Gifting into a New World

What this message is about: There are exciting developments at the growing edge of the “gifting economy” – from pay-it-forward pizza to no-fee consulting practices. There are also challenges and issues that bubble up as we try to step into these new ways of being and doing together. Gifting goes on all the time, and yet the money economy is how we think and where so much of our security – and lack of it – comes from. What’s going on here? What is possible here? And what does this have to do with worldwork freely given?

A couple of weeks ago I found myself arguing with a close friend who was urging me to do more formal consulting and to charge at least one or two hundred dollars an hour. I vehemently opposed the idea (for myself, while understanding that that approach fits for many other people).

I do lots of what I call “being a thinking partner” with people doing social change work that I respect. I’ve never charged for talking with someone like that. I consider both of us to be doing The Good Work. It would be like the hand charging the mouth for bringing food up to be chewed, or the mouth charging the hand for chewing it…

I fill my websites with information, ideas, and positive possibilities that thousands of people use and value. I’ve never charged anyone for any of it, nor advertised anything but my books on my main website. When I meet someone who is new to my work and enthusiastically curious, I will often give them one or two of my books (all of which I have to buy); they can pay me or not, it doesn’t matter.

I once found a consultant who had printed an entire article of mine on his website under his own name. I was fascinated and overjoyed. Anyone who takes something I have written and spreads it around is doing me a favor, furthering my social ideas and transformational visions. I have no need or desire to charge them for the privilege of participating in my mission in the world.

I often don’t know what impact, if any, my work has. I just do it and let it go. I recently learned how it was that my work ended up catalyzing Oregon’s Citizens Initiative Review, the first ever official U.S. citizens deliberative council. I’ve attached that story below.

How do I manage to do this, to give all this away? I am not independently wealthy. I live very simply and am supported by subscribers to this list who donate to the Co-Intelligence Institute during my twice-yearly two-month email fundraising campaigns. We’re nearing the end of 2015’s first campaign, and we are way below our target.

That’s where the gift economy comes in.


We’ve been giving to each other since before there were human beings, when our ancestors were apes, rabbits, and birds. Then came people more like you and me: Families, tribes, and small communities have been gifting support to each other for hundreds of thousands of years. When people know each other personally, those who are generous tend to be especially valued by the community and receive more support in return. Gifting produces webs of life-affirming mutual obligation.

Money changed that. Virtually anything you can get for free (as part of mutual obligation) you can now pay for (without any further obligation) – including listening, sex, child care, fresh air and water, healing, and a sturdy shovel. Now it seems that practically everything costs money or makes money. And with money, you don’t need to know the people you exchange value with; to a remarkable extent, everyone is an equal in the eyes of cash – as long as they have it – and when I pay my bills, the obligation ends.

But gifting continues regardless. Trees still produce free oxygen, without which none of us would remain alive for more than a few minutes. Parents and children continue to give each other free loving (can you imagine the invoices they could give each other when the kids leave home?). Philanthropists and volunteers still help their struggling, suffering fellows with no expectation of return beyond the heart benefits intrinsic in the act and the appreciation of those around them. Activists still labor on behalf of the common good and future generations, risking burnout in order to continue to give.

Furthermore, as the money-based global economy experiences seismic quivers and shocks, and as more people find they don’t have enough money to meet their needs, gifting and sharing economic experiments are beginning to crop up everywhere. These experiments take us beyond our usual money-centric ways of thinking and interacting. They invoke our generosity, our vulnerability, our trust and obligations to each other. They take new forms, some of which work, some of which don’t.

But all this gifting doesn’t necessarily take us beyond money itself. In an article “How to run a business in the gift economy”, Marie Goodwin, a colleague of Charles Eisenstein (author of Sacred Economics), notes that gifting is not necessarily about “freebies” – especially if you are a business. She explores how a business can make the money it needs for functioning in the monetized economy while grounding itself in the relationships and generosity that characterize the gift economy. Goodwin’s vision involves two-way gifting, where what is paid for an object or service – and when and how – is decided by the recipient as an expression of their love and/or gratitude, with due consideration for the needs of the supplier, who simply gives their goods or services freely as an expression of their love and/or generosity. Although money is usually (though not always) involved, price just doesn’t enter into it. Because the exchange is about relationship, the things that can flow back can be quite varied and abundant, even unexpectedly remarkable. (In the comments section below the article I found a note from my friend and colleague Tree Bressen explaining how she runs her facilitation and training business as a “joyful value exchange”. And here’s what another friend and colleague, Miki Kashtan, is doing with her Nonviolent Communication training business and a Circle of Support.)

In researching all this, I stumbled on two remarkable series of articles on businesses experimenting with gifting:
(1) by Jeff Lilly – a linguist, machine learning scientist, and Druid – who stopped selling – and started giving away – his spiritual goods and services
(I especially recommend “Selling Salvation: How much is it worth?”) and
(2) by Mirror Living – an authentic heart-based marketing consultant – who switched to gifting her teaching and coaching. In several short videos she heartfully and insightfully explores the ways gifting both supports – and interferes with – the loving relationships she seeks to nurture with her clients.

Both these people delve deeply into the dynamics of gifting; their reflections were filled with revelations for me.

And then I stumbled on Rosa’s Fresh Pizza in Philadelphia where slices are given away for free, with customers “paying it forward” so that subsequent customers – especially homeless people – can have pizza AND Rosa’s can remain in business to serve everyone on into the future….  And I also stumbled on One World Everybody Eats “pay what you can” community cafes where diners choose their own portions and prices as part of building community and reducing hunger.

Which brings me to community supported public radio and TV, which hold periodic fundraising drives with special content, asking listeners and viewers to contribute the money the stations need to continue offering their shows to the whole community at no charge, with little or no advertising (though they’ve slipped a bunch on that last part in recent years…).


In essence what we at the Co-Intelligence Institute do is community supported social transformation. We do fundraisers twice a year with special content – and those who value what we offer give us gifts so that we can continue to give our gifts freely to the world, to support positive transformation.

Lately we’ve begun exploring – for the first time ever – the possibility of providing actual courses on co-intelligence. This raises questions about whether to charge, and how much, and for what, and with what expectations? We find ourselves again faced with the transformational implications of “living in the gift”. Should we use a “pay it forward” system, allowing people to take a course for free with an invitation to gift us something that will allow us to continue to provide free courses to others in the future? Should we do a sliding scale or “recommended amount” calculated to cover our minimal costs but still offer it as a gift? Should we solicit pledges of people who regularly donate to us to support such teachings and explorations? If we give it all away while inviting people to pay what it’s worth to them within the constraints of what they can afford, does that put a subtle pressure on them or burden them to wrestle with issues that simply wouldn’t exist if the course had a fixed price? Should we just name a price within the range of what other people charge and forget about all this gifting stuff?

Nothing is clear on an evolving edge like this, between the old ways and the new. I and others are living in the intense mystery of it, doing the various bests we can. You are welcome to join us, to share your stories, your thinking, your questions, your gifts…. (Seriously, post your responses in the comments section below. Gift your views to your fellows!)

In my work, the idea of withholding my ideas or help from someone doing transformational work simply because they can’t pay for it is just not acceptable to me. What I have to offer almost always comes to me freely – often from internal or external sources I can’t identify – and I believe that “the gift must move.” Furthermore, I HIGHLY value my freedom to decide, on a moment to moment basis, where to best put my energies to serve my deeply felt calling in the world. I am constantly engaging with people and projects and ideas that just a few days earlier I had no idea even existed. This is to me essential for my riding the evolving edge of the culture and providing the services I provide.

When you donate to the Co-Intelligence Institute, you support my ability to continue to innovate, to network, to research and spread ideas and possibilities. If you trust my way of doing that – if my doing that gives you a sense that something valuable and useful is happening – and if you LOVE the idea that you can help to make that possible, then I strongly invite you to send us some support.

Perhaps most exciting is this: When such giving flows joyously it becomes less you supporting us and more you AND us working together to do something remarkable for future generations. Which, I feel deeply, is the greatest gift any of us can give.


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Tom Atlee’s Essential Role in the Award Winning Citizens’ Initiative Review

Ned Crosby and Pat Benn recently explained the part Tom Atlee played in the creation of the acclaimed, award-winning Citizens’ Initiative Review that has been used in Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona.

In 1971, Ned created the Citizen Jury, a brilliant process that enables a diverse group of people to learn about an issue, deliberate and develop well-informed solutions to difficult public issues. This process is the backbone for the Citizen’s Initiative Review.

Well, early in the 2000s Tom invited Ned and Pat to his home to explain the Citizen Jury process to a group of people. One of the people present was Elliot Shuford who Tom had gotten involved in co-intelligence work through a Dynamic Facilitation workshop with Jim Rough.

A few years later Elliot was in graduate school with Tyrone Reitman. Elliot gave Tyrone a list Tom had put together of 10 initiatives that could foster and empower public wisdom. Tyrone, who had been working as an activist with Oregon initiatives and was frustrated by the lack of efficacy inherent in the current initiative process, saw Tom’s idea (#6 on the list) for convening Citizen Juries. Tyrone talked to Elliot and they brainstormed the possibility of doing Citizen Juries on Oregon State Initiatives. Tom connected Elliot and Tyrone to Ned and Pat and the rest, as they rarely say, is good democracy in action! Elliot and Tyrone, working with Ned and Pat, pushed legislation through the Oregon legislature that established the Citizen Initiative Review as an official function of the State of Oregon and created Healthy Democracy Oregon!

Thank you for funding the essential and often invisible work of the Co-Intelligence Institute!

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PS: You might also enjoy Yes! Magazine’s “37 ways to join the gift economy”

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Dec 2014 – Jan 2015 Co-Intelligence Institute Fundraising Campaign note: So far 44 people have supported us with $4310. Join them in supporting our work. Our target is $20,000. As you can see, we can use your support. Please donate now. It will make a big difference and your donation is fully tax-deductible in the U.S.

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