Heather Templeton Dill on Philanthropic Values and Inspiring Awe and Wonder

Philanthropy Roundtable recently sat down with Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation and Philanthropy Roundtable board member. The foundation’s mission is to fund research and catalyze conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder. This includes work that crosses disciplinary, religious and geographical boundaries across a range of subjects in the sciences, philosophy and theology, from gratitude and hope to the psychology of purpose and positive neuroscience. During Dill’s tenure as president, the foundation has awarded more than $1 billion through 1,500 grants and donations to support this work.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q. As you reflect on your family’s commitment to philanthropy, do you have a specific memory or experiences that have impacted your personal commitment to philanthropy?

When I was a child, my parents participated in a program through our church to “adopt” a family each Christmas. We were paired with another family in need. We received a Christmas shopping list from the family that included specific requests for each of the family members – a new coat, something to wear to work, a special toy. My mother purchased the items on the list. My father took us to the grocery store to purchase everything they would need for their Christmas meals. We wrapped the gifts and delivered the presents and the food to the family in their home.

That experience of being actively engaged in a philanthropic act was formative for me. It was an opportunity to live generously and to meet and connect with others in our community.

Q. How did you transition from this personal philanthropic commitment to becoming a leader in your family’s foundation?

In 2009, I joined the board of the John Templeton Foundation, and in that role, I had the opportunity to “learn the business,” so to speak. When it came time to think about who would lead the Foundation after my father, I expressed interest, and we began the process of working with the board to plan for a transition in leadership in 2018. In the middle of this preparation, my father was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away. This meant I had to step into this role before I expected to, and certainly not in the circumstances I had hoped for. All the same, I’ve been so grateful to have the chance to steward a mission and legacy that I believe in so deeply.

Q. Many principles of foundations carefully weigh the decision of establishing their foundation in perpetuity or sunsetting the foundation at a specific moment of time. The Templeton Foundation was established by your grandfather, Sir John Templeton, to continue in perpetuity. Could you speak to your grandfather’s vision for the Foundation and how this impacts the Foundation’s commitments and giving priorities?

My grandfather wanted to fund research and catalyze conversations to enable people to create lives of purpose and meaning.

And when you focus on supporting research, as we do, having an impact requires patience. It takes time for research to be done, the results to be understood and for the findings to be disseminated and to have an impact. Scientific research is continually progressing, but that progress takes time, and that’s part of why he said he wanted to create a foundation that would last in perpetuity—because of the nature of the work that we do.

In addition, Sir John celebrated the progress made in technology and medicine during his lifetime, but he didn’t see the same kind of progress in spirituality. He wanted to harness the tools of scientific discovery to better understand both the divine and ourselves so that we might lead lives of increasing meaning and purpose. He believed this opportunity would be evergreen, and this work would never be complete. Therefore, he set forth a philanthropic mandate to be carried out in perpetuity.

Q. As president of the John Templeton Foundation, your leadership helps to improve the lives of millions of people. What values inspire you in your leadership role at the foundation?

Our tagline, “inspiring awe and wonder,” captures a central theme that we are aiming for in our work. When I think about awe and wonder, both contribute to an outlook that is humble, curious and open to new ideas and surprises—the unexpected.

You can experience wonder when you think about the natural world and how it works. When you witness an act of charity, generosity or kindness, that can inspire a sense of awe with respect to the good that we can bring into the world. My grandfather recognized this and included awe in his list of the essential virtues he charged us to pursue.

We support research and conversations on questions about meaning and purpose. We hope that when people encounter these ideas they are filled with awe and wonder, and they come away with insights that are transformative and lead to greater flourishing.

Q. The vision of the John Templeton Foundation is committed to human flourishing, and specifically research to propel human flourishing. How are the Foundation’s values expressed in the Foundation’s giving priorities?

Across our various funding domains, we prioritize work that we believe will lead to human flourishing.

For example, we helped launch the Global Flourishing Study, which will survey 240,000 people across 22 countries to better understand what factors contribute to or detract from human flourishing.

We are also interested in intellectual humility as a mindset that can mitigate conflict and help people engage constructively when we disagree with each other. We have funded a lot of research on intellectual humility and now we are supporting the Greater Good Science Center and the Constructive Dialogue Institute to apply this research in school settings and the workplace.

We are supporting research projects on love. What practices improve the quality of love in our interpersonal relationships? How might love manifest in our communities and even in the political domain? Templeton Ideas recently published a wonderful summary of research on love – some of which we funded and some of which predated the John Templeton Foundation’s research on love. See “Without Love, We Perish.”

And we have committed a portion of our annual funding to investigating the relationship between health, religion and spirituality. This includes a project to test the impact of incorporating religion and spirituality into training for mental health practitioners.

Q. You have a significant commitment to gratitude and encourage this aspect with your team at the Foundation. Can you share why gratitude is so important to you and any encouragement for others to incorporate gratitude in their daily life?

My mother, who supported my dad in his role as president, always made a point to express gratitude to the team members at the Foundation. Throughout the year, she would visit and give every team member cards and gifts to say thank you. She believed that the team was the most important part of the legacy of the Foundation.

I was always inspired by her gratitude, and I’ve tried to carry on what she started by weaving gratitude into the routine practices of our work together. I think it’s important to regularly say thank you to our team members in person or in the letters I write to our team. And occasionally when we gather for All Team meetings, we take time to express our gratitude to each other for the work we’ve done to support one another. We try to recognize those who have made key contributions and to make gratitude a routine part of our culture.

Gratitude was extremely important to my grandfather, and we’ve funded a stream of work on the science of gratitude. So, it feels important that this would be a regular part of our work together as a team.

Q. Most parents and grandparents long to inspire the next generation to continue their legacy and commitment to philanthropy. Do you have any practical recommendations for those who are considering how to engage the next generation in giving back?

It is important to involve the next generation in acts of service. Before you even start talking about how to share the financial resources that you have, you can practice sharing your time and giving of your skills and talent.

Just like my parents involved me in practicing generosity by giving to other families around the Christmas holiday season, I think it’s most important to connect with people personally and to experience how people in one’s community are impacted by generosity. That’s where I would encourage people to start because that is where I believe there is the most joy. It’s meaningful to give of your resources and see that it made somebody’s life better. It’s even more meaningful and important to give the gift of time and friendship.

Q. Anything additional you’d want to share that we haven’t covered?

I encourage anyone interested in the kind of work we fund to learn more. We have great news stories on our website, a new podcast and a bi-weekly newsletter. I believe that engaging with these ideas can be transformative—we want to enable people to create lives of meaning and purpose because we believe that a life of purpose leads to the kind of love and generosity that can make the world a better place.

To learn more about the John Templeton Foundation and the work it supports, click here.