The 'gift economy' offers a rule-breaking way to relate to others

What’s better than turning a profit by selling your work? Filmmakers, cafe owners, and even corporations like Panera Bread point to the satisfaction that comes with giving it away.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Customers order food at a Panera Bread bakery cafe in New York City. Panera has experimented with 'pay what you think it's worth' pricing, one example of an unconventional 'gift economy.'

Daniel Burmeister is an Argentine handyman turned filmmaker. Though good at unstopping toilets and repairing windows, he decided to change his path at middle age and make films. Small films. Local films. Free films. Love-infused films. Films that make you feel the joy he clearly manifests in doing them.

Daniel is a one-man film crew. When he needs a tracking shot, he hops on a bicycle and records with one hand while steering wobbly with the other. When he wants the effect of a panning shot, he places his subject on a sheet, which someone pulls from off camera, creating the appearance that the camera is panning the subject.

Beyond Daniel’s ingenuity, though, is a system. Burmeister would roll into the small towns of Argentina and pitch up first at the local mayor’s office. He would offer to make a film about the community, for the community, and by the community. He’d do it in 30 days, and all he asked was that the town provide him a place to sleep and food.

He became a rallying force for small communities. Residents would gather for the grand premier – the film projected on a large white sheet in a local school gymnasium. You can imagine the cheers as friends and neighbors saw themselves on the “big” screen. Within hours, Burmeister was gone, rolling along to the next town on the map.

I got to know Burmeister through El Ambulante, a 2009 documentary about him by Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano, and Adriana Yurcovich. And here’s what I learned from Burmeister: What makes someone come alive is a gift that they do not possess. This gift should be shared with as few constraints as possible. And when it is, the means to continue that sharing naturally follows. That is a rough approximation of what I think of as the working fundamentals of the “gift economy.”

There are many smart people poking, exploring, and parsing this term, all the while giving it a growing cache and even making it a source of some intellectual argument. Argue on, but please, with a smile.

A smile is integral to the design of a gift economy. This is an emergent, irreverent, rule-breaking search for a new way to relate to the world and each other. It is a playful subversion of the so-called “laws” of economics, no more evident than in the term itself, which puts “gift” first, thereby casting a new hue to the so-called gray science.

The economy as most of us experience it is a system of fixed and rigid exchanges. It is a transaction model built on the notion of knowing exactly what we are getting for what we are going to pay. The relationship between the parties is minimal or nonexistent, and the exchange is objectified to the point where only minimal trust is needed. External costs, whatever those may be in terms of broader social impact, are mostly irrelevant and ignored.

Also ignored are the potential internal dimensions of this interaction. A fixed price paid with an inanimate currency deliberately makes the transaction as impersonal as possible.

The gift economy begins to break down these pre-set arrangements. Born of a sense of generosity, service, or altruism, the gift economy practitioner is playing with a different motivation. Put simply, there is a thumb on the scale, and it is in favor of giving rather than getting.

This changes everything. Yet it would be simplistic to say the change is monochromatic. For some, giving is an act of self-fulfillment. For some it is primarily to help others. And there are infinite gradations in between. People are often transformed as they practice the gift economy. Individuals begin to feel that by nominally helping others they are profoundly helping and transforming themselves.

Silas Hagerty is a gift economy filmmaker in Kezar Falls, Maine. His most recent work is Dakota 38, the moving story of the largest mass execution in United States history – that of 38 Lakota Indians in 1862. He spent years making the film and had no hesitation in essentially giving it to the Native American community when it was done. It was a natural part of his evolution in doing gift economy projects over many years.

After graduating from film school, Silas was looking for the rungs on the ladder of a conventional film career but began to see that his passion for filmmaking could be a gift put in the service of others. The shift was powerful. “If I come into the room and am basically asking ‘How can you help?’ it creates a certain kind of energy,” Silas explained.

“What I challenged myself to do was to walk into every encounter and instead ask, ‘What can I do for you?’ It’s a completely different energy. That basic structure started to change in me.”

This shift from a “me” to “you” – how can I serve you, rather than how can you help me – is radical in today’s context, but really nothing terribly new. Anthropologists remind us that a communal sense has deeper roots than our modern social structures, which are self-centric and individualistic.

The gift economy is exciting because it is in the process of rediscovering some of this ancient wisdom. I am working on a book about what seems an emergent ethos of generosity and, for lack of a better term, the broadening desire of so many people and organizations to “do good in the world.” The appeal of the nonprofit world to young job-seekers, the movement toward social responsibility within the private sector, even the triple-bottom-line idea of balancing people, planet, and profit, all bespeak this general inclination.

Lest we appear naive, let’s stipulate that some of this is just an old system masquerading under modern marketing. But what has long been held up as the model economic paradigm – the Western, industrialized market system – is under fire, from Wall Street to Athens and beyond.

The gift economy is diverse. The person who writes a check to their favorite charity or nonprofit is breaking the bonds of transactional living. There is no quid pro quo, just a gesture of generosity to further the work of a worthy enterprise. This is motivated by a desire to achieve some greater good and a willingness to act generously to that end.

The volunteers who wear “ask me” tags at the Jackson, Miss., airport or vacuums the carpet a local church are giving something different. Rather than writing a check, they are giving their time and opening the potential of a deeper personal experience.

It seems to me there is greater potential for internal transformation here, more potential for this generosity to create and sustain a community and thus impact the broader social context. Will this scale and change the world? No. But this is a gift economy practice that builds from the premise that changing oneself might be the real key to changing the world, to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi. has been working in the “pay it forward” arena for more than 10 years. Its Karma Kitchen, for instance, has operated in Berkeley, Calif., for several years on a model where patrons are charged nothing but are told their meal was paid for by the generosity of the person who came before them. They are asked to contribute in order to keep this experiment going.

And it not only has kept going for several years, but has inspired similar restaurants in Chicago and Washington, D.C. The gift economy model here is something like a large circle spooling forward. Though patrons don’t know each other, their mutual generosity is essential to keeping the restaurant alive. In a sense, they are paying each other and learning that generosity does indeed beget generosity. This builds trust that ripples outward, a trust in generosity that does not remain within the confines of the restaurant.

There are plenty of gift economy activities that simply ask patrons to pay what they want. This is closer to a charity model, where an external funder is often essential to keep an activity alive. This shading of the gift economy looks more like a straight line than a loop, with those motivated to help others doing just that. This form of generosity can touch those not in any position to pay forward anything, like the homeless at a soup kitchen.

There are all various shapes and forms of the gift economy. They are not opposing models, in my mind, but rather gradations along a common spectrum, bound by a common motivation to be generous and live beyond the realm of “me.” Fundamental to them all is a mindset of living in a world of abundance rather than a zero-sum game. Gift economy practices strive to bring that recognition – of abundance or even unlimited good – closer to the playing field of day-to-day living.

Choices of how to act on the impulse to be generous force us to identify and clarify our motivations. If nothing else, this process encourages a self-awareness that rigid, transactional economics does not require.

I teach journalism at a small Midwestern college and was chatting with a student in the concourse one day. She is a photographer and was planning to take portraits of graduating seniors.

“Good way to make some extra money,” I commented.

But she was way ahead of me. “I’m not going to charge anything,” she said. She was simply going to offer her services and let people pay what they felt the work was worth.

She had been inspired by the “pay what you will” model of Panera Bakery, a large restaurant chain that decided to use one of its branches in Missouri as an experiment in giving several years ago. They removed prices and asked patrons to pay according to their own sense of the value of the “purchase.”

Ron Shaich, Panera’s co-CEO and president of the Panera Foundation, explained the innovation to USA Today, saying, “I’m trying to find out what human nature is all about.”

The flourishing gift economy – from charitable donations to volunteer service to pay-it-forward generosity – seems to have a welcome answer to Ron Shaich’s question.

Paul Van Slambrouck is Associate Professor of Mass Communication at Principia College. He is a former Editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor and Deputy Managing Editor of the San Jose Mercury News. Mr. Van Slambrouck is currently writing a book on the power of generosity, including the emergence of a gift economy, and is a contributor and volunteer with

This article originally appeared at the Global Oneness Project and was reprinted at YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions.

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