Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Lynne Twist of ‘Soul of Money Institute’ Is Helping To Change Our World
I wished I’d known earlier this beautiful quote by Maya Angelou: “People don’t remember what you say. They remember how you made them feel.” That’s a powerful realization that I would have loved to know from the very beginning.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lynne Twist.
Lynne Twist is a global visionary and activist committed to creating a future that is environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, and socially just. She is the co-founder of the Pachamama Alliance, the founder of the Soul of Money Institute, and the author of the The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Life and Living a Committed Life: Finding Freedom and Fulfillment in a Purpose Larger Than Yourself. Over the past forty years, she has worked in fifty countries with over 100,000 people as well as with many organizations and companies, inspiring them to expand how they see themselves and empowering them to express their commitment and creativity to secure the future of all life.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born and raised in the Chicago area in Evanston, Illinois. My father was a wonderful musician composer and a well-known orchestra leader during the big band era. He was my hero. I’m the third of four children, two older sisters and a younger brother, and I was the most musical one. I loved music, and my father and I played two pianos together in our living room. I took every possible lesson — tap, dancing, ballet, singing, piano — almost all to please my father. My mom came from a wealthy family that lost all their money in the depression, but she retained a kind of elegance and beautiful to-the-manner-born way of being. She was also a civic leader, very involved in social justice issues. My parents were really amazing people, and I led a fairy tale life — until tragedy struck.
The night before my 14th birthday, my father died of heart attack in the middle of the night. And for me, when my father died, it’s like the music stopped in my life. I thought my life was over. I dealt with my grief by getting very, very deeply engaged in what I now call spiritual inner work, but at that time, it was religious. I was a devoted Catholic getting up at 5:30 every morning to go to Mass. My faith was what got me through the difficulty of my father’s death, and I believe the loss of my father also catalyzed my life of commitment. As I look back, I feel like I really was a fortunate child. Even though my father died, my memories of my childhood are very positive.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
There was a book that we all read as children that I I’ll never forget called Paddle to the Sea. It was a big picture book about a boy in Canada who carved a beautiful little boat, a canoe with an indigenous man in it, out of wood. He wrote on the bottom of the boat, “Let me know if I make it to the sea.” Then the book follows this little boat down the river as the current takes it into a lake, through the lake, into another river, and another river until it gets to the Great Lakes system, then the St. Lawrence Seaway, and then all the way to the sea.
Not only was it a beautiful story, but it also made me realize that there was a larger world than the world I knew. It became clear to me that water was a current that ran throughout the entire world, like the blood of our Mother Earth. So that was a very important book for me. It impacted the way I think about the earth, the natural world, and particularly our relationship with water.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The story I think of is both funny and sad. When I was little girl of about five, I was very jealous that my older sisters were doing chores and getting allowances, but I was not. They had money that they put in piggy banks; my older sister even had a safe. They guarded their money and made sure that I didn’t have anything to do with it. I remember thinking that wasn’t fair, that I could do chores, that I deserved to have an allowance too. I wanted to have some money like my sisters.
I remember doing something that I later became very ashamed of. My father, as I said, was a musician, and he would come home late at night and empty his pocket change into a big coffee Maxwell House coffee can on the top of the dresser. When nobody was around, I took a chair and crawled up and took eight quarters from the can. I never got caught with this, but I was afraid I would, because I did realize that it was stealing. I ended up hiding the money in a hole that I dug in the wall next to my bunk bed and hung a picture over it. That was my little special hiding place for money. As I grew older and got an allowance, I forgot about the hole in the wall money. But at one point I remember realizing, “Oh my God, I stole this money from my parents, and I need to give it back.”
One night at the dinner table I told parents about stealing the money. I said I wanted to confess and to give the money back. My mother and father were very acknowledging and affirming this little act of integrity. They congratulated me and then I went to bed.
The next night my parents had guests for dinner, entertaining them with cocktails beforehand. My sisters and I joined them for dinner. At the table, my mother and father told the story of my confession of stealing the eight quarters from the coffee can as if it was an adorable, funny joke. The guests all laughed, but I remember feeling so hurt, so devastated, that I burst into tears and ran up to my room. It seemed so awful to me — like a knife in my heart — that my act of integrity, my sin, was made into something to make people laugh.
I realized later in life that sometimes parents will use their children as a kind of opportunity to tell a story, not thinking how it will affect them. I vowed never to do that with my kids. So the lesson, I guess, would be that we need to be tender with our children and what is important to them. We should never use them as entertainment — as a reason for a joke or a something to laugh at.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
I wrote Living a Committed Life because as I look back on my life, I’ve discovered that I could never have planned, or even aspired, to have the amazing life that I’ve had — that it didn’t come from my goals or my striving, or even from my upbringing. It came from making commitments that were larger than my own life. And it’s given me, as I say in the subtitle, freedom and fulfillment. In my view, we are living at a time when humanity is in such a crisis that some critical mass of us needs to make commitments larger than our own lives for the sake of the survivability of our species and the health and wellbeing of all life. So, in this book, I wanted to portray the joy, the benefit, the miracle of stepping out and stepping into boldness. I wanted to show that it’s not a sacrifice, but rather, it’s an absolute tsunami of joy and goodness and fulfillment and freedom to turn your life over to something larger than your own wants and needs and desires.
I wanted to make that available to people because at this time in history, we need people to step up way beyond what they think they can do. The earth, life itself, is calling for uncommon, courage, boldness, risk-taking, and thinking outside the box. So, it’s my intention that the book will inspire people — not about me, but about themselves. In the book I tell stories about people who have deeply moved me — not only famous people, but people who are just making life work wherever they are. The book is a contribution to people who are already on that path as well as to people who have that longing or can be enrolled in moving the dial rather than just getting by. So, it’s my intention that this book makes a significant difference in the lives of as many people as possible.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
There are so many wonderful stories of people who live committed lives, but I’ll share one about Nelson Mandela. I had the honor of being at his inauguration as President of South Africa in 1984. The main event was witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people in a huge stadium and on large TV screens outside. Afterward some guests were invited to a large outdoor luncheon served by South African students, and it was there I witnessed an event I never saw reported in the media.
Sitting on the stage with Mandela were luminaries like the Duke of Windsor and Benazir Bhutto, and at one point he asked them to move over as he invited to the stage two burly Afrikaners whom he introduced as his jailers during his 27 years in prison. He then proceeded to tell how for 17 of his 27 years he hated these men with a passion. But then he had the realization that his hatred was hurting himself and the movement, and he spent the 17th year of his imprisonment learning to love his captors. That act of forgiveness enabled him to be able to run the anti-apartheid movement from prison.
Now, as the two men stood next to him on the stage, he said, “Please forgive me for my years of hatred of you.” Tears streaming down their faces, they also asked him for his forgiveness for everything they did to him. Mandela then turned to the crowd, and as the three of them stood together, he said, “On this forgiveness we will build a new nation.” That was the beginning of the Truth and Reconciliation process that was so crucial to the new nation of South Africa and to the world.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
Living a Committed Life was really called into being by Jack Canfield, my good friend and probably one of the great storytellers of our time. He wrote the first Chicken Soup of the Soul book and created that remarkable series of transformational stories. Jack knew me and my work well, and he told me, “Lynne you have got to write a book of your life stories! You ‘ve got to share this with the world in a book; you have to do it!” So, he became my coach and my ally, inviting me to go to his house to share stories for two days with an audience of about 30 of his friends. The stories were recorded, and I had them transcribed, but I just didn’t know what to do with them.
After a year or so, Jack had moved on from doing others’ books, and the project languished until my friend and colleague Mary Chase also told me I had to write a book and offered be my collaborative writer. Mary helped me put the stories in shape so that they had a focus and a throughline of powerful messages. We connected with Berrett-Koehler publishers who took it on enthusiastically. The insight I have from this experience is that I don’t do anything by myself. I am a partner and a collaborator. I love to do things with another human being. To me, it’s all about relationships, and my relationships with Jack and Mary were the key to having this book happen.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Again, there are so many, but I remember several years ago being in Omaha, Nebraska, doing a presentation of the Pachamama Alliance followed by delivering the Awakening the Dreamer Symposium. Both events were organized by a local Omaha man who really wanted to spread the word about our work. He had just been on a Pachamama Alliance Journey to the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador and was really transformed by it. He felt that our work was absolutely the most important work he could do with his life, and as a volunteer he started the Pachamama community in Omaha. After the events he asked me what he should do with his life, and I told him, “People trust you. You have a way of convening people and having them feel safe and comfortable, and you’re loving and wise. You should lead trips to the Amazon rainforest for Pachamama Alliance.”
This was almost ten years ago, and just a few days ago, I saw him in Quito, Ecuador where he’s living now. He is now the head of the Pachamama Alliance Journeys program, organizing and leading them — about 10 journeys this year. He told me that my advice to him had turned his life around. He’d been in an unhappy job and an unfulfilled relationship and sort of biding his time, and now in his new life in Ecuador he’s flourishing, happier than he’s ever, ever been.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Number one, we need to get money out of politics. We don’t have a chance of moving the dial on the crucial issues facing us without getting money out of politics. The notion of corporate personhood has meant that aggregated money and power runs the show, and we cannot accomplish anything that the majority of people in this country want because the monied forces — rich donors and corporations — determine what happens in Congress. All campaigns should be financed by equally by the government.
Second, we need to give legal rights to nature. We can more effectively protect ecosystems by giving them rights to exist and thrive without human interference and destruction. The Pachamama Alliance helped launch this concept in Ecuador, where it is now in the constitution, and it has been adopted in communities in the U.S. and in countries such as Bolivia, Chile, New Zealand, and India.
Third, we need to surrender our way of seeing the world by political boundaries and begin looking at the world through the lens of watersheds. These natural systems are really what sustains all life on the planet. We need to put national and political boundaries in the background and put the natural world in the foreground, organizing ourselves around the extraordinary life services that the that the natural world provides for us.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is most powerfully executed by example. Simon Sinek has written a book called Leaders Eat Last. I love that idea. I was just in the rainforest leading Pachamama Alliance Journeys for two months with Daniel Koupermann, a man I consider to be a true leader. For decades, he assisted the Indigenous people there in protecting their land and culture, and I’ve witnessed how his leadership is from the background rather than in the foreground. He’s a teacher and a mentor, guiding the way a mother duck guides her ducklings. He’s a father figure, a counselor, and a wise man. When it’s necessary for someone to step up front and lead, like physically lead, he will do that without question, but mostly he’s a clearing in which other people are empowered.
That’s what I think powerful leadership provides: a clearing, a context. How things are framed and presented has a huge impact on how people react or respond. A true leader has the skill and the wisdom to communicate in ways that encourage people to step into roles of responsibility and accountability that feel natural to them and bring their best qualities to their work.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Number one: It’s incredible what you can produce if you don’t need to take credit.
My husband, Bill Twist, is huge advocate of that principle and a great example. He was one of the early advocates of idea of legal rights for nature and helped promote its inclusion in Ecuador’s new constitution in 2008. But he never took credit because he was clear that it reflected the thinking of Indigenous people and that they were the true source. Rights of Nature was a way to incorporate indigenous ways of being into modern world structures, such as the law. If it had someone’s name attached to it, it would not have moved through the world that way that it has. Now it’s the passion of so many people globally.
Number two: People think that they want change, but what they’re really seeking is transformation.
Over the years, I have come to understand the difference between change and transformation, and the distinction is an important one. Of course, we all want and need change in our lives — we want more, different, and better. We make what we want to change wrong or undesirable. But the dynamic of transformation doesn’t accuse the past of being wrong or bad; rather, it shifts the perspective so that what came before makes sense in a new light and generates a new future.
I’ve worked with many women who are in a troubling marriage and want out. They are focused on change, a problem to be fixed, a wrong to be righted: get this man out of my life! But when that woman can have a transformative perspective, she can look at her marriage as a journey that gave her many blessings, including her children. She can see separation and divorce as a liberation to find her own self-sufficiency, her own center and personal power. Then the past begins to make sense, and the divorce is not a failure, but a contribution, a teaching, and one of the powerful turning points that literally transformed her life.
Number three. Early in my work in fundraising, I was all about telling people clearly where the money goes. But then I learned that what they really want to know is a completely different question — which provides a much more inspiring answer.
I experienced this when I was coaching the fundraising team for the Jane Goodall Institute. We were doing a significant ask, maybe 500,000 dollars, and the person asked us, “Well, if I gave you $500,000, how are you going to use it? Where’s the money going to go?”
I started explaining that it would go for plane fare and hotel rooms and taxis and meals — but then I said, “Here’s what you really want to know: what difference is this money going to make? Well, the person who is going to be using this money is Jane Goodall, who will use it to meet with and speak to the children who have signed on for her Roots and Shoots program. This $500,000 will make one of the great icons of our time accessible in person to these kids all over the world. This money will enable her to touch the hearts and souls of hundreds of thousands of children around the world in the next two years. I think that’s really what you want to know.” It was — and we got the funding!
Number four: I wish I had known earlier in my life the natural knowing that women have and that feminine qualities should have equal weight to those of men.
When I first began working at est and The Hunger Project, it was a very masculine world, all about productivity and effectiveness. The men were loud and hard-edged, and even the women leaders dressed like men. When Hunger Project founder Werner Erhard was seeking a CEO for the new organization, he clearly had in mind a man like a NASA scientist, or a business executive, or government leader. On an interim basis, however, an educator named Joan Holmes became the temporary Executive Director, and I was her number two. We weren’t taken very seriously — sort of like schoolgirls who were helping out. And we sort of behaved that way.
But there was point when I realized the divine feminine heart and soul of The Hunger Project. Our team of mostly women, a gay man and a brilliant male physicist began to have successes no one could have imagined. The work of ending world hunger is feeding children, and it is the work of the heart, the work of the feminine, the work of motherhood; I would say now the divine feminine. In our work on the ground, in Bangladesh, in India, and in Africa, we began to see that the real key to ending hunger and poverty is the empowerment of women. And that’s when we were willing to empower ourselves and really take charge of the organization. It was such crucial insight — and I wish I had seen it sooner.
Number five: I wished I’d known earlier this beautiful quote by Maya Angelou: “People don’t remember what you say. They remember how you made them feel.” That’s a powerful realization that I would have loved to know from the very beginning.
One of my first experiences of this truth was on a Hunger Project fundraising trip with 17 major donors, people of wealth and influence, to Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries on earth at that time. We were all invited to a community gathering to honor us. We were seated on a raised dais with name plates, and the audience was seated on the ground in front of us. There was a very pompous man who very formally introduced us. I felt terribly uncomfortable.
When it was my turn to speak and they gave me the floor, I took the microphone off the stand and walked off the stage down into the crowd. I asked individual people to stand up and introduce themselves: “I’m Sanna, I have seven children. I weave baskets. My husband died of tuberculosis when my fifth child was born. I married another man and had two more children and he left me. I’m so grateful for the support of The Hunger project.” Then I would interview the next person.
As I interviewed them, I remember the experience that I had and that I created was that who they were mattered. Then my 17 travelers came down off the dais and sat on the ground with the Bangladeshi people, and we all sang. I don’t remember what I said that evening, and no one else does either, but I know how I make people feel. I made them feel important, that their lives mattered.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have many favorites, but at this moment my favorite is from Pema Chodron: “If your everyday practice is to open to all your emotions, to all the people you meet, to all the situations you encounter, without closing down, trusting that you can do that — then that will take you as far as you can go. And then you’ll understand all the teachings that anyone has ever taught.”
Just today, I had occasion to practice this lesson. I live on the edge of the Presidio forest in San Francisco, and the city is removing 80 trees that are causing or could cause some problems. So my neighborhood was invaded by men with big trucks and huge equipment with saws and claws and chains. It was noisy and intimidating. I am in love with trees, particularly these many trees that have served as a windbreak and as home to thousands of creatures for a hundred years. I wanted to scream at the men to stop, but I knew they were only doing their job, and doing it well. It’s a very masculine thing to deconstruct a forest! But I did talk to them, trying to remain open, to find out why the trees were coming down and then hoping to give them a new way to see what they were doing — a perspective of reverence for these great beings. I thought about Pema Chodron’s wisdom and realized the constant challenge of staying open in life, especially when something you love is being taken away….
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have lunch or dinner with Mackenzie Scott, former wife of Jeff Bezos and one of the most audacious and inspiring philanthropists I have ever witnessed in my life. I think we have a lot in common! I don’t know if she has read The Soul of Money, but she is the soul of money in action. She understands the power of money the way I do — that it’s a currency that needs to flow and move through the world. It’s like a river of love and effectiveness. She also understands sufficiency and the responsibility of true abundance. She is unafraid to be bold and risky, to be daring and uncompromising and play her heart out. She operates on trust and love. How I would love to just sit with her and share about our mutual commitment to have money be a force for good in the world!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The Pachamama Alliance
If you are seeking to join with other like-minded souls and to be in action, I recommend the Pachamama Alliance. We are a global community offering transformational educational pro- grams and training in community-based climate action as well as a profound connection to preserving the Amazon rainforest. That work includes teachings from Indigenous shamans and leaders and life-changing journeys to the Ecuadorean Amazon. Becoming a “Pacha-person” will enhance your life and your impact. Learn more at pachamama.org.
The Soul of Money Institute
The Soul of Money Institute addresses the dysfunction and suffering that most people have in their relationship with money in order to bring a new level of consciousness to the way money impacts our life and society. My partner Sara Vetter and our team offer transformational workshops and courses, as well as coaching and consulting to organizations and individuals. We also provide fundraising trainings and programs for the empowerment of women. Contact us at soulofmoney.org.
The Nobel Women’s Initiative
I have the honor of serving as a fundraiser and consultant for this remarkable organization of women who have received the Nobel Peace Prize: Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Tawakkol Karman, and Leymah Gbowee. Through this initiative, these courageous women bring their extraordinary experiences and work to spotlighting, amplifying, and promoting the work of grassroots women’s organizations and movements around the world, and to strengthening and expanding feminist efforts to promote nonviolent solutions to war, violence, and militarism. You can learn about and support us at nobelwomensinitiative.org.
The Hunger Project
Since 1977, The Hunger Project has been a pioneering global organization committed to ending hunger and poverty world- wide through sustainable, grassroots, and women-centered strat- egies. Hunger Project programs in Africa, South Asia, and Latin America are holistic, innovative, and highly effective, with three core principles: start with women, mobilize communities, and engage government. You can get involved and donate at thp.org.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Lynne Twist of ‘Soul of Money Institute’ Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.