A Conversation On Gift-Based Pricing
--Audrey Lin
8 minute read
Jul 11, 2015


Halfway through our 6-week Laddership Circle, it’s been powerful to see the rich explorations that are emerging across airwaves, from Chile to New England, California to Europe to India.

To hold space for a deeper dive on emergent themes across our weekly calls, we setup an optional breakout session, and within couple days of sending the invite, 15 of our 23 love warriors rsvp’d to join in!

We hosted this first breakout yesterday on “Diving Deeper into Gift-Based Pricing”. It was led by Geet, who’s been practicing gift-based pricing with her Ayurveda practice for over a year and has come across challenges in articulating it, Pranidhi, who’s starting a yoga studio and exploring a tiered fee structure, and with support from Nicole, our laddership volunteer extraordinaire, who’s been offering Wild Dream Walks on a gift bases and faced many edges along the way.

Before the call, everyone shared pre-reflections in an online form, and we engaged online with the spectrum of ideas and questions that emerged. Fernando asked, “Does gift-ecology suit every venture in different industries? How do different cultures respond to ‘free’ stuff? Saejung wondered, “How do you challenge participants who are obviously taking advantage of gift pricing systems?” Preeta highlighted the edge of bringing the spirit of gift within existing (transactional) institutions, and Zilong wondered “How much should I value my time (translating efforts into an hour rate in dollar terms)?” Various folks honestly questioned the sincerity of their motivations: “How much is a cop out of having to deal with the messiness of money?” one person wrote. Another pointed out, “How do the subconscious parts of ourselves that seek safety, security, notoriety, and outcomes dilute our higher intentions in ways we cannot see?” Kozo enthusiastically reflected, “Why didn’t haven’t I done this until now?”

With full-of-life comments entering our inboxes by the hour, it was exciting to see the conversation evolve online throughout the week. As Friday morning/midday/evening rolled around for each of us in our various time zones, we logged in for our virtual breakout session.

In Colorado, Nicole kicked off the dialogue with a personal reflection from the evolution of her decision to run Wild Dream Walks on a gift-basis. In her first walk, where she charged $5 a person, she found herself thinking, “How many people need to show up for me to be able to pay my rent?” Her next thought asked, “Wow, what is the impact on the space I hold when that is my first thought?”

In the last six months, many creative designs emerged in Nicole’s work, as she operated with an undercurrent of spontaneity, expanding awareness of other forms of value, and subtle shifts in evolution that unfolded along the way. With perhaps more questions than answers, she enthusiastically introduced Geet to share next.

For the last year and a half, Geet’s been running a gift-based Ayurvedic practice based out of the Bay Area, CA. A deeply personal journey, her interest in Ayurveda began as a last resort to personal health problems, expanded into deeper study through a 5-year training program, and catalyzed into an experimental volunteer clinic that began as a 3-month pilot for a senior community center, and now, over 18 months later, has treated hundreds of patients aged 6 months to 85 years.

Along the way, various edges around gift offering have surfaced. Most recently, upon receiving an eviction notice for her clinic, Geet began looking for alternative spaces and noted that the rent was significantly higher. “Should I start working?” she and her husband asked, and she began calculating how costs would play out if she priced her services at a certain value.

“But then, I would get nightmares, literally!” she laughingly exclaimed. “How could I charge for something like this? It is almost my own version of meditation. When I’m at the clinic, I’m just purifying myself. I can’t put a price tag on it.”

According to Geet, Ayurveda is a “science of life,” designed to preemptively prevent illness by treating the whole person and address root causes of problems. When she sees patients, she sits with them for an hour or more, holding space for each client’s expression of symptoms and as well as exploration of other elements in their lives. Each treatment is a gateway for Geet’s own transformation as well as that of her patients.

With an intention like that, it raises deep questions on design. How does such an offering translate into a pricing structure? How does one convey the ethos of gift in a culture habituated in a transactional economy? What are the nuances between ‘free’ and ‘gift’?

In practice, she’s transitioned from articulations like pay-it-forward to donation-based to written documents on gift to verbally inviting folks to “pay from their heart,” and encountered a gamut of responses. Some folks ask for clarification on what it means to pay-it-forward. Others assume there’s a pharmaceutical sponsorship and are determined to discover some hidden agenda. Those who feel an affinity towards her service-hearted intentions find themselves moved in an intangible way, and continue to stay connected to their practice and/or her consultations. Ultimately, she notes, the articulation process begs a continued commitment to hold space with deep trust, tune in to subtly, and serve with what she has.

Meanwhile, 350 miles south in Los Angeles, Pranidhi shares about her personal Ashtanga yoga practice, and how she is opening a studio to offer it more broadly. Inspired by the transformation she’s experienced through her practice, her intention is to make that opportunity available to those around her, in a way that authentically shares the ethos of Ashtanga yoga, and is accessible to all who wish to learn it.

Inspired by the creative constraints of Aravind Eye Hospitals, Prandhi composed a flexible fee structure, in which “each student is not paying for his or her own practice. Rather, all students are contributing what they can to the community so that all of us may thrive in practice.”

To design for that intention, Pranidhi decided that all students will be welcome, regardless of financial resources. In addition, the studio must be self-sustaining in a few years time. It’s an interesting equation—and one that’s prompted her to explore various manifestations of the honor system, practices to minimize overhead, and methods of communicating value. She posed to the group: “Would you honor this system? Will people take advantage of it? Would folks be inspired to voluntarily contribute more if they have the means? Am I designing for generosity enough, while also sustaining the yoga studio?”

With rich questions being propelled into practice from both Geet and Pranidhi, we moved into a collective open mic dialogue around the circle.

Nicole brought up the value of receiving, and her experiments with opening up the guest bed in her home, and rather than charging a set price, she invites them to pay-it-forward by making it a more comfortable space for the next person. When invited in such a way, she’s received offerings of mopped floors and even a month of gifted breakfasts.

“When I allow people to creatively think about how to give, it opens a lot of doors,” she observed.

Arathi noted the difference between online articulation and in-person embodiment, and wondered, “How do you hold a space to make everyone feel comfortable? She referenced her own experiences brushing against monetary barriers to deeper engagement when she was disncentivized to attend extra workshops that required additional fees at her former yoga studio.

Natasha highlighted a personal edge of her relationship to money. “Is having a price tag wrong?” she asked. It’s also important for us as space holders to be patient as others respond and grow into their own fluency and relationship to a culture of gift. It can take time for these things to evolve, and perhaps that’s something to consider in as we design for generosity.

Deven offered a lesson from his personal journey—in his early 20s, he was balancing his professional software engineering life with spiritual—had wanted to shift to teaching yoga full-time. His teacher then had advised him against it, saying, “Don’t look at yoga as a full-time career that you base your livelihood on…Yoga is a way of life… at some point, if you find a calling to dedicate your life to teaching it full-time, at that point, it’ll happen so naturally that this question will not arise.”

Years later, thinking back on those words, Deven noted the wisdom in developing our inner conditions to naturally operate from a space of pure gift, while pragmatically noting the need to be patient and find models that work for us in the meantime, as we walk down the long path. :) He currently budgets his work week for part-time paid work and then devotes the remaining time in the spirit of gift. He humbly offers, “I hope that at one point, that stage will come where I’ll be able to go full-time gift. That may happen in a few months, or years, but that’s where I’m at now.”

Kozo zoomed out on the scales of sustainability—how there’s the notion of sustaining a business, and then there’s that of sustaining the world and generations to come. Where do these two focal points conflict and where do they meld?

Zooming out on a similar note, Zilong referenced Jacob Needleman’s idea that the more we think about our external relationship with the material world, the more money seems real; yet, the more we tap into our inner convictions or spiritual experiences, the less money will be the nexus at the center. Zilong pointed out a tendency to view gift-economy in terms of material costs and gains, when there are also many non-material gifts that we receive and can tap into on a daily basis. Even something as simple as air and the phenomena of breathing are enormous offerings that nourish us, and perhaps if we shift our focus towards the values underneath the flow of the material world, it helps put things into perspective.

As our time quickly ticked to a close, Birju noted how our own answers to these questions are dynamic—and this sense of knowing is not formulaic. He offered a poignant story on his personal shift from 'doing' to 'being'. 

As the 90 minute conversation breezed by, I felt as if the conversation was just barely beginning. This prompted me to share an analogy of the flashlight that Jayeshbhai often shares: If we shine a flashlight in the dark and point it where we want to go, we’ll likely trip, because the light is directed so far in the distance that we won’t be able to see the ground in front of our feet. But if we shine the light just a little bit in front of our feet, take a step, and shine it again just a little ahead of our feet in the direction that we wish to go, then eventually, we’ll end up at the destination.

In that spirit, we look forward to the continued emergence as we head into our remaining 3 weeks—and are grateful for the opportunity to deepen in shared inquiry while being held by the wisdom and blessings of the collective.    


Posted by Audrey Lin on Jul 11, 2015

2 Past Reflections