{Host and Editors note: Our very first sponsor and partner for See Hear Love was Stronger Philanthropy, headed up by Mark Petersen. Mark Petersen and his wife, Karen, are very close friends of See Hear Love and we are so grateful for their friendship. This past year Mark wrote a book called Love Giving Well, The Pilgrimage of Philanthropy. It parralells his journey(s) walking the Camino and his family’s investment of $38 million of private wealth to the social good. Here are excerpts from his blog post that are used by permission, about his experiences and how pilgrimage and philanthropy go hand in hand.}

Pilgrimage is not the first metaphor one thinks of when considering philanthropy. But having engaged in both, I’ve had ample time to consider the parallels. In the summers of 2014 and 2015, I had the transformative experience of walking across Spain on what’s called the Camino, following the footsteps of hundreds of thousands who have walked those same paths since medieval times.

Over those month-long journeys, I contemplated how my own evolution in philanthropy has had much in common with the experience of pilgrimage.

For fifteen years, I had the responsibility of running a Canadian foundation. We took risks, created new patterns of engagement, pioneered new forms of collaboration, and contributed into meaningful investment for changed lives in Canada and abroad. Over this period, we invested over $38 million of private wealth into social good. Today, I am building on this experience to launch a new platform for giving by major donors, one that emphasizes collaboration and strategy.

But that speaks more of my destination. To explain how I got here, I need to back up. It’s been more than a trip, larger than a journey. It has been a pilgrimage.

As a philanthropist, I have learned while walking along the pathway of generosity. My walking has not been straightforward; I’ve bumbled along, discovering along the way what makes for good giving. I don’t have a finance degree. I didn’t make the money that is entrusted to me. But, unexpectedly, I was given stewardship responsibilities for wealth that was destined to be invested strategically into charitable activity.

In my physical journey, I learned lessons while walking to Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral city in Galicia, northwestern Spain, where the remains of the apostle James are said to be interred.

Legend says that one of the Sons of Thunder, James the Greater, was the apostle who took the Good News to the Iberian Peninsula following the death and resurrection of Christ. On his return to Jerusalem in 44 AD, however, he was beheaded by those who opposed the burgeoning and controversial Christian movement. His followers took his body back to Spain for burial, and tradition claims his boat was blanketed with scallop shells upon arrival.

James’ remains were interred in a field, and, during the centuries of the Moorish caliphate in Spain, were forgotten. They were rediscovered in the 850s by a farmer.  As word spread, that field was built up into the city of Santiago de Compostela. King Alfonso II the Chaste from Asturias, a neighboring principality, started the tradition of pilgrimage in earnest in the 900s by walking from Oviedo to Santiago to pay homage to James—the first of the many Caminos (or Ways) that now crisscross Europe. By medieval times during Christian Spain’s ascendency, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims made the journey that could begin anywhere in Europe. Pilgrims eventually coalesced along various pathways leading to Santiago: the Camino Primitivo, the Camino Francés, the Camino del Norte, and the Vía de la Plata, among others. The scallop shell is the unifying symbol between Camino routes: as scallop shells have many grooves leading to a singular point, each of these Caminos led to one destination.

The journey could take months, even years, for medieval pilgrims. (And then they had to turn around to walk home!)  Depictions of pilgrims portray them with a staff to aid in walking, a gourd for drinking water and wine, and a bag for any possessions. Often they would wear a scallop shell to indicate they were pilgrims on a journey to Santiago, and as a result were able to lodge in hospitales, or hostels, which aided them in curing their sores and attended to basic needs of food, drink, rest, and community.

In the past twenty years, the Camino pilgrimages have revived in popularity, especially among European youth, most of whom walk without deep reference to the Christian tradition behind this journey. Yet anyone who believes Western spirituality is stagnant needs only to walk the Camino with Italian, German, French and Spanish youth who are cultivating an unconventional yet living spiritual sensitivity and rejuvenated respect for their historical faith.

My two journeys were not as arduous, but neither were they walks in the park. In the summer of 2014, I started in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a Basque town in southeastern France at the foot of the Pyrenees, and walked with my younger son, Nate, some 800 kilometers over the Pyrenees into Spain, through the vineyards of Navarra and Rioja, across the heat and plains of the Meseta, and up and into the verdant, living mountains of Celtic Galicia. My wife, Karen, joined us in León to walk the last 300 kilometers with us.

A year later I resurrected my backpack from its dark corner in my closet, and attempted the second journey alone. My second Camino was also around 800 kilometers and followed the difficult northern coastal route of the Camino del Norte from Irún on the French border, through Basque Country, Cantabria, and Asturias, then hooked south to Oviedo on the Camino Primitivo to trace the journey of Alfonso II to the cathedral city.

Each journey took slightly more than a month, and I averaged 25 kilometers per day. I usually stayed in hostels, ate communal meals with fellow pilgrims, and slept in bunk beds with a dozen or more snorers sharing the space. Walking was not easy, especially on the second journey where there often were great ascents and descents each day, and where villages with available hostel beds were often located at the verge of one’s physical capability.

These journeys pushed me to my limit. They made me question why I had even begun, and allured me with fantasies of giving up. Close living with dozens of others at times had me questioning my sanity. Language barriers were frequent, and we were often reduced to childish gesturing to communicate. The smells, cultural practices, various religious beliefs, heat, rain, snoring, bedbugs, poorly-made bunk beds, and complete and utter exhaustion all contributed to challenging one’s pilgrimage.

I began to link pilgrimage with philanthropy after seeing similarities between the two. Throughout this book, I will encourage you to do the same. Although my Camino pilgrimages were spiritual experiences for me as a Christian, I believe that, just as many of my fellow pilgrims were not people of faith, readers of this book will be able to fully enjoy the journey regardless of their own beliefs about spiritual matters. I won’t hide my own faith perspective, but I also won’t make you feel less than welcome. I believe we can walk together on this journey and learn from one another.

Though you begin alone, an incredibly diverse community begins to form as a group of completely unrelated people begin walking over many weeks. Soon a solo walk evolves into a community walk centered on one goal. My original goal was solitude: I craved simplicity, contemplation, and freedom from the clutter of my busy life. I ended together with new friends who mutually buoyed one another up, and was propelled forward by vastly different individuals who surrendered their own agendas to focus on the common goal. What drew us together was shared humanity despite fundamental differences, focused on the simplicity of a journey forward and the final destination. In our chaotic world, we often focus on what divides us. We feel threatened by our competition. We forget we are often moving in the same direction.

Pilgrimage challenges us to discard all the excess baggage that is unnecessary for the journey and that weighs us down: that extra pair of pants, the book that won’t get read, oversized ointments and creams that can be purchased or borrowed if needed. As we journey on the road of philanthropy, we learn that to end well we must also give up things that are hard to relinquish: an ego that seeks being at the center, and a go-it-alone self-sufficiency that impoverishes us with isolation and limited resources. We learn to ask for help. We share information on the next lodging available. We grow in suffering with others. We share food and water. We give each other a hand when about to fall. We abandon all thought of moving forward alone on the journey.

A walking pilgrimage means going slowly. There is no need to rush, or to be consumed by the urgency that normally guides our decisions. We stop to drink in mountain vistas, or eat a picnic together on the side of the path. We drill down to the basics: washing clothes by hand, letting them dry in the sun, or dangling them from our backpacks the following day if still damp. We learn to listen to nature’s rhythms of wind and rain, sunrise and dusk. We learn to listen to each other’s stories as we walk step by step. Going on pilgrimage teaches you to be human again.

As you walk, you gather companions and have conversations with people with whom would never normally relate—flung together only because you’re moving in the same direction. Some of these relationships become foundational to your journey, and you decide to walk daily together. Other connections are brief, each depending on the pace of the pilgrim, her priorities, or his physical capability.

Likewise, some philanthropists have already begun the journey of reorganizing their lives away from materialistic accumulation. They have recognized that extreme financial wealth is not necessary for life, and they see good in sharing it for charitable purposes. In this decision, they have made the first steps of pilgrimage: walking without all that extra stuff. But there are many other things to dispose of along the way, and an even greater number of things to gain in this shared journey.

As philanthropists, we usually begin by walking alone: we are shy to broadcast our generous intentions, and giving is considered a solo pursuit. But when we lift our gaze, we perceive there are others ahead to learn from, and that, if we pause to rest, others behind can catch up to us. Like pilgrims on the Camino, we need to travel together. Hopefully the philanthropist can learn to enjoy the journey with others rather than remain alone, overwhelmed by relentless demands and expectations.

Like pilgrimage, philanthropy is also a slow journey. You don’t see change overnight. You take step after step after step. Short cuts can work, but often turn out badly. Patience is required. You must know the tilt of the land, the rocks along the way, and the weather patterns that affect your walking forward.

In my experience, people who have great capacity to give face various emotions. Some are completely paralyzed by the task before them, trapped by the fear of making a mistake. Others have been burned by repeated pestering from organizations who want to woo them, and they give begrudgingly. I’ve seen others motivated by guilt, and the resulting gift is given rashly, carelessly, like throwing a monkey off one’s back. I’ve given in each of these ways as giving is not the easy task that many believe it to be. It’s my hope, therefore, that this book will be of assistance to all who yearn to give well, but who find the whole giving business paralyzing, perplexing, or guilt-inducing.

This book is not just a message from one foundation executive to other wealthy givers. It’s likely that the majority of readers will not have significant discretionary wealth to speak of. And yet, most of us are givers, and many orient our lives toward generosity. Many readers will have careers in the nonprofit sector—as CEOs, development directors, senior leadership, program staff—and will be intrigued to discover thoughts from someone involved in making decisions about grants.

In the following pages, I will detail what I have learned from leading a mid-sized, family-based philanthropic organization, the changes we have experienced on this journey, and some of the best practices we have cultivated. In my fifteen years in this role, we have attempted to model transparent, accessible philanthropy. This clarity has come from investing time and thoughtfulness into determining our core strengths and opportunities. It has allowed us the ability to say no gracefully and firmly. We are grateful to be able to say yes with enthusiasm and joy. We have become firm partners on the journey with nonprofit leaders who have challenged my way of thinking and living.

In this journey, over time I’ve evolved and priorities have changed, abandoning some perspectives and acquiring others as I advance on my philanthropy pilgrimage. Each person’s journey is unique to them, and my walk of philanthropy will be different from most others. I believe that sharing what I have learned on the way will be beneficial, even if only to contrast it with others’ journeys and to offer grantmakers an opportunity to reflect intentionally on their own philanthropic dreams and experiences in giving.


As we move along, I’ll introduce conventional wisdom that is common among philanthropists. Many of these attitudes and practices, if adopted unthinkingly, can become traps. For a richer, more robust and joyful philanthropy, it’s necessary to move beyond these common pitfalls. We naively start off our journeys full of good intentions, but encounter thorny briers (such as failure to communicate clearly and set thoughtful strategy). Large donations can often create unnecessary potholes for those behind us on the path. Giving with strings attached or to exert undue or unrecognized power generates thunderous storm clouds that darken the day—when lightning strikes, someone can get burned. Hiding behind barriers and playing hard to get are like the nasty blisters that form on a pilgrim’s heel and toe.

Many philanthropists are farther along on this journey than I am. Others have legitimate reasons to select alternative pathways that embrace some of the concepts I am moving away from. Philanthropy is indeed an intensely personal journey (albeit with public implications), but there are many ways to walk towards our destination.

Because my physical pilgrimage across the coastline and mountains of Spain is a metaphor for the arduous, yet joyous, journey of philanthropy, I begin each chapter with journal entries from my 2015 Camino walk along the Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo. My diary introduces a taste of my physical and psychological journey across Spain, but it is also intended to root the reader in the forward motion that is needed by all of us to enjoy a transformational philanthropy.

At the end of each chapter I will include some thoughts for discussion and suggest resources which can be used by individuals and families on the journey of philanthropy.

In your philanthropy journey, heave up your backpack, take a deep breath, and let’s move forward together, step by step. ¡Buen Camino!