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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