Build community by organising events in the “gift economy” style
This winter I tried something new: I organised an event in the “gift economy” style. Inspired by ancient gift cultures, gift economy means offering an event (or other work) as a gift instead of exchanging it directly for money. At the end of the event people connect with their gratitude and give in a way that fits for them—either with money or with non-monetary gifts. The idea is to promote community, connection, and gratitude by moving away from transactions.
The practice of gift economy opens up new ways of interacting, learning, and seeing. I’ll share what I learned from the experience in the hope that it will inspire you to participate in a similar activity.
Wealth is what we give to others, not what we keep for ourselves
Instead of seeing wealth as an accumulation of money or resources, in a gift economy a person’s wealth comes from what they give to others. Anything we choose to give in the hope of meeting another person’s need is a gift. This may be material things, like money, food, or shelter. There are many other types of gifts, though: the gift of listening, the gift of art, the gift of connection. In a gift economy, wealth is our power to help others. Through giving we can accumulate goodwill, connection, and community.
My gift economy experiment: an evening course about building trust
I was inspired to try organising a gift economy event after reading Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein. I announced an evening course about practices for building trust. I used this version of gift economy:
- I offered the course as a gift with no upfront charge. Instead I invited people to apply for the course by sharing what they hoped to learn from participating.
- Based on advice I found online, I emphasised that it was not a free course, and shared the needs I was hoping to meet through organising it. This included the direct costs of hiring the venue, and my non-financial needs like introductions to people who’d like to attend my events, feedback on the course activities, and help organising conferences.
- At the end of the course I asked the participants to reflect on their gratitude, and to give in way that aligned with it.
I clarified my motivation: I organise because I want to learn
When I tell people about this experiment, many appear to object, saying, “but you need to make a living somehow!” This reminds me how foreign the concept of gifting is in today’s capitalist culture. Yes, I need to make a living somehow. It doesn’t follow that I need to make money from every activity I take part in!
Offering the course as a gift helped me to clarify my motivations. I realised that I was organising the course to meet my needs for learning, growth, and understanding. Although events and training are the focus of my work, this event wasn’t about making a living. It was about learning how to run workshops where people can practise communication techniques. Discovering this changed my attitude towards the participants. Instead of seeing them as people who wanted to benefit from my expertise, I was grateful to them for facilitating my learning.
I was surprised to find that letting people know what gifts I’d like to receive created a dynamic of mutuality. Asking for what I need makes me vulnerable, and that encourages people to connect. The participants could see me learning during the course—including when things didn’t go to plan—which created an atmosphere based on helping each other to learn, instead of a one-way exchange of knowledge. I spent most of the final session getting feedback from the participants about what worked and what I could change in the future. Because of the gifting vibe, this didn’t seem out of place.
Gift economy enables events that wouldn’t be feasible otherwise
Participants at my other events have their places funded by their organisations, which limits the number of people who attend. My events are about practices for building trust, an area that many people think is important. The problem is that their organisations have difficulty funding it, because it doesn’t fit their concept of “professional development.”
Gift economy reverses the situation. People participate because they want to, and the question of who provides funds is secondary. It also reduces risk, because people don’t need to determine the value of the course before they’ve experienced it. At the end they choose what donation to make, whether monetary (paid by their organisation for some) or another type of gift. This experience helped me realise that many more events are feasible under this arrangement than under the transactional model.
Gifts create relationships
Giving and receiving gifts—rather than transactions—creates the conditions for a relationship. As well as more than covering the direct costs of the event, every single participant offered to volunteer at my larger events—something I always need help with. At the end of the course, I asked each of them to keep in touch—something we say a lot, perhaps—but this time I believe it’s likely to happen.