Living into the gift economy

A personal post

Researching and writing «Reinventing Organizations» has felt like work of the soul to me, something much in my life has prepared me to do. In many ways, the process has been wonderfully easy. We often hear from people saying how writing a book or getting it published has been a painful process. I was blessed that everything just seemed to flow (even though it was of course a lot of work), an indication perhaps that this was work I was meant to do.

And yet, there have been much personal learning for me in the process. For instance, I’ve learnt (well I’m still learning) to say «no» to many of the demands I get for connecting with readers, giving talks and doing consulting, simply because the numbers of request exceed what I can offer. Saying «no» has always been difficult for me, and now life has brought me to a place where I simply have to learn to do it, and learn to do it as gracefully as I can.

One type of learning I wasn’t expecting was that I’d become fascinated and learn to work in the gift economy. Hey I didn’t even really know about the concept (I got a crash course reading Charles Eisenstein’s book Sacred Economics). The idea, to oversimplify, is to live from abundance, from a place where you give your time, your skills, your passion, and others give back (in money or otherwise) whatever feels right to them. No more contracting, no more fixed prices. Instead, much more love for the work and deeper connection between people.

The book as a first experiment

I started experimenting with the book. You can purchase the kindle/iBook/pdf version of the book  at $9.95 from any major retailer of from this website. Or you can download it in pay-what-feels-right mode (my term, I prefer it to «pay what you want», which to me has got somewhat of an ego-appealing «I-can-do-whatever-I-want» kind of ring to it). You download the book for free, and make the moral commitment to gift back, a month later or whenever you are done reading, whatever amount (or other gift) feels right to you.

The experiment has worked wonderfully for me. I’m of course very happy when people buy the book in paper version or the e-version at a fixed price. It means the ideas get spread, and I get a few dollars of income. But I just love the pay-what-feels-right. Any donation triggers an email into my inbox, and stirs my curiosity: what has this book been worth to this person? Has she left a personal note?

I’ve had someone in Kenya donating $2, and telling me that was a big donation for him. And I’ve had readers give me $100 and $200 because that’s what the book was worth to them. (Here is a nice blog post of someone talking about his perspective as a reader and why he ended up giving more than the list price).

Of course, the usual fears popped up at first: will people not just take advantage of the system? Why will anyone buy the book if they can just download it and never pay for it? But somehow these fears faded as quickly as they came up. Some people do indeed download the book and never donate. And you know what? I feel that’s ok too. I guess that just comes with the territory. Overall, I feel I’ve received as much if not more than what I’ve given. Somehow people respond to this experiment in wonderful ways, it creates a goodwill I didn’t anticipate. I get back so much from readers in all sorts of ways that I can’t even begin to say how blessed I feel. And, if I’m honest with myself, I’m somehow proud of myself that I did go for this experiment. And I guess that feeling good about myself, even if it’s the good old ego flattering itself a bit, isn’t such a bad thing, is it?

Consulting in the gift

And so I’ve started working at times in the gift in my other work too. As the book is getting a lot of traction, leaders of many different organizations ask me to be a sparring partner in their journey to transform their organization. This is wonderful work to be involved in! With some of them, that are open to the idea, I now work in the gift. At the end of every quarter I tell them how much time we’ve spent together, and they donate whatever feels right to them.

Most people actually prefer working with a fixed price. I guess it is because the fixed price takes away the possibly awkward discussion about how much you give. And I can fully understand that. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes for a minute: If I give less than Frederic was expecting, will he be hurt, or think I’m stingy? And if I give more, am I giving too much? But it’s precisely in that question that lies the genius of the gift economy, because it pushes us to reflect on what value we have exchanged, on our relationship with money, and our relationship to one another.

Inviting everyone to take ownership of this work in the spirit of gift

The spirit of working in the gift has also found its way in my relationship with consultants and trainers who are incorporating the insights from the book into their work. Within a few days of the book being published, people asked me if they could take this material and build consulting offers or training offers around it. My response, off the cuff, was «of course, just go for it!»

I didn’t want to mess with trademarking concepts from the book and then licensing this work. Hey, of course I put energy and some skills (I hope) in formalizing these ideas, but they really are not mine. They come from the extraordinary organizations I researched. And I would even claim that they come from a deeper source, that is releasing these ideas into our consciousness at this moment in time.

Since then, though, I’ve come to give a slightly different answer. I still don’t want to trademark and license. I don’t want to control if and how people use these ideas. I think we need more soulful businesses, nonprofits, schools and hospitals, so I want these ideas to spread as much as possible, and I’m really happy that so many people want to play a part in this. But rather then just say «do whatever you want», I found that the principles of the gift economy make sense to me here too.

And so now, when people ask me if they can use this work in their consulting or in trainings or seminars they develop, I tell them «sure, go ahead». And I add two things:

  • If you make explicit reference to the book or to me in the marketing of your offer, make sure it’s clear that I’m not involved, and make sure it doesn’t sound like I would vouch for your offer. I want to avoid any confusion with clients who might assume otherwise when the see the reference to my work.
  • And I ask you to ask yourself, at the end of the day, if you feel it would be right to gift something back to me. There is no obligation to give anything. Don’t reason in terms of percentages or any other mathematical formula. Just listen to you heart, and see if it wants to give something back. The goal is that you feel everything is right, that the energetic exchange feels completed, that your heart is smiling.

Just the beginning

I’m sure this is just the beginning of the journey for me. I sense that our economic system will shift, slowly at first, and then more and more toward the gift economy. I wrote this blog post because I’m eager to open a conversation around this topic. What thoughts do my early experiments trigger with you? Have you practiced working in the gift economy? If you do, how is it going for you? Have you been on the other side, giving back to someone for his gift? How did that feel for you?

If you want to dive deeper into the subject, read Charles Eisenstein’s book, or join this Facebook group on the topic of the gift economy. 

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