The following is a conversation between Heather Templeton Dill, President of the John Templeton Foundation, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: The John Templeton Foundation is a philanthropic organization that reflects the ideas of its founder, the legendary investor, John Templeton. He wanted to support progress in religious and spiritual knowledge, especially at the intersection of religion and science. And he sought to fund research on methods to promote and develop moral character, purpose, creativity in people, and to promote free markets among other things. And here to discuss what they’re up to today, it’s a pleasure to have with us, Heather Templeton Dill, the president of the foundation.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Heather!
Heather: Thank you, Denver. It’s great to be with you today.
Denver: Let’s start with the founder and your grandfather, John Templeton. Tell us about him, Heather, and your perceptions of him when you were growing up.
Heather: My grandfather grew up in south central Tennessee. And from there, he went on to Yale University and ultimately became a Rhodes Scholar. And with all of that training, he invested his time and fortune in the mutual fund industry. He became known for global investing, for looking for investments and opportunities all around the world. And he came to realize the opportunity to invest all around the world after traveling across Europe, through Asia, back to the United States after his time as a Rhodes Scholar.
So, he was an investor first and then a philanthropist second. Many of the principles he brought to philanthropy came from his experience in business.
Denver: And his first wife and mother died several months apart. And I think that you said that marked a turning point in his life. How so, Heather?
Heather: That’s right.
He lost both his mother and his first wife six months apart. And prior to that, he had grown up in a religious community. His mother took him to church, and she was very active in that place in their community.
When he lost two people who were close to him, he poured himself into business, but then realized that he had an opportunity to serve the world. And he sought ways to invest in philanthropy. And he began by joining the board of the Princeton Theological Seminary that led to the creation of the Templeton Prize and ultimately the creation of the John Templeton Foundation.
Denver: About–I don’t know–80% of the grants you make are through the Science and the Big Questions initiative. And that supports research that aims to answer those big philosophical questions. What are some of them?
Heather: Some of the questions that we are asking are: What is purpose? How do we develop purpose over the lifespan? Does purpose apply to the natural world? What is gratitude? And what is generosity? What are the fundamental structures of the natural world? And what does that tell us about what it means to be human?
So really all of the questions we’re asking in Science and the Big Questions are focused on helping us understand meaning and purpose, how that applies to us as individuals, as well as how that applies to the natural world, to scientific exploration.
Purpose is having a goal or ambition, working toward that goal, and that goal needs to be focused on something other than yourself.
Denver: Define purpose if you would.
Heather: Well, the John Templeton Foundation has invested a great deal in purpose. With respect to human purpose, the best definition that we have developed through the work of our researchers and scholars is that: Purpose is having a goal or ambition, working toward that goal, and that goal needs to be focused on something other than yourself.
Denver: I like that.
Heather: I think that’s the best definition. I don’t know that everybody would define purpose in that way, but I think it’s a compelling definition because it focuses on what you can do for others, how you use your gifts and talents for the benefits of others. So that’s the best definition of purpose I’ve ever come across.
Denver: Yes. I like it a lot. It’s very simple, and it’s very clear. Now, do most people have a sense of purpose? And if they don’t, how would they go about trying to cultivate one?
Heather: I don’t know whether most people have a sense of purpose. I do think that human beings are naturally inclined to wonder about their purpose and meaning. And so, in that sense, I think most people have a sense or at least desire a sense of purpose.
What we’ve learned is that helping young people in particular think about their vocation, think about what they want to do with their life, helps develop a sense of purpose early on that then continues over the lifespan. Some of the research we funded suggests it’s a bit harder to encourage people later in life to think about purpose and develop that sense of purpose. It’s not impossible by any means, and one should always be thinking about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they’re contributing to others over their lifespan. But it seems to be a critical age in sort of the late high school, college time period where we’re open to thinking about what we want to do with our life and why it’s meaningful.
Denver: When I think back to that time, I also think back to some of the other people in my life beyond my parents, because I did not tend to listen to anything my parents said. So, I would imagine the role of mentors has to be very important at that critical juncture.
Heather: Yes, that is true. And that is what we have found through our research – that mentors play an important role in helping young people, again, in particular, to think about: What am I doing, and why am I doing it?
Some of the researchers and scholars we have supported defined gratitude as a sense that you have been given gifts and that those gifts have not come from you… that idea that the gifts you have come from outside of you recognizes it’s not because of things you’ve done; it’s because of these blessings that come to you. And that instills a sense of gratitude. I think that sense of gratitude then inspires you to think about: How can I serve others? So that’s how gratitude and purpose are connected.
Denver: You mentioned gratitude a moment ago. Gratitude and purpose, are they linked in any way or not?
Heather: Yes. I think gratitude and purpose are linked. One of the stories or things my father always told me about my grandfather was that he was filled with gratitude. He was grateful for the community in which he was raised. He was grateful for the opportunities that he had in life. And that then encouraged him to think about, “Well, how can I give back to others?”
So, I think a sense of gratitude…and it’s important to define these terms. And again, some of the researchers and scholars we have supported defined gratitude as a sense that you have been given gifts and that those gifts have not come from you. They’ve come from outside of you. It could be from another person. It could be from some sense of the divine. But that idea that the gifts you have come from outside of you recognizes it’s not because of things you’ve done; it’s because of these blessings that come to you. And that instills a sense of gratitude. I think that sense of gratitude then inspires you to think about: How can I serve others? So that’s how gratitude and purpose are connected.
Denver: That’s very interesting. Let me ask you about adversity then, because again, looking back at your grandfather, he faced that adversity, both with his mother and his wife dying several months apart. And it did seem like a purpose came from that in terms of what he was going to do. Would that be a common story, or is that adversity is sometimes overplayed a little bit in terms of how it’s linked to purpose?
Heather: I think we’re still learning about the role of adversity and purpose. We have funded some research which suggests that maybe adversity doesn’t always lead to a positive outcome or to improvements in your character or to a deeper sense of purpose as often as we would think.
Many people have an intuitive sense–I would be among them–that if I go through a hardship, and I survived that hardship, it’s going to make me a stronger person. And that’s often true, but it’s not always true. And I think it’s helpful to recognize that because if you’ve gone through a hardship and you’re not recovering in the way that you thought you would, maybe that’s OK. And maybe you will still have an opportunity to grow.
In my grandfather’s case, he would say that the challenges he faced throughout his lifetime, which included 13 failures in business, did give him a sense of purpose. I just think that’s true in many cases, not true for all. More research needs to be done.
Denver: Yes. And you know… probably people who’ve been through adversity and have a sense of purpose, we’re going to hear about them on TV or in a magazine. If it doesn’t happen, we don’t hear about them. So, we kind of draw a conclusion: well, it must happen to everybody. But it’s certainly not the case.
Heather: That’s right. That’s a good point.
Denver: One area that I am particularly interested in is the dynamics of religious change – understanding the changes in religious beliefs and practices around the world and the causes. What are you looking at? And what’s currently going on? Because quite a lot of plates are moving at the moment.
Heather: That’s right. So we have a great partnership with the Pew Charitable Trust, with their research arm. It’s called the Pew-Templeton Religious Futures Project, where we have funded research around the world about trends in religious belief and practice. A lot of that is connected to demographic trends as you can imagine, but a lot of it is connected to just the extent to which people are moving outside of a religious community or finding that sort of spiritual impulse, their spiritual curiosity filled in a variety of other ways. We’re also trying to understand atheism and whether atheism really is a lack of belief in God or a lack of belief in anything. And we think there are some interesting questions to ask there.
So, I think in sum, there’s a great deal of dynamism when it comes to religious belief and practice, and we’re excited about that. I think my grandfather would have been excited about that. We’re doing what we can to collect the data and then share that information. And the Pew Charitable Trust has been a great partner with us on that effort.
Denver: They’re a wonderful organization, too. Talk a little bit about the intersection of science and religion. Because I would imagine some people probably look at you askance and say, “Now, wait a minute. Aren’t these two in conflict? And don’t we have some beliefs that are solid and are not going to be altered, and the other is data?” How do you bring that together, and how do you interface with those worlds?
Heather: Well, our interest in science and religion, again, goes back to my grandfather and the way he looked at the world. He grew up in the 20th century. And I think we can all agree that there were significant scientific and technological advances throughout the 20th century. He witnessed so much of that, and he thought we have accomplished great things because of these advances. The one area of human existence where we haven’t made similar advances or where we haven’t even thought advances were possible was in religious belief and practice.
And so, he took the view that people of faith have something to learn from science, particularly through the methodologies of science. That the way in which scientists do their craft could actually help people of faith, theologians, philosophers, do their craft better and help us discover new things. For those who are scientists or appreciate the scientific advances we have made, recognizing that science answers a lot of ‘how’ questions, it doesn’t always answer the ‘why’ questions. And that’s where faith, religion, philosophical traditions can come to the table and help inform the way we look at the world through science and how we interpret our scientific information as well.
Denver: Somebody has to be very secure in their faith to go down that road and invite science in, which he must have been.
Heather: Yes. He was incredibly open-minded, so I think he was willing to change his perspectives. But I think he was also very sure that there are principles of life – he called them the ‘laws of life’ – which are principles, maxims, when put to the scientific tests, would stand up, would prove to be true. And so, he was confident in that aspect of life.
Denver: Heather, you were raised in a Christian home, but by the same token, you have been exposed to a whole variety of religions throughout your life. Have they in any way altered the way you look at your faith?
Heather: My exposure to people of other faiths and other religious traditions has not altered the way that I have looked at my faith or changed my religious beliefs per se. It has enhanced my own commitment, which may seem like a paradox in a way.
But I’ll say it in this way. So much of our growth and experience over life comes through personal relationships. And one of the great blessings in my life has been friendships with people who are deeply religious, but who have a different religious commitment than I do. And I’ve often said, I have two friends in particular I think about who practice their faith faithfully. And I always thought they were sort of more faithful, better at their practice than I was. And their commitment has inspired me in the way that I parent, the way that I live my life, the way that I interact with other people. So that’s the way in which other faith traditions have enhanced and encouraged me in my own Christian tradition.
Denver: Another area of inquiry is about a topic that really seems to be in very short supply these days, and that would be intellectual humility – recognizing that maybe the way we’re looking at the world isn’t exactly the way it is, and I don’t have all the information on hand. Give us an idea of the kind of work you’re doing in this arena.
Heather: Our interest in intellectual humility is based on my grandfather’s interest in humility. You asked about science and religion and how we bring those together. My grandfather talked about a humble approach– recognizing that all of us, whether we’re the best scientists in the world or the most faithful religious people, only have limited knowledge, and that knowledge is always changing.
Our work in intellectual humility focuses on: How do we measure it? Is it possible to measure it? Once we are able to measure intellectual humility, can we develop interventions that help us develop intellectual humility? And then, what programs can we support? So, that’s where our work is focused. We’ve learned a lot. There is a lot more to learn.
Denver: Which is a statement in intellectual humility right there, as a matter of fact. So why is it so hard to admit we’re wrong?
Heather: Well, some of what we’ve learned is that when somebody contradicts your perspective, particularly if you hold that belief or that view very strongly, it can feel like an attack on you as an individual. And I think that’s one of the reasons that being willing to hear other perspectives can be very hard.
We all think highly of our perspectives. We think that we’re rational human beings who think through the views that we hold. And when someone challenges it, challenges the view that we hold, it can be very hard to not see that as a personal attack on you as an individual. I think that that evokes a kind of emotional response. And that’s one reason why it’s hard to be open to new ideas.
Denver: And if I might add, I think a lot of people who challenge your ideas these days, these are personal attacks. You know what I mean? If you take a look at our political discourse, it’s not that your idea is wrong, it’s that you are a bad person. And that seems to be new, over the last 5 or 10 years in the civil discourse or the uncivil discourse in which we’re all engaged.
Heather: That’s right. I think it feels like it’s become more pronounced over the last 5 or 10 years in our current social environment. Of course, it’s not the first time in history where the civil dialogue has been at such a low level. And I think it’s important to remember that. Like in many things, we are all evolving and we can evolve in a positive direction. Sometimes we might fall back. But specifically in this area of intellectual humility, I think there’s an opportunity to recognize what’s possible, that we can learn how to listen to others, how to accept new information, and come to a place where we can better understand each other.
Denver: I agree with you, and not call the person a flip-flopper when they change their mind when new information comes. We kind of deride people as well, which doesn’t help.
Heather: That’s absolutely right. And my grandfather would celebrate somebody who changes their mind in light of new evidence.
And then I think we also need to do a better job of recognizing the information we have now is tentative because we’ll learn something new. And so, it’s a balancing act to be sure– that we can hold knowledge tightly and yet still be open-minded to new information that comes along.
Denver: I think you’re right. I don’t have any facts on this but I’ll say them anyway. As it seems like 50% of our knowledge today will be obsolete in 10 years, so the key is the ability to continue knowing how to learn is much more important than having any set body of knowledge.
You’re also looking at love. Now, sometimes you think you can’t study love scientifically, but I guess I’d be wrong. What are you looking at there?
Heather: Right now, most of our research on love is trying to understand how love acts in human relationships and in particular, in close human relationships. So, what are the factors that contribute to loving relationships? How are loving relationships… how do they hold up over time? And can we measure that? Can we think of interventions to help people love each other better?
So, there’s actually a great deal of work to be done in understanding love, agreeing on definitions of love, and then exploring how it impacts human relationships, particularly close human relationships.
Denver: Heather, how does the Templeton Foundation try to measure impact? The difference you’re making around these just huge questions, which will never be answered completely, but obviously, you’re trying to go down the continuum and make progress. How do you look at that? How do you try to measure it?
Heather: We try to do a number of things to measure the impact that we’re having. On the one hand, we fund researchers and scholars, so we are counting how many articles are published out of the work that we support. An article represents research that is accepted in the scientific community. So that’s important to us.
We are also looking at how many people are applying for applications to the John Templeton Foundation. We are unique among funders because we have an open submission process every year. And we look at who’s applying, how many we received, and what kinds of projects are coming forward. And then we’re also trying to gauge who’s writing about the work that we’re doing, who is inviting us to have a conversation on a podcast, who is writing about us in top tier publications, particularly those that reach a wide audience.
All of those are ways that indicate to us there’s some interest in the kind of work that we fund. So that’s one way in which we try to measure the impact we’re having.
Denver: And is that trending in a good direction, would you say? And I also say that in that this stuff is tough, and we just seem to live in a society where long form and thoughtful explorations like this are the antithesis of the tweet culture in which we’re in, where everybody wants things in a sound bite. How do you try to balance that in terms of communicating it to an audience that really… maybe getting them in the door, I guess is what I’m saying, and hopefully, they’ll dig a little bit deeper?
Heather: That’s right. I think there are multiple ways to think about how to engage people in these kinds of conversations. Sometimes it is literally a conversation. So, we have tried to pull together some of our researchers with writers, with journalists, and give them dinner and give them an opportunity to talk about the work that they’re doing and have these journalists or writers ask questions. And while that’s a very small group, the impact of that can yield benefits, I think, that go on and on and on.
We do have a tweet culture where you’re limited in the number of characters you can put out there, but we also have this podcast culture, which is absolutely amazing. And I think if my grandfather were alive today, he would be so excited that you could pick up your phone, stick something in your ear, and listen to a 45-minute conversation while you’re jogging. And that allows for a substantive exploration of some of the topics that we fund.
I think that is a huge benefit, and that’s where we’re seeing a lot of uptake.. And whether it’s me talking, or whether it’s one of our grantees, which is actually even better, there is a thirst for the work that we’re producing.
Denver: Well, I have to say your methodology in reaching journalists by feeding them is right on. In a similar vein, you also are trying to make the work at the foundation more global. Tell us about some of your initiatives there.
Heather: Well, we have always been a global funder, and our open submission process is one way in which we try to reach across the world. So, we want to invite people who we don’t even know yet to submit ideas. We need to do more to fund institutions outside of the West. But a lot of the work that we fund through universities, whether they’re in the United States or Europe, are then supporting scholars who are working in other areas of the world.
I’ll give you a good example of what we’re doing right now. We talked about gratitude earlier in our conversation. We have a lot of information about gratitude, what it is, how to measure it here in the United States. Right now, we’re exploring an opportunity to expand that research to different regions of the world and to explore whether our understanding of gratitude maps on to how gratitude looks in other areas of the world. And we’ll be relying on scholars who are situated outside of the United States to do that work. So that’s a very specific way that we’re seeking to do that.
We also have a portfolio of activity called Islam, Science and Society. So while Islam is relevant and prevalent all around the world, this is focused on reaching the Muslim majority world through funding of grants and research projects.
Denver: That sounds great. I love the idea about gratitude, too, because we kind of hold universal truths, and this again gets back to intellectual humility. Sometimes our universal truths are not universal, and you can’t assume that they are. And by doing that exploration, you find out there may be different gradients or different perceptions of it all.
For many listeners, I think they’re probably going to be most familiar with your work as a result of the Templeton Prize. What factors do you consider when awarding it? Maybe you can give us an idea of some of the recipients of it, and maybe the changes that you’re making in the way you go about awarding the Prize itself.
Heather: The Templeton Prize was my grandfather’s first philanthropic investment. It started in 1972. It is a lifetime achievement award. It has gone to one individual for the most part every year, since 1972. And this is an award that recognizes those who use the science to inform the work that they do, and to explore some of the deepest questions of human existence.
So, we have given the award to scientists who are very accomplished in their field of science, but who are also asking the questions about: What does this mean for human existence? How does this contribute to human meaning and purpose? And they ask those questions usually through the way they write about their scientific work.
The award has also gone to religious leaders from all across the faith traditions, who are very good religious leaders, but also are curious about what science tells them about their faith, or how they can use the lessons from science to improve the way in which people live and practice their faith.
So those are the different ways, the different kinds of people who have received the prize over its lifetime.
Denver: I think Mother Teresa was the first one. I was reading about Rabbi Sacks, and maybe you could say a word about The Dignity of Difference. I really liked that.
Heather: That’s right. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks received the Templeton Prize in 2016. And he was recognized because he is a religious leader in the Jewish tradition who made a significant effort through his work to reach across religious traditions, to befriend those who are outside of his own religious tradition and to focus on what… the Abrahamic faith in particular, but what religions hold in common. And he didn’t do that in a way to say, ‘Let’s ignore our differences.’ We recognize that we have distinct differences that are rooted in a cultural and historical context, yet we hold so much in common, and let’s see what we can do together. And that’s what Rabbi Sacks meant by The Dignity of Difference.
Denver: Heather, let me ask you about your leadership through this never- ending crisis. What have you found to be the keys to it, in leading your team and your whole constituency, and has it maybe changed the way you’re going to lead in the future as a result?
Heather: You are right to say it has been a challenging time to lead an institution. And I think the two keywords are flexibility and adaptability, which goes along with the evolutionary process from which we’ve all come. And it’s also a testament to technological advances that allowed all of us to shift out of the office and still work effectively.
So what I’ve tried to do is maintain communication with the team. We had all-team meetings monthly during the peak of the pandemic. We met every week just to sort of see each other or hear each other on the screen. And that was a key way to stay together. I write to my team almost weekly as well, and that’s the way in which I try to remind us all of the work that we’re doing, keep us focused on the fact that we’re a team, and to celebrate the projects that we accomplish as an example of how we come together.
Nothing we do at the John Templeton Foundation is done by one person. It requires multiple people across the team, and that’s how I seek to elevate that. And then of course, a key partner in all of this are the people that we support through our grantmaking activity.
What we found in our research is that generosity… giving engenders happiness and joy. And when you start giving, you sort of then get the taste and thirst for giving, and want to keep doing more. And we just want more people to understand that.
Denver: Finally, Heather, the Generosity Commission. I think that was launched on October 12 or somewhere around there. You’re involved. You’re a member of it. The John Templeton Foundation is involved. Tell us a little bit about the Generosity Commission and what its mission is.
Heather: Well, the Generosity Commission is a bi-partisan commission of individuals that includes both philanthropists, but also practitioners who care deeply about encouraging a culture of giving, primarily in the United States.
The Generosity Commission recognizes that our numbers of giving are down, yet we also recognize that there are many ways to define giving. So giving is in part what you contribute to nonprofits and others through your financial resources, but giving also involves voluntary work and the giving of time. In both cases, it seems to be that people are giving less. And so, we’ve come together to say, ‘All right. Let’s diagnose the challenge. And then let’s come up with a way to address the challenge. And most importantly, let’s generate some excitement around the concept of giving.’
And the John Templeton Foundation joined… I joined, because what we found in our research is that generosity… giving engenders happiness and joy. And when you start giving, you sort of then get the taste and thirst for giving, and want to keep doing more. And we just want more people to understand that.
Denver: And it really does seem to be a redefinition of philanthropy because philanthropy used to be so closely tied to money. But now, as you say, there’s a lot of different ways that we can be philanthropic. And I do think often, as a lot of our older citizens have not prepared for retirement, they’re going to have a hard time. And a lot of our younger citizens are having a hard time getting out, getting started and paying off debt. So, the whole concept of philanthropy, which I think is just actually going to help the power balance in terms of having everybody at the table with something very distinct to offer.
Heather: Right. And there are many ways we don’t capture all of that giving because when you drop a dollar in the collection box, at the cashier at your local grocery store, that’s a form of giving we don’t always capture in our numbers. And so, we need to both encourage it and recognize the varied ways that people contribute their resources.
Denver: Heather, for people who want to learn more about the foundation– and I think you have 12 priorities. Maybe we got to three of them, so there’s nine others. But it’s just a rich, rich website. Tell us a little bit about it and what people are going to find there.
Heather: If you go to templeton.org, you will be able to read about some of the areas in which we make grants. But there’s a little tab at the top of our website called ‘Discoveries.’ And I would encourage those who are interested in learning more to click on that tab; pick a topic that’s of interest. We have summaries and infographics on forgiveness and generosity and gratitude and humility…many of the topics that you and I discussed. So, I would encourage folks to go there.
And then I would also say, please go over to Templetonprize.org to learn more about the Templeton Prize and the many laureates that we have granted, that we have awarded over its lifetime. We’re really excited, particularly about Jane Goodall, who received the Templeton Prize in 2021. There are some great videos of her on templetonprize.org.
Denver: And I will add, you do make it all very exciting. I want to thank you so much, Heather, for being here today. It was such a delight to have you on the program.
Heather: Great. Thank you, Denver. Great to speak with you.
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