February 16 2021

Towards altruistic practices at work ?

In 2016, members of Karuna-Shechen followed a seminar with Frédéric Laloux, author of Reinventing Organizations. Specialized in processes of People’s Change, Frédéric accompanied the members of Karuna in their wish to better organize themselves and preserve both performance and core values. They wanted to find the right balance between the rapidity of the decision-making processes of pyramidal models and the bond of trust that can be found in horizontal models. This workshop also allowed the team to find more simplicity, authenticity and meaning in their daily work practices.

To learn more about managerial theories of altruism at work, we invite you to attend a round table discussion between Matthieu Ricard and Frédéric Laloux on February 23, 2021. You can also find resources here.


Karuna-Shechen is an NGO that acts and advocates for a more altruistic world. There are several definitions of altruism, the most common being “the willingness to care and devote oneself to others”. Based on this observation and the desire to improve their internal organization, the members of the association decided to create a work environment where altruistic practices are cultivated on a daily basis. Karuna is, in its own way, a living organism. Taking care of each of its members – from the employee to the donor, from the volunteer to the beneficiary – is to ensure the sustainability of a just action.


An inclusive organization to cultivate everyone’s creativity

The first proposal was to establish an internal structuring on the model of opal organizations, presented in Frédéric Laloux’s book. This idea is based on three principles: self governance, reliance and ego reduction.

Looking at the principle of self-governance, Karuna structured itself into “circles of expertise” – action in the field, communication and fundraising, logistics, etc. – and each of them being responsible for a specific area of expertise. Any member can join a circle if he or she wishes to and has the skills, the idea being that such an organization stimulates everyone’s creativity, draws its strength from the motivation and empowerment of its members.

This implies a form of flexibility with regard to each person’s responsibilities and tasks, also taking advantage of new arrivals and new skills to redistribute work more efficiently. Catherine, who coordinates the link with the philanthropists, confides to me: “The more time passed, the more I felt a form of fulfillment within Karuna with the use of these tools: the empowerment given to each person, the responsibility, the ability to be fully oneself without wearing a mask“.

On the other hand, Karuna’s functioning is very much centered around an atypical advice process: most projects and strategic decisions give rise to large group discussions. In a classical structure, it is often a small group or the leader alone who makes these decisions. Within Karuna, the project leader remains the final decision-maker but time is set aside to learn from each other’s opinions. This allows to build smarter projects, but also to do it with the group’s support.


Moving from idea to practice – quite a challenge

Such a transition requires time and support from teams and the pre-existing system. “Moving to such a model is difficult: you need a leader who is willing to put his or her usual ‘powers’ back into play and accept that the team is self-managing. But this means an ability to let go on the part of managers,” according to Erick, a member of the international board.

It also requires a complete change in the way we evaluate our effectiveness, analyses Catherine: “At some point, a model must be measured by success. But how do you measure them? Is it the decrease in turnover? Is it the enthusiasm of employees and stakeholders? More impact in the field? At Karuna we are still evolving: the road is very long, we are aware that we can do more and it takes time, intelligence and adaptability“.

Beyond this organization, many tools have emerged from our exchanges with Frédéric, which however struggled to be concretely part of the daily work life. “I arrived in Karuna at a time when the tools had emerged but were not being used [by all the teams]. This is the difficulty that all organizations have when they carry out a People’s Change project: to bring down theoretical tools into everyday work. We all had this desire to move towards more benevolence, more reliance, but we didn’t really know how to do it while preserving our efficiency and impact,” says Quentin, CEO of the association.


Working tools to cultivate intention, listening and expression of emotions

The first tool selected by Karuna members was the practice of a short lay meditation before the beginning of each work meeting. Sometimes just 1 minute of meditation practice before addressing an important topic can make a big difference. “At the beginning it is surprising, but after a while it becomes indispensable, especially in Zoom meetings: it allows everyone to settle,” says Réjane, Communication and Fundraising intern. Shalav, our operations manager in Nepal, also confides to me: “Meditation creates a positive atmosphere where everyone pays attention to each other without judgment. The silence is also pleasant and has a profound impact on all of us: it interrupts the daily hustle and bustle of our busy days“.

A round-table discussion of everyone’s “inner weather”, consisting of sharing the emotions we feel, is also practiced.

Giving clues to your colleagues about how you feel is essential, even more so when you are distanced. It keeps you connected and helps you understand people’s reactions,” according to Réjane. Franck, the director of Advocacy, adds: “For a long time we have considered that a company is a machine and that each individual is an interchangeable, replaceable cog. In this vision, we don’t care about people’s emotions. Taking an interest in the emotions of our colleagues means taking care of the organization as a whole. It’s an illusion to say that work and personal life can be completely separate: as we work with our emotions, let’s create a space to express them! That’s the starting point for the inner weather.

This tool is practiced by our European teams but also by our teams in Asia. Shalav tells me: “The employees have gradually integrated this tool in their daily work life. Inner weather is a universal tool that largely transcends differences in language, culture and country“. For Quentin, “some people will think that these tools are a waste of time: yet they allow us to develop a mutual understanding and an authentic bond that helps us work better together. It brings a collective creativity without filter, without judgment.


Strengthening our bond and empowering each of us, dispite distance

The way Karuna works is not perfect. However, it allowed us to cultivate a culture of caring and trust that is essential. Quentin, who became CEO of the association in 2019, remembers: “When I took up my position a little over a year ago, I felt very well supported by all the teams. It allowed me to find my rightful place as CEO, without feeling that I was constantly being evaluated or judged“.

This organization of work has found all the more resonance since the beginning of the pandemic, which has forced us to work remotely. Franck says: “Teleworking shows even more the importance of caring, of taking an interest in others. Emotions are harder to feel through a screen: that’s why sharing emotions is even more essential in today’s context“.

Karuna functions like a tree: it is rooted in the values of secular Buddhism and radiates with its branches. And when a branch is dying, the whole organism suffers. Erick confides to me: “An organization is really a living being: it must always be cared for, with compassion. In the end, the only constant is change.