News and analysis
May 01, 2003

An Unlikely Mix of Mysticism and Marketing Spurs Donors in Iowa Town

Once, this Jefferson County seat might have been regarded as something other than a curiosity, but that era has long since faded, like the last rays of sunset over the state's unstintingly flat horizon.

Even before the day, 30 years ago, when the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi -- already famous for teaching the Beatles, among others, to meditate -- stepped from an airplane and bought Fairfield's bankrupt local college campus from creditors for pennies on the dollar, the city had a perverse fame. The previous tenant of the buildings and grounds of what became the Maharishi University of Management, 98-year-old Parsons College, had gone bankrupt in the wake of a scathing story in Life magazine describing it as a haven for draft-dodging rich kids who were trying to stay in school long enough to finish off their second or third stab at a bachelor's degree.

But just as the locals learned to tolerate and, eventually, to profit from the hot-rod-driving scions of

Jefferson County, Iowa
Population: 16,029
Largest town: Fairfield
Giving rank among 1,307 small counties: 3
Rank among all 3,091 U.S.counties: 5
Median household income: $33,851
Percentage of taxpayers who itemize their tax deductions: 24.8
Percentage of discretionary income those taxpayers give to charity: 25.6
Number of charities: 83

East Coast wealth who zoomed up their main street and stumbled out of their watering holes, so too have they adapted to and benefited from the influx of newcomers spurred by the maharishi's decision to turn this enclave of 10,000, about 90 miles southeast of Des Moines, into the main teaching laboratory for Transcendental Meditation.

With the establishment of the university and its accompanying elementary and secondary school, the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, nearly 3,000 TM practitioners trickled into the area. They were drawn both by the university and by their belief that the calming, success-inducing powers of the discipline -- which they refer to as "technologies" and ardently defend throughout the town as having been proven by a panoply of scientific studies -- are multiplied exponentially when it is conducted in groups.

'Silicorn Valley'

On the Maharishi University campus, a pair of temples appeared with mattress floors and Mallomar-cookie-shaped golden domes, and advanced practitioners twice a day meditated and attempted to perform "yogic flying" -- a kind of physical manifestation of TM that begins by jumping and is supposed to eventually evolve into real levitation. In the city, vegetarian restaurants and organic-food stores occupied storefronts adjacent to the Elks Hall and local churches.

Two miles north of Fairfield, one group of about 200 meditators has established Maharishi Vedic City, Iowa's newest city, where each home and municipal building is constructed according to the architectural dictates of the maharishi's "Sthapatya Veda" design, which involves having east-facing, spire-topped, supposedly health- and energy-producing buildings whose open parlors and wide windows look onto formal gardens.

Because Fairfield didn't have enough jobs to support all the new arrivals, many of whom were college-educated and about to begin their most productive years, new businesses, many involving technology, sprang up at an astounding rate -- so many that Wired magazine dubbed the area "Silicorn Valley." Not only did Jefferson County become full of affluent, TM-practicing business owners, but the rate at which they have given to TM-related causes has made it one of the most charitable counties in the United States.

The 974 residents of Jefferson County who earned at least $50,000 and itemized their taxes donated an average of more than $30,000 in 1997, the most recent year for which figures are available. That is more than all but four other counties in the United States.

Local Money Flees

While many of Jefferson County's residents give to local causes, that $30,000 average has been inflated because the vast bulk of the county's charitable donations go to nonprofit causes associated with the Transcendental Meditation movement.

"There are wealthy people who live in Fairfield," says Mayor Edward Malloy, the first meditator to be elected to Fairfield's top office. "And the very wealthy donors are doing things that are big, but they aren't going locally. It's a worldwide movement, and there are projects everywhere."

The county does have a handful of foundations that support local health and education efforts, and several have slowly grown to low-seven-figure endowments over the past 30 years. In October 1998, a group of foundation leaders and estate-planning professionals gathered to pull together a guide to all 60 of the county's nonprofit groups and to encourage local giving.

"On its own, the town's giving is certainly above average," says Charles Espy, a financial planner and stockbroker who has built one of the town's oldest practices, and counts both old and new Fairfield residents among his clients. "But our rank as one of the top-10 giving communities in the country, that's something different, and it's from the giving to the Transcendental Meditation stuff."

While exact figures for many individual donors are kept anonymous, interviews with school administrators indicate that Maharishi University and the School of the Age of Enlightenment, both of which dole out equal measures of instruction in academics and meditation, have been the beneficiaries of much of the giving.

But it appears that the maharishi's own nonprofit ventures, like a $1-billion plan to build a community of 40,000 full-time Pandits, or highly trained meditators, in India to apply "yogic technologies," to promote world peace, have attracted the largest chunks of money from several financially successful devotees of Transcendental Meditation.

"He's the smartest marketer I've ever met in my life," Brenda Narducci says of the maharishi's ability to draw cash for his projects. Ms. Narducci, 50, a 25-year Fairfield resident, is a TM practitioner and owner of one of the town's success stories.

Chappell Photo, Ms. Narducci's business, is the largest photographer of milestone events, like graduations and marathon finishes, in the United States. It has grown to the point where she was able to house the business in a 29,000-square-foot log cabin she built according to Sthapatya Veda design. Such buildings are expensive, but she says it is in keeping with her belief that a better life results from following the maharishi's prescription for meditation, diet, and healthy architecture.

Ms. Narducci also started the Dharma Foundation, which provides about $175,000 annually to various causes, the bulk of which include scholarships for students attending the Maharishi School, which has an annual tuition of $10,000. She says she has given more than $75,000 a year to other causes established by the maharishi to explore group meditation "technologies" that she believes will build a better world.

Made It Big, Giving Big

Ms. Narducci is hardly the only meditator who has become a donor. Bob Wynne, a land developer, former top Maharishi University administrator, and the mayor of Vedic City, is quick to rattle off some of the names of those who have made it big, and then given big: Earl Kaplan, the founder of Books Are Fun, a book-marketing company acquired by Reader's Digest for some $380-million in 1999, turned around and plowed several million dollars into the Maharishi Global Development Fund, an international project that focused on developing housing and ventures to encourage world peace through Transcendental Meditation principles, according to Mr. Wynne.

Fred Gratzon and C. Holland Taylor, the owners of Telegroup and USA Global Link, a pair of international multimillion-dollar "call switching" telecommunications companies, also supported the Global Development Fund, according to Mr. Wynne. Mr. Gratzon promised $60-million in shares in 1997, though the company collapsed before the gift could be made in full.

Tax documents for the fund show it had more than $360-million in assets by the end of 1998.

Donations Continue

While the 1990s saw a bumper crop of entrepreneurial ventures in Jefferson County, giving has by no means stopped even as the gas has left the rest of the country's economic bubble.

For example, the maharishi last year suggested that 100 people in America donate $1-million apiece as part of his Endowment Fund for World Peace, which was to finance his plan to support 40,000 meditators in India. Jefferson County residents anted up between $15-million and $17-million of the $70-million endowment, according to Kingsley Brooks, administrative director of the university's Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy, which helped raise the money.

"People give because they've seen joy in their lives," Mr. Wynne says. "They know TM benefited them, and they try to give it back."

Then there are the annual fund drives and capital projects for the university and for the elementary and secondary school, which are the magnets that drew most of the new entrepreneurs to Fairfield in the first place. With an endowment of $8-million, Maharishi University is by no means a fund-raising powerhouse. But as projects are proposed for both places, they are quickly financed and built.

"In the 1980s, we were looking for a place to start the school," says Jennine Fellmer, who helps raise funds for the university and sent her children to the school. "The president of the university said, 'Break ground; just go out and break ground.'" The $4.3-million needed to construct the school came soon after, she says.

Another series of four buildings came at the cost of about $1-million apiece in the late 1990s, according to Tom Brooks, Maharishi University's director of administration. The university's annual fund drive raises about $1.2-million, about 30 percent of which comes from residents who live in and around Fairfield, according to its development director, Nick Rosania.

"The long and short of it is that people are inspired to give to this university because they see its potential for transforming education and the quality of life in the nation and throughout the world," adds Craig Pearson, the university's vice president.

A Quilt of Community Giving

What is not clear is how interested the TM practitioners are in improving the quality of life in the university's hometown. That does not mean that local giving is insubstantial. Over the past few years, that, too, has become impressive -- although not, in most cases, because of Transcendental Meditation practitioners.

Civic giving in the Fairfield area is exemplified by the Greater Jefferson County Foundation, which last year administered nearly $224,000 in scholarships to Fairfield High School's graduating seniors.

"Our scholarship meant a lot," says Teri Bishop, whose son won scholarships totaling $10,000 last year before he went off to Iowa State University, in Ames. "We saved all the years Brad was growing up, but the three major Iowa universities have gone way up in the last year."

Local fund administrators have worked hard to rally Fairfield residents to direct at least part of their giving to serve their neighbors.

"We came up with this phrase," says David Neff, an earnest Parsons graduate who remained in town and is one of the chief boosters of the foundation. "'Do your giving where you're living, so you're knowing where it's going.'"

Despite the push to get people giving, however, the money that has enabled the Greater Jefferson County Foundation to grow the most came from two major bequests totaling nearly $1.3-million. In fact, Mr. Neff says, from 1973 until 1998, the foundation "was fortunate to give out $5,000 annually." Since then, it has averaged $50,000 in grants to nonprofit groups, in addition to its scholarship distributions.

Both Mayor Malloy and Mr. Neff agree that one of the reasons that TM-practicing millionaires have not given more widely to county-related charities is that there has not been a determined effort to ask them.

Social divisions between the townspeople and the university folk have taken some time to bridge, according to both sides, and kept the donations in separate spheres for many years. Mr. Neff and Greater Jefferson County Foundation President Tom Kunkle were able to identify only one person from the meditating community who has made a significant donation to their organization, for example.

"It goes to their high school, their university," Mr. Neff said of the meditators. "It's frustrating, but I think that we have done very well on our own. And look around. Fairfield wouldn't be where it is today without these people." And lately some projects and causes have sprung up that both groups look to as a symbol of their dovetailing interests. A new $3-million town library, $1-million of which was privately raised, replaced the town's 100-year-old Carnegie-endowed structure -- the first one built west of the Mississippi -- in 1994. And a major investment downtown, a $4.8-million Civic Center designed to offer a stage for both cultural and business ventures, has been supported equally by private donations from the newcomers and longtime Fairfield residents encouraged by a board that includes representatives of both groups. Additionally, a $3-million nature-trails project is being pushed by a committee chaired by one longtime Fairfield resident and a Transcendental Meditation practitioner.

"With each passing year, there's more and more 'integration' of the two communities," according to Mr. Malloy, a millionaire entrepreneur in the oil-brokerage business. Mr. Malloy says he believes the ties have strengthened because families have grown up in the town, sharing Little League fields, community-theater projects, and, most important, business deals.

"Success breeds success," he says. "That was one of the nice things I noticed when we were going through stages of growth together. Business was one of those first steps."

Crossover help on cultural projects like musicals and plays followed, he says, and the Civic Center, which has business and cultural uses, may be the final stitch to sewing a quilt of community giving.

"It's a good project for this kind of cooperation," he says. "It's not unlike racial integration, this town-gown situation. It's been interesting to live through."