Tag Archives: gift economy

What’s in it for me?

To be honest I blame my Church of England primary school. I spent my formative years being told to serve, to help others, to put others first and no one ever really talking about when it might be ok to put a hand up and say ‘I am the person who needs helping’ or when it might be ok to prioritise personal need. I internalised the lot. As a consequence I have a long history of giving more than is good for me.

The question ‘what’s in it for me?’ is one I need to be asking. Not least because there’s a significant percentage of people who just don’t value what’s freely given. I may be trying to do gift economy, but if I deal primarily with people who aren’t, then I end up giving, and giving, and giving more whilst being treated like something of lesser worth because I haven’t put a price tag on it. This is not clever. I’ve done it repeatedly, persuaded that my work is needed and it’s totally reasonable to have nothing come back to me.

I spent time in a space some years ago that had a mantra of service. Give, and give more. Give and don’t ask for anything in return. Don’t ask for recognition, or support, or status, don’t ask to be acknowledged or valued because that’s about ego. Give. Keep giving. I ended up exhausted, broken and useless.

What’s in it for me? It doesn’t have to be all about the money although it’s nice to be able to afford to live. I have to remind myself that I’m as entitled as anyone else to be paid for what I do. However, many of the things that need help have no budget. So, I’ve been working out what has to be in it for me if I’m not being paid for what I do.

I have to believe in the project. I have to see its innate worth and see why there’s no funding, and that it’s fair. If I’m inspired enough, that is enough to get me moving and keep me viable.

I have to feel that the work I do is useful and valuable. Not someone else’s hollow vanity project, not pointless effort for the sake of effort, not being set up to fail to do impossible things for someone else’s amusement (yes, I’ve done all of that and worse).

I need to feel valued and respected. If I am reduced to my utility and not allowed the space to be a person, it’s not good for me. If I am treated as worthless because I’m unpaid, it’s not a good space to be in.

Something should be flowing back to me. That might be opportunities, exposure (I know, it’s often what we die of) chance to do things around the work that will enable me to earn money (as with contributing to events). It might be that what I get out of it is companionship and the chance to do cool things with awesome people. It might be inherently good fun, or something I haven’t done before where the experience will be interesting, or will teach me something valuable. It might allow me to do something I want to do as a trade off.

I hold some responsibility for what’s in my history because I’ve been slow to recognise unfair setups. I’m not good at holding the idea that I deserve better. I have been easily persuaded that I’m so useless, so worthless that I should be glad people want to bother with me enough to exploit me. I’ve dealt with people who, rather than thanking me for the effort, told me I should be grateful for having been given the space. No more. There are better people out there, and better ways of getting things done.

Dear Three Thousand

As I write this, there are very slightly more than three thousand of you signed up to get this blog as an email. So first up, a big thank you to everyone who has supported me by deciding to come along on this madcap adventure. Some of you have been with me from the very early days and have stuck it out, and that means a great deal to me. Others of you I hope to get more familiar with through comments and so forth as we progress.

If you ever find I’ve not explored something in enough detail, if you think I’ve got it wrong, or haven’t gone far enough or missed an aspect, please, please comment. It really helps when people chip in to expand the conversation and share details I don’t have, and rare is the post that wouldn’t benefit from this (probably just the poems!)

I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you all that I do take guest blogs, I reblog, and I support Druid/Pagan projects, cool creative stuff and interesting authors. If you could use this platform, just leave a comment on a post or one of the pages and I’ll see it and email you. If I can help, I will.

I don’t and won’t ask for donations. I write this blog because it is something I can give, and I enjoy it and I think it helps achieve things I want to get done. And it’s way cheaper than therapy. If at any point you feel an urge to be supportive back, buy a book. I google really well, I have all kinds of books. But at the same time, one of the reasons I blog is that I know full well that not everyone can afford books, and if that’s you, please know that you are totally welcome to rock up here and take what’s offered and feel no guilt. I believe in gift economy, this blog is something I can put in the collective hat.

I had a great idea about hunting around online to find some exciting example of what a group of 3000 people have achieved in some context or another. Unfortunately all I found were articles where 3000 had been the death toll, and lots and lots of facebook hiring people. So there we go, there are no easy precedents to work with. Perhaps that means something!

Thank you for coming here, thank you for staying, thank you for everything you share. Onwards!

Ephemeral things in a gift economy

I’ve blogged a lot about the idea of gift economy, because it appeals to me and because I think it’s a meaningful way of tackling some of the problems inherent in capitalism. Also, I just don’t want to put a price tag on everything I do.

One of the problems with capitalism is that free work isn’t recognised or respected – and traditionally much of that free work is done by women. We still do the bulk of it. Childcare, domestic working, providing care for ill relatives, emotional labour. Economies depend on this unpaid work, and it’s hard to imagine a system that could pay fairly for it. However, a system that values and respects essential unpaid work would be a much better one it be part of. A system that encourages us to share out the unpaid work, too.

We also tend to prioritise objects when it comes to value. An object has an obvious value, you can use it, see it, touch it. Gift someone an object and they know it’s a gift. Ephemeral things – time, care, advice, help, listening, and so forth aren’t so obvious, so we don’t always recognise the value.

What many of us have to give isn’t tangible, and doesn’t easily equate to currency. It’s important to recognise those gifts. From my own experience, people who give time, care, support and inspiration have a greater impact on my life than people throwing money at me, or objects. Once a person’s basic needs are met, it’s the ephemeral things that are the most important. Loneliness is a killer. Most of us crave recognition.

It’s worth looking at what you give that isn’t money, or objects, and also at what you are given. It’s all too easy to take for granted things that turn up with no price tag. To make a gift economy work, you have to perceive the gifts.

Working for free

Anything up to half of my working time goes to jobs I know I will never be paid for in cash. This is important to me, because there are a lot of things that really need doing for which no budget exists. Voluntary organisations and charities are obvious examples. Struggling creative people with no money to deploy to get the things done that they really need to get done, are another. People who need tips and pointers, book reviews, etc. If I’ve got something someone else needs and can’t afford, I’ll do my best to share.

Alongside that, I’m really open to other ways of getting things done – profit share arrangements, energy exchange, gift economy… In no small part because I don’t want to live in a world where everything is about the money.

However, there’s a flip side to this. Literary festivals that make a profit but aren’t inclined to pay authors. People who want free work ‘for exposure’ when they intend to make a profit from it. This is exploitation, pure and simple. Asking for a freebie when you’re doing a charity fundraiser, or some other not-for profit activity is a different ball game. People may or may not be able to help, but there’s nothing dishonourable about asking in that situation.

Most often, if I’m going to do something for free it’s because I stepped forward to offer, not because I was asked to. Or I’ve told people they are welcome to ask.

So, what can usefully be offered if you want or need something and don’t want to pay for it? I’d advise looking hard at this, because not wanting to pay is not a source of entitlement. Consider whether you think you, or the person you are asking, is better off. If you’ve got money you aren’t inclined to spend and they’re struggling, then you aren’t playing fair, quite simply. Not wanting to pay is not the same as being unable to pay. Sometimes (often, I think) the right answer is to pay, or to at the very least offer to pay what you can afford. It’s ok to open a negotiation and see what’s acceptable.

If you’re going to offer something in exchange, make sure it has a reasonable value to the person you’re offering it to. If you’ve got thousands of followers on some platform or another, ‘exposure’ has considerably more worth. Authors always like book reviews, and if you’ve approached a person for help it should be a given that you like what they do and can give them some positive support in return. Events that can’t pay, but can do food, or accommodation, or offer a profit share are a lot more persuasive than events wanting something for nothing. People who want art for free to get a kickstarter moving but offer to pay properly if it works – just some examples to show what can be done. Asking to risk share is not asking someone to work for free.

The key here is to recognise the value of what’s not being paid for. All too often, we only value things in terms of money and de-value anything that comes without a price tag. If you need things you can’t pay for, don’t de-value the source of it. Recognise the worth, and deal with that worth with respect. It’s all too easy for people who habitually give of their time, energy and resources to forget the real value they have and to become demoralised as a consequence. People who give are the geese who lay golden eggs… killing them isn’t in anyone’s interest.

How to take over

Earlier this year I was accused of worming my way into positions of power and influence. ‘Accused’ in the sense that the observation was not meant as a compliment. As there’s a lot of truth in it, I thought it might be productive to expose my methods and philosophy, and the outcomes. Much of what I do could be done by anyone with a mind to do it, and there is certainly both the need and the space, although I’m by no means the only person working in this kind of way.


I look for groups, events, organisations and individuals who I think are doing something valuable but show signs of needing more help. I choose based on where I can most usefully give help, what most interests me, and what I think will do most good. I move on when the job is done, or I’m bored, or think something else is more important, and suchlike. My primary aim is that there be more good stuff.


I rock up and offer to help. I take on jobs that aren’t fun, glamorous or self promoting – I steward, tidy up, pick stones out of allotments, litter pick, paint fences. I also offer my particular skills – public speaking, blogging, writing, marketing, networking, media, creative thinking, performing, organising… and other things. One of the consequences of doing this over many years is that I know a lot of awesome people who are willing to pile in and do things, and who are working in gift economy and favour exchange, and who can be asked, and awesome people who can be booked.


Often what I do is put awesome people in touch with each other, resulting in more awesome, and more scope to do this sort of thing. I spend a lot of time working for free, on things I believe in. I get the pleasure of seeing things work. Sometimes there are direct personal benefits – opportunities are created, sometimes paying work comes off the back of volunteering, or other scope for self advancement. I am not ashamed of this, and actively encourage anyone doing good stuff to accept the gifts and favours that come with working in a gift economy. It’s easiest to grow good things when people are generous but not self-sacrificing. Work that is entirely about giving is hard to sustain and more likely to burn people out.


This is not a career strategy by any conventional standards, but I have to say that work-wise, Tom and I benefit greatly from this way of doing things. Favours become opportunities. Helping out creates enduring networks of friends. We make valuable contacts. More good stuff happening means more good stuff for us to be part of. We greatly enjoy what we get to do.

If you are interested in exploring this way of working, then you need to be clear about your goals – not in the sense of personal achievement, more what you want to invest in to see more of. You need to know what your skills and strengths are and not be afraid to offer them as things of worth. There is always more that needs doing than there are people willing to do it, so once you get started, you have to be mindful of what’s sustainable because people will ask you to do more (I’ve messed up repeatedly on that score).

There are of course people who will look at this work, and these groups, events etc and see the scope for a power base, and who will want the power base, not the ‘more good stuff’ or the effort of doing the work. They can be an obstacle to productively getting things done. Where there’s a lot of ego, the scope for good stuff is greatly reduced, while the likely effort required increases. People who want to be important can be jealous of people who are effective at getting things done, and the results are seldom pretty. The best places to volunteer are where the people running things are intent on ‘more good stuff’ and not self aggrandisement, and the best volunteers to take on are those who are far more excited about the work, than about the scope for personal advancement.

Fully taking over, I should note, tends to mean carrying the legal, financial and practical responsibility for a thing, and that’s not as much fun as it sounds.