Donor Spotlight: Maggie Kaplan

Our esteemed donor Maggie Kaplan (pictured above) – artist, activist, Bioneer and creator of the visionary Invoking the Pause Foundation – offers this first-person reflection on her philanthropy and how Bioneers has influenced her work.

It’s a wonderful moment at this “Thanksgiving” time of gratitude to “invoke a pause” and consider what parts of my life have influenced my focus on some of the issues I most care about, as I grow into becoming a “Wise Elder.”

A vivid memory from my childhood: I was born and lived in Detroit, Michigan until 7 years old. I remember my sister and I going to my grandparents’ home every Sunday. My grandmother kept a blue tzedakah box on her kitchen windowsill. While drinking a cup of heavily milk-diluted, Maxwell House coffee, served in one of her beautifully hand-painted porcelain cups, I learned about the importance of helping others. That each of us had a responsibility to take some small step to help others in whatever way we could, even if that meant putting only a penny or a nickel in her special little box. She helped instill in me a compassion for those less fortunate, by virtue of religion, race or other challenging life circumstances.

Also on her windowsill, she had a can with a picture of trees and words about planting trees in Israel. I also gave a coin to that box. Especially since I loved fall trees with their multi-colored amber, rust and yellow colored leaves, I wanted to help bring some of that natural beauty to the lives of others.

Reflecting back on those youthful memories, the seeds for my responsibility to help improve the lives of others in some small way, as well as appreciating nature’s beauty and sharing its healing powers, were set early on.

Over the years, I have been privileged to find many forms of beauty in the natural world – trekking in the Solo Kumbu region of Nepal and howling at the full moon at the Lukla airstrip with an 8-year-old companion; snorkeling in various parts of Thailand, Indonesian islands and other turquoise blue waters; river rafting and night-time hiking in the Brooks Range of Alaska; exploring the California Coastline with its magnificent mountain-oceanscapes, especially Highway 1 from San Francisco through Big Sur; and, closer to home, hiking and biking on many of the trails in Marin County and walking the beaches of Pt. Reyes and Sonoma Coastline.

The natural world offers such a multiplicity of beautiful forms and shapes – a visual feast as well as an inspiration for some of the artwork I have created over the years. But also it invites a deeper connection to self, a healing balm for connecting to the wildness within – to my instincts, needs for both connection and independence, creative and destructive powers—as well as an ineffable understanding of the interdependence and greater unities of all life forms in this vast web of life. Combined with a growing interest in spiritual practices over the past two decades, particularly Buddhism, I am becoming ever more aware of this ultimate connectivity and concomitant need for quiet moments of reflection and pause.

How to help steward and preserve the enormous gifts and beauties of the natural world has become more critical in the past few decades. Environmental degradation on many different fronts jars our sensibilities, and issues of climate change/disruption affect our entire planet and the survival of many life forms, some of which are extinct or rapidly becoming so.

Over a decade ago, I met Nina Simons at a Women’s Donor Network Conference. We connected almost immediately and felt a kinship – but that’s not hard to do with Nina! We followed up by taking a walk in Mill Valley. I recall hearing about Janine Benyus and the emerging field of biomimicry, Jay Harman utilizing biomimicry principles in designing his propeller, and Paul Stamets and mycology. These were all new names and concepts to me, but I was intrigued…. Thus began my education about Bioneers and growing involvement over the years – from attending the annual Conferences for the past 11 years and becoming part of the major donor family, including the Kinship Circle, in supporting what I lovingly call the “Mothership” of the environmental and social justice movements. Bioneers is a “network of networks” – cultivating collaboration and partnership among divergent communities.

I look forward each year to the Annual Conference for its cutting edge visionary social and scientific ideas, practices and people who have not yet reached the mainstream, such as those Nina first mentioned to me. That Bioneers has curated thought leaders and seminal ideas and practices ahead of the curve I deeply appreciate. I like supporting organizations that are early-stage “social change agents.”

Additionally, in the past few years, I have felt an increased sense of community, running into friends from the Kinship Circle and other organizations. Sharing lunchtime conversations formerly in the Green Room and now at Embassy Suites with some of Bioneers’ major supporters and friends is a wonderful way to keep building community.

And now I find that many of these ideas and people from the Conference have entered the mainstream with real potential for scalable solutions, as we move into an era of upheaval and “Epic Change” as Kenny calls it. Listening this year to Paul Hawken’s plenary talk on Project Drawdown, and learning about his systematic attempt to quantify the most effective climate solutions and technologies that already exist and scale their impact over the next 30 years. This exemplifies the kind of “juicy” information I enjoy learning about, and part of what keeps me supporting Bioneers and its mission.

This year I loved Annie Leonard’s remarks about how Bioneers gives her hope and is her antidote to fear. I share that sentiment, too. It’s my annual inoculation vaccine of hope amidst all the worldly gloom and doom.

Another profound way I find hope and resiliency amidst these challenging times began in 2006-7 when I was privileged to participate in a 9-month philanthropy program called The Philanthropy Workshop West, with its mission to help donors become more strategic philanthropists. As a result of this program, I honed my philanthropic areas of interest, with the environment being at the top of my list of what I dubbed “The 4-Es”: environment, economic empowerment of women and their families, education of the best and the brightest, and the “expressive arts and spirit.” I fund organizations in each of these areas, with Bioneers being a major commitment for my “Environmental E.”

For the final module of this program we were to make a 40 minute presentation on a new philanthropic engagement. Thanks to a convergence of synchronicities – seeing Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” walking my dog in Sonoma and running into a female scientist I knew on that walk – led to the creation of a program that I thought would be just a one-time grant.

I called it “Invoking the Pause” – its hallmark a creative “pause,” a gift of time – in a place of natural beauty for two female scientists to seed reflective ideas and strategies on the impact of a 3-foot sea level rise on the Bay Area’s plant and animal diversity, downscaling IPPC data to the regional level.

A week before my presentation in May 2007, while walking Sonoma’s Overlook Trail, my gut told me this vision was larger than just a one-time presentation. The seeds of a small, innovative program had been planted. To enable busy professionals to take a “time out” – a sacred act – which is why I named it “Invoking” (rather than taking) a Pause, to reflect and hopefully envision some creative strategies dealing with some aspect of climate change adaptation, mitigation or resiliency. I also believe strongly in the power of collaboration and a cross-disciplinary approach, with their power to spawn greater creativity. So I require that two or more people be engaged in a project. Experiencing the power of partnerships and collaboration at Bioneers had subtly influenced my thinking. Hence, the birth of Invoking the Pause ( “ITP”).

I had never created an organization before. I had supported other people’s work, “investing” in organizations I felt had strong leadership and were at the cutting edge of social change, such as Bioneers. Through my contacts, I found a Grants Administrator and created an Advisory Committee. I asked Nina to be on it, as well as to recommend other individuals. Over the years, she has provided wise counsel in helping select grant partners, as well as recommended innovative organizations, often at the margins of what might be traditionally funded by foundations, apply for grants.

ITP is a small grants organization, not a foundation. Now in its 8th year, I have funded 35 grant partners to date. I call them “grant partners,” not grantees. We are co-creating together, using our different resources of time, energy and finances, to learn, collaborate and connect.

We are one small “network” of a larger constellation of networks – a part of the Bioneers community. I know I get “resourced” by attending the Conference and glean new knowledge, strategies, and meet new people who may help strengthen the collaborative tissue and cross-pollination efforts of ITP. I also have connected with different people I’ve met there and encouraged their participation in ITP.

A wonderful example: Joshua Fouts, our own Bioneers’ Executive Director, was selected as an ITP grant partner in 2012. I love how we connected! I first met him at the 2011 Bioneers Conference at a lunch following a plenary talk he gave on Second Realities. After an amazing two-and-a-half hour lunch conversation that spanned many topics, including how to create meaningful collaborations across cultures and communities, I encouraged him to apply for an ITP grant in 2012. He did and travelled to Brazil’s Amazon, bringing microscopes to an indigenous tribe that initially didn’t even want anything to do with him. (Ask him about the story some time!) He went on to receive further funding to develop an iPhone app called Tribal Changes, which will enable Indigenous communities to share information about their cultures.

Read Joshua Fouts’ reflections on his ITP journey here »

Starting 5 years ago, I brought the first three years of grant partners together and created a “Collective Group Pause” to gather, share and network with each other, recognizing the power of the collective. Having learned a bit about biomimicry at the Bioneers Conference over the years, I knew that networks and connectivity strengthen the capacity for innovation and resiliency.

As a result, several grant partner groups collaborated the following year with each other on new projects. For example, Terry Tempest Williams and her two partners who created the “Council of Pronghorn,” collaborated with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NY City on a huge 9-month show on water. The 23 pronghorn sculptures formed a circle in the nave of the Cathedral, bearing witness for over a million people who walked through them on their way into the Cathedral.

Since then, I have continued to hold an annual gathering with both current and former grant partners within a few days of Bioneers Conference. Hoping that the grant partners would attend the Conference and experience some of the inspiration I have had, especially around community building and networking. I also recognized the power of continuing to build a larger and more divergent ITP community.

This year I listened to my gut again and expanded the vision to enlarge the “Power of the Pause” by growing the ITP Gathering to an overnight retreat with almost 40 people, our largest Gathering yet. And for the first time we included several “outsider allies”—people from the business and non-profit worlds, who are interested in climate change and the nimbleness of small grant organizations. Infusing “outsider” energy proved a valuable addition of new energy, ideas, strategies and expanded the web of cross pollination possibilities. Another subtle Bioneers influence!!

The “Power of the Pause” continues to be validated both for a personal reflection and for facilitating new connectivity and network building in a fresh and collegial way! We sent out a survey to all participants with some validating results. Over 72% of the attendees responded that the part of the Gathering that provided the greatest value for their work was “having the time to take a Pause” from normal workday schedule and gain a fresh new perspective. Ranking second at 64% were taking part in informal discussions during meals, breaks, campfire and music time. Another benefit of “pausing.” Already, just a few weeks after the Gathering, I’m learning of follow-up meetings among grant partners and allies, as well as allies with other allies.

I am so pleased that, through “pausing,” new connections are being forged in building an engaged and growing community dedicated to making a difference on this global issue. The allies are no longer “outsiders”, but now part of the growing ITP family.

It is these kinds of experiences that touch me, renew my inspiration, and validate my intuitive vision. They help me know that I am in right alignment with ITP on my path with heart that started as a young girl in my grandmother’s kitchen. I have learned that to do this requires perseverance, dedication, consistency and a longer-term perspective. Combining elements of both “grit and grace,” I can better understand Nina and Kenny’s deep commitment and love for building the Bioneers’ community over 26 years and still counting!

I take encouragement from what Jack Kornfield writes in A Path with Heart: “The things that matter most in our lives are not fantastic or grand. They are moments when we touch one another, when we are there in the most attentive or caring way. This simple and profound intimacy is the love that we all long for. These moments of touching and being touched can become a foundation for a path with heart, and they take place in the most immediate and direct way.”

Mother Teresa put it like this: “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”

If I could time travel back to my 15-year-old self, I would encourage her to heed Jack’s message as she enters a world undergoing “epic change.” Listen to your heart’s calling and its wisdom. Know in a deeply intuitive way that we are connected to everything else in the larger web of life. Be grounded and spend time in the beauty, wonder and magic of the natural world. Recognize that “no one size fits all,” that there is no “scalable” solution that is a magic bullet to solve the enormity of issues facing us on the planet. Balance your feminine inner reflective guidance system with taking action in the world. May you hold the beautiful centrality of pure opposites and the power of paradox. Be dedicated and determined. Cherish perseverance.

As David Whyte writes in his poem “Start Close In”:

…To find

another’s voice,


your own voice,

wait until

that voice

becomes a

private ear

listening to another.

Start right now,

take a small step

you can call your own

don’t follow someone else’s

heroics, be humble

and focused.

Start close in,

Don’t mistake that other for your own…

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