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As I prepare for my upcoming retirement and passing the baton to a new leader, several people have asked me to articulate “the secret of Trees for Life.”

Articulating the not-so-secret “secret” of why and how we live and serve every day is not easy. It is like asking someone who breathes every moment to describe what a breath is. For the poet in me, it would be just as hard to describe the dance of a butterfly. 

However, the practical side of me is willing to distill what has been said and done over the past 30 years. From that perspective, Trees for Life may come down to a demonstration of two fundamental principles of collaboration. The first one we call “giving a flower to the beloved,” and the second is “moving the trim tab.”

Giving a flower to the beloved

Trees for Life is a platform where people join hands to serve. Service, to us, is not a means to something else; it is the end, the destination, the goal. It is akin to a lover giving a flower to his or her beloved. The flower is given simply as an expression of love, not because it is needed or something is lacking.

Imagine the difference between marrying someone because you love him or her versus marrying someone because you feel sorry for them or wish to claim a sense of achievement from improving their life. Downtrodden people who are powerless and taken advantage of at every turn become very skilled at recognizing this difference.

We never seek to “improve” the disenfranchised out of pity. They are not the grist for our cause, however good it may be. We long to connect with them at a place where we can explore the potential that emerges from our union so that we can grow together. It is not based on any desire for achievement. For us, it is a matter of self-actualization. This approach has been the fountainhead of our culture at Trees for Life.


Moving the trim tab

Another fundamental is our approach to helping people shift the paradigms that create and sustain the cycle of poverty.

Altering these societal problems is not unlike attempting to turn an enormous ship. Even a very large group of people would not be able to change the direction of the boat with their physical strength alone. Instead, the bulk of any large ship is controlled by nothing more than a small “trim tab.” The trim tab turns the rudder, which then turns the ship.

Our “business model” is based on concentrating our efforts on finding the trim tab—those small actions that will result in shifting the larger paradigm. It is perplexing to most people that even though we are so intense and focused in our work, we do not have timelines or budgets. This is because finding a "trim tab" to affect social behavior in complex and entrenched societies is very difficult and time-consuming. This complexity is often multiplied when working on a global stage.

It would be fair for me to say that we spend 99% of our time, effort and resources in locating the "trim tab" and refining the process needed to move it. Once that is done, moving the "trim tab" is a piece of cake. And that is when we get out of the way and make room for others.

A prime example was Moringa, a tree with incredible potential benefits but that was practically unknown in the world. We saw that the “trim tab” was promoting scientific studies and spreading awareness. We started a social movement, and people worldwide took up the cause. Now more than 200 million Moringa trees are reported to have been planted and their uses popularized. With minimal input from us, a major paradigm shift took place.

Our next effort is to replicate the same process with education. A major hurdle of education in developing countries is the lack of well-trained teachers. So we are focusing on the “trim tab” of enabling qualified teachers around the world to share their skills with those who serve the poor.

Balance of heart and mind

Giving a flower to the beloved is an act of the heart, while moving the "trim tab" is a thought-out business strategy, an act of the mind. It is this delicate balance of heart and mind that allows a small group of dedicated people to use their collaborative force to shift a major paradigm. This balance gives courage to a small group of dedicated people to tackle some very large issues. It is this dance that gives them faith in a long-term, 1,000-year perspective. The balance of heart and mind is what makes every act a gift and even the smallest organization a movement. 

Trees for Life has never been a secret. It is an open dance in which both you and I are participating.

Perhaps that is the secret.

A Sip of Water

-Scott Garvey, Art Director for 21 years

One story has come to represent, for me, what Trees for Life is about.

In 1988, Trees for Life planned to distribute 300,000 fruit tree saplings at a festival in India. Preparations started a year ahead, and hundreds of people volunteered.

Then, just before the event, a key government officer was transferred. His replacement shut down the sapling distribution, and dismissed all appeals.

As a last resort, Balbir was asked to go to India and speak to the officer. When Balbir arrived, the officer said, “I know who you are, and why you have come.” He then passionately articulated his reasons for canceling the program. He said that millions of trees are being cut down and India is headed for disaster, so the distribution of a small number of trees would just give people false hope. Then he sat back in his chair, satisfied.

Balbir said, “I did not come here to change your mind. I simply came to share my perspective. My mother is very old and sick. Suppose she were on her death bed and asked for a sip of water. Am I to refuse because I know she is going to die? For us, planting trees is the same. It is an act of love.”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Then, tears started running down the officer's cheeks.

Finally, the officer walked into the next room. He came back and, without a word, handed Balbir a large check. After that, the official became the most active volunteer to help ensure the success of the event.

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