Experiments In The Gift Economy

In early 2018 I stumbled upon the idea of the “gift economy” and decided to experiment with embracing it in my work. From an economic lens where making more money is the goal, it was a poor decision. However, from a learning standpoint, it has been a gift in itself.

My MBA education and experience at consulting firms didn’t teach me anything about generosity. There is no space for kindness or connection on an income statement. Yet everything I’ve learned over the last year has convinced me that an embrace of the gift economy is an embrace of the future and a better way of “doing business”

Have I figured out how to fully support myself in the gift economy context yet?  No, but embracing a mindset of “living in the gift” has forced me to grapple with complex and confusing emotions, re-design my life, and question my relationship with money while opening me up to deeper connections with both friends and new connections.

Five lessons from embracing the gift:

1. Awkward Starts & $100 Bills

After decided I would embrace the gift in my work, I reached out to Andrew Taggart, a writer I admired and someone who had fully embraced the gift in his own life. His wisdom helped me frame my approach and I decided to publicly share the thinking behind my decision and develop guiding principles and questions for people to think about. I came up with five guiding questions to help people think about engaging with me:

1. Means: What are you reasonably able to contribute? (can be money, but if you have a vacation spot on a beach, I’m all ears)

2. Sustainability: What will help me continue to do this work?

3. Value: How much value does what I create help you?

4. Feeling: What feels right?

5. Community: How will my contributions encourage a deeper connection between people and doing work that matters?

I quickly realized that these questions put a lot of pressure on my conversations partners to make a guess at what gift they might offer (at all). While I had done the work of making sense of the gift economy, I was asking a lot of people who were being exposed to it in the first conversation with me.

It was especially awkward when in a coaching session with someone I was explaining that this conversation was a “gift” and that if he wanted to work further we would have the money conversation next time.

Even though I had e-mailed him my approach to the gift economy and shared that this first conversation was a “gift” it was likely too much to ask. At the end of our conversation, he asked, “how much do I owe you?” I said “nothing.” He then opened his wallet, pulled out $100 bill and handed it to me.

I graciously accepted, but never saw him again. Some people still need a price. Embracing the gift means moving away from some people who need a price, but it also means opening the door to people that want to work with others in new ways.

2. Patreon: Gratitude For Small Gifts

Along with every other podcaster on the face of the earth, I have embraced Patreon as a way to enable people to offer small but consistent gifts.

Every time I get an e-mail that says “New $x Patreon, XXXXX” I am immediately overcome with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. While giving up $3 is not life-changing for me nor the giver, the show of support and the underlying belief in what I am doing is worth 100 times more than the gift itself.

One day an e-mail appeared saying “New $9.99 Patron, Greg.”

“Holy crap!” I was floored.

I didn’t know immediately know the person who had offered such a generous gift. After exchanging a couple of e-mails and talking on video later in the week, I realized we had a brief conversation the year before and I had shared some thoughts on his career transition.

He shared that he had been following my writing and felt compelled to support my journey. This is Patreon at its best, giving someone who is inspired by an opportunity to instantly connect with that person. As a creator, the thing that keeps me going is all the people who keep reaching out to support me. Seth Godin says that the job of the creator is to find the people that want to go on a journey with them. Patreon lets people “opt-in” to that journey in a powerful way.

I’m also a supporter of several creators on Patreon for amounts ranging from $1 to $5 a month. While I’d love to say that this is a no-brainer for me, I have been surprised by how much resistance I felt when about to click the submit button on my pledges. While I have worked through a lot of money issues, I still have not fully escaped the discomfort when giving money way. The mindset I of “you need to get something” for your money is hard to escape.  Yet being on the other side of this relationship, I know that my small gift can have a huge impact on that other person and their confidence to keep going.

I’m still a bit hesitant to think about platforms like Patreon in the context of the gift economy as their entire economic model is built on building a massive platform and extracting wealth from that power. But for now it is an easy and increasingly understood way of offering small gifts to creators.

3. Bringing Gift To Corporate

Last year the talent platform Catalant approached me about writing a report on the future of work. They offered me $500 up front for the work and I accepted but countered with doing the project on a gift basis.

While part of me wanted to truly embrace the gift, I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a small amount of resentment and greed that I felt from a rapidly growing and well-funded startup only offering me $500 for the project.

I acknowledge the feeling and moved forward. I ended up sinking 30+ hours into the project and was able to collaborate with them on a report I was proud of. During the whole process, we never had a further discussion of money and I fully released myself from the outcome.

As I was wrapping up the project, they offered an incredible gift of their own. They offered to pay for a two day trip to Dallas to participate in a conference they were hosting on the future of work. During the conference, I was able to learn from other participants and build connections with several people who share similar passions.

A couple weeks after returning from the conference, my project sponsor said that the payment had been finalized. They decided to pay me $1,000 for the project.

While I felt gratitude, I also acknowledged a feeling of greed that still lingered. I realized that I would have been disappointed if I had only received $500 for the project. In the same vein, I also realized that I had a lot of pride in my work and felt that I “deserved” the $1000 payment.

This feeling is also hard to escape.  This is the inverse of the earlier feeling where I felt I had to get my money’s worth.  In this case, I felt that they got more than their money’s worth and I should be rewarded.  I am actively trying to distance myself from this feeling and to truly get lost in the work for its own sake of being great.

4. Course: Gift + Price Models

This past summer, I facilitated a digital course experience called “Solopreneur Shift” where I offered it as a gift. However, since I was hesitant to have people sign up for a course for free and not having them follow through, I set a “minimum fee” of $100 and offered multiple tuition options, including the option of offering a gift after the course.

Of the ten people that signed up, nine opted for the gift option and one committed to the medium scholarship. After the course was completed, two people offered additional gifts. I made it easy for them to do this via a google form after the course and provided links so that they could offer the gift.

I realized from my earlier interactions that having conversations about the gift economy can be uncomfortable, but when you are able to offer people options, especially in a digital form, it makes it a lot easier for people to embrace the gift economy.

This hybrid form of a low fixed price plus a gift option seems like a great model to help people learn about the gift economy on their terms.

5. Random gifts — giving $100 to a stranger

People don’t like being given money. In my first essay on my explorations of the gift economy, I left a form at the bottom asking people to submit their name so I could send them a $25 gift. Hundreds of people read the post, but no one submitted anything.

Technology makes it easier to give monetary gifts directly. I had one friend start telling me about a book he was writing when I stopped him, asked him what it will cost and after he said $10, I sent him $50 on Venmo. I told him I wanted to buy the first five copies.

This past summer, I met up with a vagabonder traveling through Boston via Couchsurfing who was embracing the gift mindset. This was partly by necessity — she had no money. Yet when we talked, we didn’t talk about her lack of money. She shared that it had been relatively easy to find housing and food if you were willing to ask and she wasn’t opposed to sleeping outside. Yet our conversation didn’t focus on her challenging circumstances. The entire time she talked about projects she was excited by and things she wanted to do with her life. What she was lacking was the stability to get started. I asked her if she had heard about WorkAway, a community of people that host people for free for an exchange of a small amount of work. She hadn’t but was intrigued.

As we were about to part ways I asked her if she had a venmo or PayPal account and if she would be open to accepting a gift to help her pay for a WorkAway membership as well as whatever else she needed. I decided to send her $100. While I still experienced the discomfort of giving money away (I’m working on it!) I have no regrets. A few days later she messaged that she had found a place to live for a while through the network. I hope she gets a chance to start putting those ideas into the world.

What makes this story almost inexplicable is what happened within the next week. Randomly I received an e-mail from PayPal that a friend had sent me a gift of exactly $100. It was the largest unsolicited gift I had ever received and the first ever from this friend who I had been in touch with for several years. There was no reason other than being inspired by my work and a desire to support other creators.

In Charles Eisenstein’s recent course on “Living In The Gift,” he shared that a true embrace of the gift economy means having no expectation of a return on that gift. Yet, we often will receive gifts. As Eisenstein says “you don’t know when and what you will receive.”

Embracing the gift is about letting go and seeing what the world offers back. Releasing myself to that has opened me up to unexpected kindness and generosity of people

A Final Reflection: $20 For Noodles

Over the past year, incredible people have appeared in my life. I’m not sure if its related to my embrace of the gift or not, but I do my personal commitment to this journey has shifted my behavior to default to kindness and generosity when I might have been skeptical or guarded in the past. I continually ask myself “what more can I do for others?” instead of focusing on what I am lacking or needing.

Over the past year, I’ve had friends and connections randomly send me venmo gifts, support me on Patreon, treat me to dinners, let me borrow their cars and stay at their homes. I feel like the luckiest person in the world.

This past summer I also had the opportunity to gift some coaching time to an incredible man in Boston who has overcome a tough battle with addiction and is doing incredible things to help others now in that same predicament. After working out some of the awkwardness with the gift economy I faced when I first tested it with people, I had both a client and (now) friend who was fully on board. It worked well for him too since he didn’t have the best financial stability at the time.

Over the past few weeks, we have had a number of digital interactions and he keeps sending me small monetary gifts for “noodles” and other street food in Taipei. I keep telling him he doesn’t need to send me anything, but that I graciously accept.

In the past year, I’ve been gifted about $2,500 for courses, coaching, consulting, Patreon pledges and other sources (I share my full finances here).  While this clearly cannot support me yet (I still mostly am supporting myself on fixed-fee consulting arrangements), I’m willing to release myself to the uncertainty to see what happens.

In reality, the value of the gifts I have received is impossible to add up.  That’s because it isn’t about the gift at all.  The gift economy offers a way to do business with people in a way that is rooted in deeper connections.  Connections built on generosity, love, passion, and compassion.  If getting random “gifts” like a $25 venmo haiku isn’t a million times better than setting a price and extracting as much wealth as possible from the economy, I’m not sure what is.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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