How To Survive In A Gift-Economy
--Nipun Mehta
3 minute read
Jul 5, 2008


At just about every gift-economy talk I deliver, a timid hand raises itself half way, followed by a sheepish "Can I ask you a personal question?" remark, and then the million dollar question -- "How do you pay your bills?"  For a generosity entrepreneur, it's a question that doesn't require an answer.  For the rest, it warrants a curious inquiry.

"How do you survive?"  Deep relationships, call it social capital.  "How do you build social capital?"  By giving unconditionally.  "Does what-goes-around really come-back-around?"  It does, for me.  "But what if it doesn't for me?"  You suffer for a bit and soon enough your patterns change.  "What do you get by doing this?"  To be in constant state of giving, while also receiving; you always feel connected.  "When you live off gifts, aren't you just externalizing the costs?"  To take just one breathe, we're killing beings; so I don't know how to exist materially without externalizing some cost.  "Do you know others who do this?"  Monks and nuns across all traditions have been doing this for decades.  "What does the world look like, when we're in a gift-economy?"  Consider indigenous cultures, anywhere in the world.

Coupled with stories and research, one can make a pretty compelling argument.  Yet, the CharityFocus innovation (if that's the word) has been to port this into an organizational paradigm.  So how can an organization (or a movement) be gift-economy?  I usually cite three requirements:

  • Service: be useful; find a way to deliver value (not the value you want to offer but what people want to receive).
  • Social Capital: you can't do this alone.  Sustain networks of people that support the values you stand for, by paying-forward what you receive, and sharing stories as an expression of gratitude.
  • Surrender: trust the mystery of self-organization; have a context for suffering (ie. answer to "why do bad things happen to good people?") and if you suffer/fail, use it to break new ground and adjust yourself and your offerings.

That's a bit of an over-simplification but a good starting point.

So why is this more relevant now than before?  Externally focused service has always been there, internally focused surrender has also been there, but what our modern-day networked economy offers is the ease of creating and sustaining a community.

In the past, only money-power-fame elites had access to broadcast channels to form groups around themes they cared for.  Now, we live in a era of long-tail themes, where simple collaboration tools make it super easy to create groups, and all for free since processing power, storage and bandwidth behave like free.  In today's world, anyone can stand up for an idea, be-the-change, share stories of the process, attract like-hearted people and create a collective voice to start a movement.  While this applies to any and all movements, it is particularly interesting for gift-economy infrastructures that are built solely on the strength of social capital.


Posted by Nipun Mehta on Jul 5, 2008

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