake or perpetuate it.
I am conscious that the tendency is to think of the world in a very practical framework of cause and effect. Fairytales and myths seem part of a previous more superstitious world where we did not have such control over and knowledge of how to manipulate our physical environment. Not making a profit, or putting making profit first seems somehow alien to us in this day and age and also the idea of emotions such as greed, envy etc. as if they are part of an old story. The concept of a consequence for our immoral actions feels outdated, part of a child like existence (we often only tell myths and fairytales to children as if they are no longer relevant to us as adults who have grown up) in our cause and effect model of physical reality yet my experience is that fairtyales, myths and morality are very much alive and playing out in much the same way. Indeed I often wonder if it is our insistence on this material view of the world which is oddly fairytale like; a strange illusion imposed on a reality which it does not fit in a child like insistence that we are in control of our lives.