The Gift Spectrum
--Birju Pandya
7 minute read
Jul 6, 2017

The Gift Spectrum
Over the past few years of Laddership Circles, one of my favorite topics for inquiry has been 'wealth.' There have been many folks coming to engage with the ServiceSpace ecosystem - in part connected to a wish to evolve their relationship with money, and consequently, wealth. Perhaps a wish to more deeply align with values connected to love and interbeing. Of course, ServiceSpace has been talking about gift-based approaches for a while, and so it's a place to inquire.

Over the many dialogues, one of the themes I've seen emerge is the value of naming the 'spectrum of gift.' Rather than approach it as a binary, such that either the approach is 'gift economy/ecology' or not, to dive deeper into the nuances. To that end, I've come across several possibilities in the inquiry, and I'm sharing with the intention of inviting that inquiry into a broader space. Without creating a hierarchy, here are some of the possibilities I've come across-

Open Gift

-Just Offering: Think of 'miles of smiles' :) Here, the ask could be a very intentional 'do what you want, but no need to return anything back.' One reason to take this approach is to help uncondition the consistent approach of the dominant paradigm that even where there is no catch, there is a 'subtle catch.' Another reason is if what is given doesn't feel too heavy to offer. Still another reason is if there is little in the way of relationship/proximity. Of course, something is still usually offered back in subtle ways, such as smiles in the link above :)

-Pay it Forward: Think of any kind act via 'Smile Card.' Here, the offering is made with an explicit invitation/ask to keep the spirit going. Sometimes, money is named, such as at Karma Kitchen, sometimes not. This of course invites the possibility of a ripple effect by drawing attention to each person's agency. What it omits is any invitation to return anything back, as well as specificity as to 'how' to pay forward.

-Grow in relationship over time: An example of how this can work may be Awakin Circles. In this case, the invitation is to enter into relationship, acknowledging that all relationships are in some sense symbiotic. Consequently, there is a trust that each relationship will lead to it's own form of emergent value - backwards, forwards, or anywhere else.

-Invoking multiple forms of capital: What has been alluded to at Startup Service. In this case, gifts are offered with an open invitation to receive in a non-linear way, multi-channel way - that could mean sacred offerings of community, ecology, culture, wisdom, material, or money. Regardless, the practice of receiving is highlighted a bit more.

Single Channel Gift

-Give what you wish: There are many concepts out there today building on this concept. Also called 'pay what you can' or a 'donation model.' Sometimes this includes a suggested donation, other times not. Usually, it is implied that any offerings would be best in money form.

-'Sliding scale': In this approach, there is a floor and ceiling of support named, but nothing further. Those who receive are asked to reflect and offer what feels right within that boundary (or sometimes even outside in unique circumstances).

Gift to Evolve Current Paradigm

-Low cost/High value: For instance a Kickstarter program or the approach of many non-profits and social enterprises. The offering made is with a defined price, but the price pales in comparison to perceived value, and the difference is the offering. One could say that is the fundamental premise of all business, in this case it would be a version such that financial profit is not sought to be maximized, short or long term.

-Higher cost/subsidy: Call it Robin Hood, where services are subsidized through higher charges elsewhere. Aravind and Tom's Shoes may be examples. This approach can expand reach and provide service to people across a broader spectrum of financial privilege.

Gift Within Current Paradigm

-Quid Pro Quo: The standard transaction model based on capturing the price that represents close to the value for the one who receives. Usually functions as 1:1 exchange, sometimes can include many people to create bulk pricing (eg, Groupon, Costco). The gift here is felt through offering something of value fairly, and the possibility of offering subtle forms of wealth, like a smile, along the way (ie, even within a prototypical transaction there could be a spirit of gift).

-Predatory: Utilizing one's power in a system to extract more money than there is value created. I have yet to come across anyone who says they do this, which may imply a sort of collective blind spot. The gift I've seen here is the sense of disconnection that comes from alienating relationships. Over time, such practices may have a way of inviting us to wake up and shift our ways.

Of course, these approaches are not mutually exclusive concepts. In my own life, I find my footprint across several of these simultaneously, although communicating to clearly define the structure of any particular activity. My set of unique conditions has invited this, and it continues to evolve.

Experimenting in this spectrum requires many inner and outer conditions. For instance, different shades of longing (or motivations) for unconditionality, depth of relationships, depth of equanimity, quality of basic living conditions (a sort of privilege), etc.


The concerns in this spectrum seem to come when 'what is' does not match the perception of what 'should be.' Sometimes we think we should be living in the deepest manner of gift possible because that is 'right,' or sometimes wish to build a strategy around gift-based pricing to get the word out. I have found benefit in a few insights around such concerns, sharing in spirit of openness, while acknowledging I continue to evolve :)

-Gentleness: Give the gift that is yours to give, no more, even if it looks like you 'should.' In some cases, the chase towards deeper gifting could be a manifestation of unconscious shadow (done to stand out, be the best, serve the most, not have to feel despair, be taken care of, etc). Usually, I notice that others can feel that energy. Regardless, we can always plant seeds to support greater unconditionality over time.

-Paradoxically, gentleness can lead to authenticity and vulnerability as a practice to share one's own relationship with transaction. For me, this has led to crucial conversations around tender topics that has supported my own continued shift.

-Supporting others growth journey: Sometimes the gift can be in supporting others growth journey around giving. I've seen creative approaches (eg this story about a toy) out of love for others to grow.

-Experimenting, at least a little, with unconditionality: Playing across the spectrum has been valuable for me. I've seen many folks try to create 'sustainable business' in a way that integrates parts of unconditionality, but not experience the boundaries of unconditionality. My exp is that there is something transformative about pushing that boundary towards 'just offering' at least in some small slice of life. Perhaps not in one's main projects, but somewhere. Experiencing the spectrum has helped me develop empathy for the experiences of others.

-Power dynamics shift across the spectrum. There is a certain 'strength' in not asking, but that doesn't always imply a wisdom in it.

-Privilege as a factor in the ability to experiment across the spectrum. To be exposed to the possibilities, to have the bandwidth for even a sliver of time, all of the conditions necessary, etc. And yet, the simultaneous possibility of such experiments supporting the growth of 'real wealth' (eg ecology, community, wisdom) in a powerful way.

-Subtle offerings: When we offer, what are we really offering? Products? Services? Courage? Spiritual friendship? Subtler still? Regardless of how the offering is made, there is a possibility of tremendous depth to the offering itself. I've received deep forms of support from what looked on the surface like a transaction.

-Emergence: Noticing that when gift spectrum is experimented with towards strategic goals and outcomes, the experience can many times feel draining and depleting. Conversely, when we flow with a broader stream, it can feel energizing, although perhaps not very comfortable.

-Leaning in to discomfort: Usually when I push my boundaries (gently) in this domain, it is uncomfortable. It's at that point, where my 'fight of flight' just starts up, that inviting curiosity really helps me. What am I not seeing right now?

My sense is the totality of this share is just the tip of the iceberg, if you have more insights or questions to add, please do in comments!

I've been really inspired by skillful approaches to gift and so wanted to share these perspectives to shed further light on the mystery of gift. To me, the nuances are many! In Laddership, we find that holding the questions (rather than only valuing answers) is of tremendous value - may this reflection invite forth many questions and inquiries!

Posted by Birju Pandya on Jul 6, 2017

8 Past Reflections