Slide 1

Michael Mainelli and Ian Harris, The Z/Yen Group

[A version of this article originally appeared as "Where the Twain Should Meet" (why Eastern philosophies can benefit the voluntary sector), NCVO News, National Council for Voluntary Organisations (July 2000) page 12.

Applying Ancient Eastern ideas to modern management is not exactly new. For decades, business schools and management trainers have punted The Art of War by Sun Tzu, a 2500 year old beacon of light for competitive strategies. But apart from some over zealous fundraisers (who probably misspent their youth working in commercial sector sales forces) such "kill or be killed" thinking is hardly relevant in the genteel world of the voluntary sector.

Yet there are many compelling reasons for voluntary sector managers to open their minds to Ancient Eastern philosophies. One of the reasons that we at Z/Yen enjoy working with the voluntary sector is that we like to challenge our intellect. The voluntary sector is the most demanding sector we know because it is so difficult to place a simple economic value on inputs and outcomes of decisions in the sector. Classical "Western" economics, based upon 18th century AD utilitarianism and competition theory, struggles to cope with concepts such as community, humanitarianism, altruism and benevolence. Indeed, economic theories based on "rational behaviour" fail to predict many actual choices made by most "seemingly rational" people, especially when people are faced with difficult choices (e.g. choosing the least bad of two unpleasant actions). Such choices need to be made regularly by many voluntary sector managers. Modern theories melding economics with psychology (e.g. prospect theory) are starting to adapt Western economics to reflect empirical evidence in this regard. Some Ancient Eastern thinkers were on to these ideas thousands of years ago.

Kongfuzi (often referred to in the West as Confucius) in the 6th century BC developed the concept of ren (jen), perhaps best described as human-heartedness. Later scholars developed this concept further. Mo Tzu (5th century BC, often referred to in the West as Mozi) understood the concept of utility as well as the concept of benevolence. This Mohist school argues that universal love offers the greatest happiness of all. Good is defined as "that which is useful in promoting well-being". This was essentially benevolent utilitarianism some 22 centuries before Jeremy Bentham "discovered" utilitarianism and longer before benevolent utilitarians (charitable and mutual societies) started in Britain. Around that time (the late Victorian era) another Chinese thinker, Tan Sitong, was linking the benevolent concepts from Confucianism, Mohism, Buddhism and Christianity. Tan Sitong believed that all of these philosophies demonstrate similar values of benevolence. Tan Sitong 's work supports the premise for this piece; the UK voluntary sector today, though mostly born of Judeo-Christian traditions of benevolence, has philosophical roots in Ancient Eastern thinking and can benefit from understanding those sources.

Six good reasons for voluntary sector managers to open their minds to Ancient Eastern concepts 

  • increased empathy with beneficiaries, both philosophically and in terms of understanding individuals and/or groups who might come from traditions other than your own; 

  • acquire some appropriate techniques for your toolkit. Quality management and especially continuous improvement (kaizen in Japanese) are rooted in Buddhist thinking and are increasingly important to the voluntary sector; 

  • better thinking. Thinking from new perspectives should help voluntary sector managers generate ideas and improve decision making; 

  • leadership and team building. Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching suggests ways of leading, still fresh 2500 after writing. Try some next time you seek consensus when prioritising the allocation of limited resources; 

  • develop simpatico with collaborators and tolerance of adversaries - especially important in International situations where Eastern philosophy underpins the values of many contacts; 
  • improve supplier relations through partnership working rather than adversarial working.

…..and Five bad reasons - pitfalls to avoid 

  • following a fad or fashion without considering the specific potential benefits to your voluntary sector organisation; 

  • paying lip service to Eastern concepts without thinking; 

  • misguided political correctness; 

  • desperation, because nothing else seems to be working; 

  • mystifying your activities to ward off the unwanted and attract the unwary. Quasi-Eastern cults posing as voluntary sector organisations have, sadly, given Eastern thinking an undeserved bad name in the eyes of many people.

With appropriate thought and application, Eastern thinking and techniques can help transform you and your voluntary sector organisation. Try to make the twain meet.

Sources: Judgement in Managerial Decision Making, Max Bazerman, John Wiley & Sons Great Thinkers of the Eastern World, Ian P McGreal (ed), Harper Collins The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Ted Horderich (ed), Oxford University Press