It started with a gift

07/11/2013 § 2 Comments

I am advising several start-up ventures these days. This includes a wide range of organisations including small professional practices, ambitious social enterprises and networks of creative individuals looking to combine their resources and so become more powerful together.

One common theme I have noticed is that all these ventures are started with a gift,  or indeed many giftleonardos.  There is the original gift of the idea, the inspiration, the burst of energy that moves the person (or persons) in a particular new direction. Then there are all the gifts that the universe subsequently sends their way – free advice (not all of it useful and some downright harmful, but gifted nevertheless), support, a listening ear, money even, perhaps simply a word of encouragement. It is gifts that enable the project to gather initial momentum, to break away from old patterns.

There is something magical about the exchange that happens when a gift is made. As Shakespeare noted in the Merchant of Venice about one form of gift, mercy, it blesses “both him that gives and him that takes.” The world of buying and selling, for value given and received, operates under different rules. The principal difference is that bargaining power comes into play. If you are really thirsty, you will pay a lot more to a seller of water than if you have recently drunk – in the market, if you don’t have enough to feed your family, you will  accept a much lower price for your goods at the end of the day than you would at the beginning). Thus there is a very different tone to the exchange and there can be exchanges where both parties are left feeling worse off. This never happens with a true gift.

Many traditional communities operate purely in the gift domain, sharing freely of what they have without demanding anything immediately in return. They have learned to trust that their turn to receive will come and they take pleasure in the gift. The non-human world also works in this way – trees give freely of their apples, their leaves and their shade without question. “They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish” as the poet Kahlil Gibran observed.

It may be that in some future age our society will rediscover the joy of a gift-based economy.  That time is not now, and all businesses getting started need to learn to work with our dominant money-based system where value given must, more or less, equal value received. The move from operating on a gift basis to money-based system is a challenging and sometimes perilous time for any business. If the business has relied on volunteer contributions, and then starts paying one former volunteer, all the others will start to wonder whether they should not be paid too. People treat you differently if they suspect that you are motivated primarily by commercial gain (whether you are or not) and the flow of gifts dries up.  Yet in our society this is a necessary part of growing up – for most organisations at least.

Conscious organisations, I believe, must learn to dance between these two different types of economy, as many communities have done throughout history. If within their own boundary they can establish a true gift economy where sharing freely happens, whilst engaging lustily in exchange and barter with the outside world, they have a decent chance of reaping abundant rewards.


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§ 2 Responses to It started with a gift

  • donsalmon says:

    As usual, not only a wonderful but an inspiring post. I’m not so sure, though, that the gift economy is so far in the future. But I may be limited in my vision because of living in Asheville, North Carolina, where it’s not unusual to find a meet-up about alternative (i.e. gift economy, time sharing, etc) economies on one night, followed by a get together at an eco community to teach about alternative communities on another night, and yet another consecutive night with a talk at the local bookstore on alternative economies.

    Well, you can tell I love Asheville. Jan and I have been here for 3 years and the “glow’ has not worn off. We were thinking of trying something along the lines of what you might call “community wide” gifting when we lived in Greenville, South Carolina (one of the centers of the “Tea Party”) but (as you might guess from my reference to the TP) it was not exactly prime territory for such an experiment.

    Well, we’re planning something like that here. Your article is the kind of thing that gives an extra boost as we’re slogging through the work involved to get it done (spent the last month editing our voices; editing the spoken word is work!!)

    Our idea is to take the theme of our website – training your brain in order to bring balance to your life – and offer all of our products (mostly music and videos designed to help with brain training) to everyone with an Asheville zip code. I’ve already set up presentations with the local police, and have been talking with some people at retirement centers, schools and other venues. We plan to devote about 1 or 2 years to seeing how much we can interest Ashevillians in healthy, balanced living (our obesity rate is 22%; the lowest in the US is Boulder, at 11%).

    Oh, and I’m not putting our URL up just now because I don’t want this post to be seen as advertising. And speaking of advertising – I swear, this didn’t occur to us when we first thought of this idea – we really just wanted to see how much it would be possible to inspire a community wide effort.

    About a year after we started working on this, it occurred to me this was also potentially great advertising. But really folks, that wasn’t our initial motivation. In fact, about 1 1/2 years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night having heard a very vivid melody in a dream. This has rarely happened to me (though I worked as a composer for years) but this was so vivid, I went to my computer and recorded the whole thing (in Logic Pro, for those who know music software). I actually wrote lyrics, which I almost never do – and our theme song (“remember to breathe”) was born.

    I plan to bring my keyboard downtown next spring and Jan and I will invite people to sing in the video, which we’ll post on our site. We just elected a new, quite progressive mayor, and I’m hoping she might be interested in this project. I think we might be able to get the Friday night drum circle interested (you can see them on the Asheville city website – they don’t say “Keep Asheville Weird” for nothing!)

    Thanks, Patrick.

  • thanks Don for your comment. I am delighted you feel that the adoption of a gift economy is not so far away. I too am involved in some encouraging initiatives – but I have learned to be cautious about making predictions, particularly about the future :-).

    By the way I really enjoyed the piece you wrote about education and yoga, that you referenced last time. I found it very powerful. I think a lot about education these days – partly because of Lucas’ needs but also of our needs as a society – and am hopeful that new models wll emerge with great force in the near future. Sri Aurobindo is a great source of inspiration in that regard.


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