Sacred Economics: Chapter 21, Working in the Gift

The following chapter is from Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition, available from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. Return to the Sacred Economics content page here.

Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we are here for the sake of others. –Albert Einstein

Trusting Gratitude

The question comes up again and again: How can I share my gifts in today’s money economy and still make a living? Some people who ask this question are artists, healers, or activists who despair of finding a way to “get paid for” what they do. Others have a successful business or profession but have begun to feel that something is amiss with the way they charge for their services.

Indeed, to charge a fee for service, or even for material goods, violates the spirit of the Gift. When we shift into gift mentality, we treat our creations as gifts to other people or to the world. It is contrary to the nature of a gift to specify, in advance, a return gift, for then it is no longer giving but rather bartering, selling. Furthermore, many people, particularly artists, healers, and musicians, see their work as sacred, inspired by a divine source and bearing infinite value. To assign it a price feels like a devaluation, a sacrilege. But surely the artist deserves to be compensated for his work, right?

The idea behind the word “compensation” is that you have, by working, made a sacrifice of your time. You have spent it doing work when you could have instead spent it on something you want to do. Another context in which we use the word is lawsuits, for example when someone seeks compensation for an injury, for pain and suffering.

In an economy that deserves the adjective “sacred,” work will no longer be an injury to one’s time or life; it will no longer be a matter of pain and suffering. A sacred economy recognizes that human beings desire to work: they desire to apply their life energy toward the expression of their gifts. There is no room in this conception for “compensation.” Work is a joy, a cause for gratitude. At its best, it is beyond price. Doesn’t it sound blasphemous to you to speak of, say, compensating Michelangelo for painting the Sistine Chapel or Mozart for composing his Requiem? No finite amount of money is sufficient in exchange for the divine. Of the most sublime works, the only appropriate means of offering them is to give them away. Even if, at the moment, few of us have access to the genius of a Mozart, we are all capable of sacred work. We are all capable of channeling, through our skills, something greater than ourselves. Something takes form through us, using us as the instrument for its manifestation on earth. Can you see how foreign the concept of “compensation” is to this kind of work? Can you feel the dishonor in selling a sacred creation? No matter what the price, you have sold yourself short, and you have sold short the source from whence the gift came. I like to put it this way: “Some things are too good to sell. We can only give them away.”

Questions immediately arise in the reader. Despite the foregoing, you may have even caught yourself again thinking, “But doesn’t an artist deserve to be compensated for his work?” The intuitions of separation run so deeply! So let us rephrase it: “Doesn’t the giver of great gifts deserve to receive great gifts in return?” The answer, insofar as “deserves” means anything at all, is yes. In a sacred economy, this will happen through the mechanism of gratitude rather than compulsion. The attitude of the seller says, “I will give you this gift-but only if you pay me for it, only if you give me what I think it is worth.” (Yet no matter what the price, the seller will always feel shortchanged.) The attitude of the giver, in contrast, says, “I will give you this gift — and I trust you to give me what you think is appropriate.” If you give a great gift, and no gratitude results, then perhaps that is a sign that you have given it to the wrong person. The spirit of the Gift responds to needs. To generate gratitude is not the goal of giving; it is a sign, an indicator, that the gift was given well, that it met a need. That is another reason I disagree with certain spiritual teachings that say a person of true generosity will not desire to receive anything, even gratitude, in return.

Now let’s make this practical. After wrestling with this issue for some time, I realized that while it feels wrong to charge money for my work, it feels fine to accept money from people who feel grateful for having received it. The degree of gratitude is unique to each person. I cannot know in advance how valuable this book will be to you; even you cannot know it in advance. That is why it is contrary to the spirit of the gift to pay for something unknown in advance. Lewis Hyde illustrates this point most insightfully:

It may be clearer now why I said above that a fee for service tends to cut off the force of gratitude. The point is that a conversion, in the general sense, cannot be settled upon ahead of time. We can’t predict the fruits of our labor; we can’t even know if we’ll really go through with it. Gratitude requires an unpaid debt, and we will be motivated to proceed only so long as the debt is felt. If we stop feeling indebted we quit, and rightly so. To sell a transformative gift therefore falsifies the relationship; it implies that the return gift has been made when in fact it can’t be made until the transformation is finished. A prepaid fee suspends the weight of the gift and depotentiates it as an agent of change. Therapies and spiritual systems delivered through the market will therefore tend to draw the energy required for conversion from an aversion to pain rather than from an attraction to a higher state.(1)

Accordingly, I have taken what steps I can to conduct my work in alignment with the spirit of the gift. For example, I make as much as possible of my writing, sound recordings, and videos available online for no charge and invite readers to give a gift in return that reflects their degree of gratitude. This gift need not go to me. If the gratitude is, for instance, toward the universe for making my work available, perhaps a more appropriate way of giving is to “pay it forward.”

I use a similar model in my public speaking. When I am asked my speaker’s fee, I say that I do not charge a fee. Usually I request that my travel expenses be covered; beyond that, I say something like, “It is up to you. Give me whatever amount, or none at all, that leaves you with a feeling of clearness, balance, and appropriateness, an amount that reflects your gratitude for my coming to be with you.” This is not a formula, it is a spirit that adapts itself to each unique situation. If they have a standard speaker’s honorarium, I won’t necessarily insist on an exception for myself. Moreover, sometimes an up-front offer communicates to me how much they desire what I have to offer. I want to give my gifts where they are wanted, and money is one of several ways to communicate that desire.

It is important not to make “living in the gift” into a fetish, or into a standard of virtue. Don’t do it in order to be good. Do it in order to feel good. If you find yourself rejoicing (as I do) over a big fat check, that is OK! We humans are delighted to receive big gifts. Even if you find yourself (again, as I sometimes do) feeling miserly, resentful, and grasping, simply take note of that as well. The road back to the gift is a long one, so distanced from it we have become. I see myself as one of many explorers of a new (and ancient) territory, learning from the discoveries of others and from my own mistakes.

When I lead retreats, I charge only for room and board and other out-of-pocket expenses, and invite gifts. (2) It has taken some time for me to enter a state of consciousness where this model actually “works.” If I resent those who give nothing, if I intend, through the enunciation of high-sounding principles, to coerce or manipulate people into giving beyond what genuine gratitude dictates, or if I subtly “guilt” people into giving by hinting at my hardship, sacrifice, or entitlement by virtue of poverty, then I am not living in the spirit of the gift at all. I am living instead in a subtle kind of scarcity mentality or beggary, and, as if to mirror that state, the flow of gifts dries up almost immediately. Not only do people refrain from giving, but my own wellspring of gifts dries up as well.

As long as my gift intention is authentic, I find that the inflow of gifts matches or exceeds the outflow. Sometimes the vehicle of the return gift is mysterious, indirectly traceable or not traceable at all to anything I have given, yet somehow, when it comes, it carries something of the spirit of the original offering. Sometimes only an exiguous trail of synchronicity and symbol connects the gift I have received with the gift I have given. The rational mind says the return gift has nothing at all to do with what I gave — “I would have received that anyway” — but the heart knows otherwise.

Because the return gift comes later, as we step into gift-based livelihood we live for a time in faith. With no assurance of return, we learn whether we really mean it. The ego struggles and thrashes, trying to find an assured benefit. If not money, maybe I can advertise my generosity to receive praise. Maybe I can secretly congratulate myself and feel superior to those who are less in the gift than I am. In my experience, each new step into the gift is scary. The letting go has to be real, or there will be no return.

Business in the Gift

Now let us apply this model to other kinds of businesses. There are already a number of enterprises today that are implementing gift economics in creative ways. I don’t uphold my own model as the best or only way of living in the gift. We are pioneering a new kind of economy, and it is going to take some trial and error to get it right. I’ll offer a few examples of people doing business according to one or both of the key principles of the gift I have discussed: (1) The recipient, and not the giver, determines the “price” (the return gift); (2) The return gift is chosen after the initial gift has been received, not before.

In Berkeley, California, the Karma Clinic has been treating people with holistic medicine on a gift basis for two years. After the consultation or treatment, the client receives a “bill” that reads,

“Your consultation is a generous gift from someone that came before you. If you would like to gift-forward in that spirit, you can do so however you choose. Monetary or other gifts may be left in the gift box in the Karma Clinic office or mailed to …” In Ashland, Oregon, another gift-based clinic called the Gifting Tree has formed. There are doubtless many more around the country, and they appear to be quite sustainable: the Victoria Attunement Center operated purely on a donation basis from 1982 to 1988 and, according to its founder Will Wilkinson, was completely self-supporting with over 300 client visits per month.

The gift model has also been applied to restaurants. The One World restaurant in Salt Lake City, in operation since 2003; the SAME (So All May Eat) Cafe in Denver, in operation since 2008; A Better World Cafe in New Jersey, which opened in 2009; the Karma Kitchen in Berkeley; and many more operate on a donation-only basis — and many of them serve organic food to boot.

Recently the idea entered the mainstream when the national restaurant chain Panera Bread opened a pay-what-you-want store in St. Louis, Missouri. The menu is exactly the same as at its other stories, but the prices are guidelines only. Patrons are asked to pay whatever feels right: the sign at the counter says, “Take what you need, leave your fair share.” If this experiment works, the company plans to expand the model to locations around the country. I wonder if they realize that they are pioneering not just a model of civic virtue, but also a model of business for the future.

On the internet, of course, an enormous gift economy thrives. Versions of all major types of productivity software are available at no charge. For example, the office suite OpenOffice, a collaborative effort by hundreds of volunteer programmers, is available at no charge. I am hesitant to use the phrase “for free” here, because those words imply almost a repudiation of any return gift. The OpenOffice organization does accept donations and encourages those who have downloaded the software to contribute in various ways.

Lots of bands offer their music “for free” online as well. The most notable pioneer of the gift business model for recorded music was Radiohead, which offered its 2007 In Rainbows album on a pay-what-you-will basis. Although nearly two-thirds of downloaders chose to pay nothing, hundreds of thousands did choose to pay a few dollars for it, and millions more copies were purchased on iTunes, as CDs, and through other channels. Critics dismissed this success as an anomaly made possible by Radiohead’s iconic status, yet the basic model continues to proliferate, especially in the music industry as traditional distribution channels becomes increasingly impractical for most bands.

Astonishingly, there is even a law firm that has incorporated a pay-what-you-will element into its business. The Valorem Law Group, a trial law firm based in Chicago, has added a “value adjustment line” feature to its bills. At the bottom of the bill, above an empty “Total due” box, is a box labeled “Value adjustment.” The client writes a positive or negative number there and adjusts the final fee accordingly. I am full of admiration for this firm, because from a legalistic point of view this feature is quite insane. Someone could “adjust” the bill by the full amount and pay nothing, and the firm would probably have no legal recourse.

Now let’s generalize these examples into a broadly applicable business model. The fundamentals are quite simple. The first guideline is to charge money only to cover your own direct costs. This includes marginal costs and apportioned fixed costs, but not sunk costs. So, for example, if you install plumbing for someone, you would charge for materials (with zero markup), fuel to reach the site, and perhaps half a day’s worth of your current payments on capital equipment (e.g., your truck loan, business loan, etc.). You would make it clear to the recipient that your time, labor, and expertise are a gift. The bill might have the total costs, and then a blank line labeled “gift,” and then the line labeled “total” underneath it.

A variant of this model is to follow Valorem and display a normal fee that reflects the market price with a line under it labeled “value adjustment” or “gratitude adjustment.” Most people will probably just pay the market price, but you can explain that they can adjust it if they are especially satisfied or dissatisfied with the work.

Another variant is not to charge anything at all but to delineate various line items such as “cost of materials,” “apportioned cost of business expenses,” “hours of labor,” “market price for this service,” and so on. That way the recipient can choose to pay nothing at all, not even for materials, but at least she has this information. This information, like the note in the Karma Clinic, is “the story of the gift” referenced earlier. Traditionally, gifts were often accompanied by stories that helped the receiver appreciate their value.

The gift business model is actually not as far from standard business practice as you might think. Today, a common negotiating tactic is to say, “Look, here are my costs; I can’t go any lower than that.” (3) It is not such a huge shift of perspective to say, “Here are my costs. You can pay me more according to the value you believe you have received.” Often the customer will have a pretty good idea of the market price of the goods or services you are offering and, if there is any genuine humanity at all in the business relationship, will probably pay close to that. If he or she does pay a premium above the base cost, you can interpret that as indicating the presence of gratitude. If someone is grateful for what you have given, you will desire to give more. If someone is ungrateful, you know that the gift is not being fully received, and you will probably choose not to give to that person again.

Translated into a business relationship, what this means is that you will choose not to do business again with someone who pays you little or nothing above cost, and you will preferentially do business with someone who, using money as token, communicates her high degree of gratitude. This is as it should be. Some people need our gifts more than others. If you have bread, you want to give it to the hungry person. Displays of gratitude help to orient us toward the best expression of our gifts. So, just as today, a business will tend to do business with those who pay the most money (although nonmonetary expressions of gratitude may also come into play). This is different from tending to do business with those who offer the best price. The difference is key. In keeping with the spirit of the gift, the price is not offered ahead of time. The gift is offered first, and only after it is received is a return gift made.

I cannot help but notice a parallel between this approach and various game-theoretic studies of altruism and iterated prisoner’s dilemma problems. Look up “tit-for-tat” in Wikipedia for some background on this topic. Essentially, in many situations where there are repeated interactions among discrete entities with varying payoffs for cooperation and betrayal, the optimal strategy is to cooperate first and retaliate only against someone who didn’t cooperate last time. Analogous reasoning leads me to think that the business model I have outlined can actually be more financially successful over time than the standard model. (4)

Because gift mentality is so alien to us today, doing business in the gift sometimes requires a bit of education. I’ve found that if I advertise an event as “by donation,” people sometimes treat it as a throwaway, thinking, “It must not be very valuable or very important if he isn’t charging for it.” They’ll come late or not at all, or they’ll come with low expectations. Paying a fee is a kind of ritual that sends a message to the unconscious that “this is something valuable” or “I am doing this for real.” I and many others are still experimenting to find better ways to invoke the benefits of payment while staying true to the spirit of the gift. We are at the beginning of a new era, so it is going to take some practice and experimentation.

Obviously, at the time of this writing most corporations and business owners are not ready to step into a gift-based business model. That’s OK — you can give them a little push! Simply implement it unilaterally by “stealing” their products, for example by illegally downloading or copying digital content like songs, movies, software, and so on. Then, if you feel grateful to the creators of it, send them some money. I would be quite happy if you did the same with this book. It will be hard to do it illegally, though, since I don’t claim standard copyrights (I bet you didn’t read the copyright page carefully, but it isn’t the usual verbiage), and the content is available online without charge. Nonetheless, if you do manage to “steal” this book, I will be pleased to receive an amount from you that reflects your gratitude — as opposed to the amount that I or the publisher presumes reflects its value to you. Each person’s experience of reading it is unique: for some it may be a waste of time, for others it might be life-changing. Isn’t it absurd to receive an identical return gift from everyone?

The Sacred Professions

The gift model comes especially naturally for professions in which the value delivered is something intangible. Musicians, artists, prostitutes, healers, counselors, and teachers all offer gifts that are debased when we assign them a price. When what we offer is sacred to us, then the only honorable way to offer it is as a gift. (5) No price can be high enough to reflect the sacredness of the infinite. By asking for a specific speaker’s fee, I make less of my gift. If you are a member of one of the above professions, you might consider experimenting with a gift model of business — but remember, if you apply that model as a more clever means to “get paid,” it won’t work. People can detect a phony gift, a gift that isn’t a gift but carries an agenda of gain.

In all of the above professions, the intangible rides the vehicle of something tangible, and it is the former, unquantifiable, that naturally wants to abide in the realm of the gift. This is actually true of every profession. Always, something is present that is beyond quantification, beyond commodity, and thus beyond price. Every profession is therefore potentially sacred. Consider the example of farming. What makes food-something tangible-a vehicle for the sacred?

It is grown by someone who cares deeply about its nourishing and aesthetic qualities. It is grown in a way that enriches the ecosystem, soil, water, and life in general. Its production and processing contribute to a healthy society.

In other words, sacred food is ensconced in a web of natural and social relationships. It is grown with a love for people and earth that is not an abstract love but a love for this land and these people. We cannot love anonymously, which is perhaps why I’ve always gotten a somewhat cold feeling from anonymous charity that doesn’t create connection. Somebody grew sacred food for me!

When we see our work as sacred, we seek to do it well for its own sake rather than “good enough” for something external such as the market, the building code, or a grade. A builder who does sacred work will employ materials and methods that might be hidden in the walls, beyond anyone’s notice, for centuries. He derives no rational benefit from this, just the satisfaction of doing it right. So also the business owner who pays an above-market living wage or the manufacturer who far exceeds environmental standards. They have no rational expectation of benefit, yet somehow they do benefit, sometimes in ways that are completely unexpected. Unexpected returns accord perfectly with the nature of the Gift: as Lewis Hyde puts it, a gift “disappears around the corner,” “into the mystery,” and we don’t know how it will travel back to us.

Another way to see the unexpected fruits that arise from the mystery is that when we live in the spirit of the gift, magic happens. Gift mentality is a kind of faith, a kind of surrender-and that is a prerequisite for miracles to arise. From the Gift, we become capable of the impossible.

I met a man in Oregon who owns a property management company specializing in low-income elder care facilities. “This,” he says, “is an impossible business.” Subject to the multiple, conflicting stressors of medical institutions, insurance companies, government regulation, the poverty of the residents, and general financial turmoil, his industry was in a state of crisis. The week I visited him, two of his largest competitors called begging him to take over their money-losing facilities. Yet somehow, this man has built a profitable, growing business, an empowering workplace, and human living environments that are a model for the industry. How does he do it? “Every day,” he says, “I walk into the office to face a stack of impossible problems. I cannot imagine any way to solve them. So I do the only thing I can do: I bow into service. And then, like magic, solutions fall into my lap.”

The one who bows into service is an artist. To see work as sacred is to bow into service to it, and thus become its instrument. More specifically and somewhat paradoxically, we become the instrument of that which we create. Whether it is a material, human, or social creation, we put ourselves into the humble service of something preexisting yet unmanifest. Thus it is that the artist is in awe of his or her own creation. I get that feeling when I read aloud from The Ascent of Humanity: “I could not have written this.” That book is its own entity, born through me but no more my creation than parents create a baby, or a farmer a spinach plant. They transmit the impulse of life, they provide a place for it to grow, but they do not and need not understand the details of cell differentiation. I too nourished my growing book with every resource available to me, and birthed it with terrific hardship from its womb in my mind into physical form, and I am intimately familiar with its every nuance, yet I have an abiding sense that it existed already, that it is beyond my contrivance. Can a parent legitimately take credit for the accomplishments of his or her child? No. That is a form of theft. Nor will I take credit for the beauty of my creations. I am at their service.

I have drawn this out to show that the same logic that the Christian fathers, Thomas Paine, and Henry George applied to land applies as well to the fruits of human labor. They exist beyond ourselves — we are stewards at their service, just as we are properly stewards of the land and not its owners. As they are given to us, so we give them onward. That is why we are drawn to do business in the spirit of the Gift. It feels good and right because it aligns us with the truth. It opens us to a flow of wealth beyond the limits of our design. Such is the origin of any great idea or invention: “It came to me.” How then can we presume to own it? We can only give it away, and thereby keep the channel open through which we will continue to receive sacred gifts, in diverse forms, from other people and all that is.

As an incentive to make the switch to a gift model of business, observe that for many of the sacred professions, the old model isn’t working anymore. Here in the small city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which is not exactly the most progressive place on earth, there are nonetheless literally hundreds of holistic, complementary, and alternative practitioners advertising in the local Holistic Health Networker. Hundreds. And probably at least half of them, upon entering their herbal studies program or yoga therapy program or naturopathy program, or their hypnotherapy, angelic healing, crystal healing, polarity therapy, Reiki, cranial-sacral therapy, holistic nutrition, massage therapy, or other program, had in mind a future career in an office or holistic health center seeing “clients” for “sessions” at $85 or $120 each. It is impossible that more than a handful will realize that dream. Yet the schools and training programs keep churning out new practitioners. Sooner or later, most of them will have to abandon the clients-and-sessions model and turn toward offering their skills as a gift. (6)

What is happening in these professions is starting to happen more generally. We might ascribe it to overcapacity, debt overhang, the “falling marginal return on investment,” or some other economic factor, but the fact is that the old profit model is in crisis. Like the holistic practitioners I described, collectively we will soon have no choice but to adopt a different model en masse.

In the old economy, people pursued jobs and careers for the purpose of making a living. From the viewpoint of survival, nothing is too sacred to sell, to charge money for. If you are working for the sake of survival, such as in a lead mine in China, then it probably won’t feel wrong to negotiate and demand the best price possible for your labor. Another way to look at it is that the survival of oneself and loved ones is itself a sacred endeavor.

I want to inject a note of gentleness and realism into this discussion. Please do not think I am advocating some saintly standard of altruism or self-sacrifice. You do not gain heavenly rewards for accepting a salary cut. If your main concern right now is survival or security, “work” to you will probably not be an avenue for the expression of your gifts. Your job will feel like just that, a “job”-something you do primarily for the money and would quit or radically change if you had no financial pressure. And even though you may feel some sense of being ripped off, of living the life someone is paying you to live but not your own life, the life of a slave compelled to work or to die, that doesn’t mean you “should” overcome your fears and quit that job and trust you’ll be OK. Living in the gift is not another thing you are supposed to do in order to be a good person. Fear is not the new enemy in our continuing war against the self, the successor to the old hobgoblins of sin and ego. Sacred economics is part of a broader revolution in human beingness: internally, it is the end of the war against the self; externally, it is the end of the war against nature. It is the economic dimension of a new age, the Age of Reunion.

So, if you find yourself slaving away at a job, working for the money, doing it “good enough” rather than “as beautifully as I am able,” I urge you to transition out of that job when and only when you are ready. Perhaps for now you will see your job as a gift to yourself, giving you a sense of security for as long as it takes for that feeling to become second nature. Fear is not the enemy, despite what so many spiritual teachers say. “The opposite of love,” says one. “Frozen joy,” says another. Actually fear is a guardian, holding us in a safe space in which to grow; you could even say that fear is a gift. Eventually, as we grow, the fears that were once protective become limiting, and we desire to be born. That this will happen is inevitable. Trust yourself now, and you will continue to trust yourself when your desire moves you to transcend the old fears and enter a larger, brighter realm. When the moment of birth comes, you won’t be able to stop yourself.

Ending the struggle to be good also means that giving does not involve a feeling of sacrifice or self-abnegation. We give because we want to, not because we should. Gratitude, the recognition that one has received and the desire to give in turn, is our innate default state. How could it not be, when life, breath, and world are gifts? When even the fruit of our own labors is beyond our contrivance? To live in the gift is to reunite with our true nature.

As you step into a gift mentality, let your feelings guide you. Let your giving arise from gratitude and not the desire to measure up to some standard of virtue. Perhaps the first steps will be small ones: adding little extras, doing small favors with no agenda of reward. Perhaps if you run a business, you will convert a small part of it to a gift model. Whatever steps you take, know that you are preparing for the economy of the future.

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1. Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, New York: Vintage Books (2007.) p. 66.

2. Why do I even charge to cover expenses? It is because I see the events as cocreations. We each contribute something to allow the event to happen. This is not in the realm of gratitude; it is in the realm of cocreation, a gathering of resources for the realization of an intention.

3. Of course, actual costs are usually lower than anyone reveals, and other factors come into play such as the fixed costs of idle equipment and employees if no agreement is reached.

4. These principles apply only if the business relationships are happening in a community. In cases where all interactions are one-time transactions with strangers, the gift model is less practicable. In ancient gift cultures this was also generally true; when there was barter, it happened between strangers. However, I have found that most people honor the spirit of the gift even when it is a one-time transaction. Could it be that we sense that we are indeed all part of an all-encompassing community and that our gifts, even our anonymous ones, happen in its witnessing?

5. Significantly, some of these professions have traditionally operated on the border between payment and gift. Artists and musicians would receive support from a patron, who would basically give them money so that they could work. This allowed people like Mozart to survive at a time before copyrights. Elite prostitutes have long worked on a similar model in which they receive gifts from their regular clients.

6. This is a trend toward the universalization of medicine, the migration of healing from the money economy back into the social commons.

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