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Appreciative Inquiry and the United Religions Initiative

Empowering the Positive Core

Appreciative Inquiry and the United Religions Initiative

by Sally Mahé

“Where appreciation is alive and stakeholders throughout an organization or community are connected in discovery, hope grows and organizational capacity is enriched.

        – David Cooperidder and Diana Whitney

At URI’s Birth

At the birth of the United Religious Initiative (URI) 20 years ago, Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a transformational philosophy and methodology for positive change, served as midwife.

How did this happen? How did Appreciative Inquiry guide URI at its birth, through its infancy, early years, and into young adulthood? How does Appreciative Inquiry serve today to assist in rebirthing the second generation of URI and guiding its future?

The story of AI encountering URI began on a Saturday morning in Cleveland, Ohio.

David Cooperidder, professor of Organizational Management at Weatherhead School of Management, Case University, and one of the founders of Appreciative Inquiry, tells it like this:

My own life changed dramatically when I first heard about Bishop Swing’s vision to create an organization where the world’s religions come together to cooperate and work for peace. It was Saturday morning in 1995. I was at home in Cleveland reading the Cleveland Plain Dealer and I saw a photo of Bishop Swing making a speech at the 50th celebration of the UN. I was mildly impressed but tossed the newspaper in the trash. Later that day, I shared what I read with my wife, Nancy. She wanted to read it too. So I recovered the newspaper from the trash barrel in the garage and we read it together.

This time my heart started pounding… I started to think about the implications of a United Religions Initiative. Its purpose would not be to create a unified world religion (just like the UN’s purpose is not to take away from the sovereignty of nations) but a place to work out global interdependencies. Indeed, reports show that over half of the world’s armed conflicts are not between nation states at all, but between groups of differing ethnic and religious identities.

What are the world’s religious leaders doing, not alone but together, about these conflicts? … If something like the United Nations among people of the world’s religions could be created, it might well help change human relationships more than any other kind of organization I know.   (Birth of a Global Community, Appreciative Inquiry in Action, Charles Gibbs and Sally Mahé, Lakeshore Publishers, 2004.)

David called Bishop William Swing, the Episcopal Bishop of California, to share his excitement and offer his help. Bishop Swing responded, We do not need you to stay in the ivory tower and study this effort at arm’s length. We invite you right here to join us, to bring your organizational development backgrounds and spirit of appreciative inquiry to our first summit.” (Birth)

David Cooperidder – Photo:    YouTube

David Cooperidder – Photo: YouTube

David offered to provide his expertise and that of his graduate students free of charge, working with URI’s small staff to implement a four-year plan that would result in the founding of URI. Considered an impossible endeavor at the time, URI was envisioned as a global organization dedicated to promoting respect, understanding, and cooperation among people of different faith traditions in order to create a better world.

“As a midwife, Appreciative Inquiry led a growing global community on a trust walk of co-creation. It opened the door for hundreds and eventually thousands of people to join in the unprecedented act of global cooperation.” (Birth)

AI’s Approach

The focus of inquiry was clarified. We embraced AI processes and embarked on a whole system, strength based, interactive methodology that launched the four-year plan (1996-2000) to create a shared vision, develop URI’s founding Charter, and develop an organizational design for establishing a global organization. In practice, it looked like this:

  • Focus of Inquiry –What is needed to create a new organization that aims to build peace through interfaith cooperation? (People, often paired two by two, began to ask one another about their vision of a new organization, what it might accomplish, what it would look like, how it would work.)

  • Whole system – Planning meetings included people from diverse sectors of society and from multi-religious and spiritual backgrounds. (Small group gatherings in different countries and large Global Summit gatherings at Stanford University brought together a diversity of people to engage in envisioning and designing the new organization.)

  • Strength based – Ideas emerged through myriad conversations focused on discovering strengths and sharing dreams. (The Focus Inquiry asked people to imagine a world changed by the impact of URI and focused conversation on strengths and positive possible futures.)

  • Interactive – The process was not isolated to a small group of “founders” but embraced large numbers of diverse people in co-creating vision, crafting foundational values, and developing URI’s Preamble, Purpose, Principles and organizational design ideas. (A “Chartering process” was launched wherein the draft Charter was distributed among hundreds of stakeholders, inviting their input.)

During the four-year period, David Cooperidder and his team worked with URI staff to create a “road map” that utilized AI’s “4-D” process. This process invited increasing numbers of people inspired by the possibility of a URI to participate in its birth.

Through conversations, rich with appreciation and inquiry, we discovered our own values for interfaith cooperation, shared dreams and highest hopes about URI’s mission in the world, imagined URI’s shape and organizational design needed to fulfill its mission, and set in motion organizational strategies, systems, and structures to build an organization.


The Reverend Charles Gibbs, URI’s founding Executive Director, led URI staff and professional consultants in planning and implementing this 4-D step-by-step process. URI is indebted to David Cooperidder, Diana Whitney, Gurudev Khalsa, Katherine Kaczmarski, Mary Finney, Godwin Hlatshwayo, Amanda Trosten-Bloom and other professional facilitators of Appreciative Inquiry. An Organizational Design Team, under the leadership of consultant Dee Hock, contributed innovative organization theory that helped form URI values and visions into a multi-faith, grassroots-led, non-profit, global organization.

What we inquire about guides the future. Questions we ask make a difference. Bishop William Swing’s opening words at the Global Summit in 1997 reflect AI’s spirit of inquiry:

“We gather here at Stanford to live into the questions that the United Religions inspires. More important than initially arriving at the right answers is the quality of living into the questions. … We intend to live into the questions. Life comes before the Charter. Come and be a midwife.” (Birth)

From the very beginning, guiding questions, authentic inquiry, inclusion of diverse stakeholders, appreciation, deep listening, and valuing voices not often heard, marked URI as a different kind of organization.

Appreciative Interviews

Photo: Sally Mahe

Photo: Sally Mahe

People from diverse religious backgrounds come together, meeting each other for the first time, and are invited to pair up and engage in an in-depth appreciative interview. A typical question is: Without being too humble, what gifts do you see yourself bringing to this work? What might those who know you say are some of your best qualities, skills, and experiences that you contribute to efforts such as this one? How does your faith or community or practice inform and call you to the work of the United Religions Initiative? Appreciative Inquiry processes created fertile ground in which appreciation, inquiry, inclusion, constructive dialogue, creativity, and interactive learning can grow.

It is common practice for new member Cooperation Circles to URI to receive an “appreciative interview” as part of their application process. URI Global Council and Global Staff enrich their meetings with in-depth appreciative conversations. The spirit of learning and inquiry continues as URI seeks to discover its positive core. A “Principle 19” team, dedicated to evaluation and organizational learning, was formed in 2016 to inquire with curiosity, humility, and openness to learn about the strengths of what’s working within URI today.

Appreciative Inquiry as Midwife Today

Diana Whitney, a leading proponent and practitioner of AI, has said “The power of Appreciative Inquiry … is the by-product of the two words [Appreciation and Inquiry] working together. Like hydrogen and oxygen that combine to make water – the most nurturing substance on earth – ‘appreciation’ and ‘inquiry’ combined produce a powerful, vital approach to leadership and organization change.”

At its best, URI’s global culture exudes the powerful forces of appreciation and inquiry. People at the grassroots, self-organizing often for the first time, are appreciated – recognized as essential and valuable to fulfill URI’s mission. Inquiry continues as URI continues to investigate its positive core: What makes it work at its best? Organizational learning is predicated on curiosity offered in a spirit of openness to listen, learn, and make changes, the skills of a midwife.

A midwife recognizes and uses the mother’s strengths during the birthing process. A midwife provides wise counsel and practical skills. A midwife assures that birthing new life, even in pain and confusion, is natural, necessary, and exhilarating. A midwife embraces the birthing process and trusts in the new life to come. At 20 years old, URI is re-birthing. Appreciative Inquiry is poised as midwife, providing know-how and life-giving spirit.

The world is different than it was 20 years ago. New dreams and visions for how URI will achieve its mission yearn to be born and put to work. Like a good midwife, AI offers practical ways to bring out the best in people and provide safe space for all voices to be heard. Embedded in the DNA of URI is a “fundamental trust in the human spirit to provide for the collective good and preserves a reverent approach that allows the glory of the sacred to enter.” This remarkable approach to community thrives “in the simple and profound act of appreciation – a life-giving human action that evokes and recognizes the good in people. AI processes become a portal through which one of the most extraordinary resources on Earth, the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the human spirit, is tapped.” (Birth)

Header Photo: Pixabay