Monetize, schmonetize. The real juice is in the gift economy.

You don’t need Alex Trebek or “buzzwords for $5000” to know that the internet’s top trend right now is “How do I monetize my website? My blog? My twitter feed?” Even YouTube offers monetization to prolific video uploaders.

Since I’ve been accused of being a “subversive presence on the planet,” I want to talk today about the exact opposite.

How do you un-monetize your life? How do you go against the culture’s dominant paradigm of wanting to “always get, get, get” and practice what’s known as the gift economy?

The gift economy, a philosophy more than a financial practice, is one in which people refuse to believe in scarcity and fear. Instead of always trying to “get more,” a gift economy is for those looking for ways they can give. It’s so radical that most people can’t even understand it.

I pitched a story about the gift economy to my editor at People magazine. She loves heroes, good news, and heart-warming human interest stories. But even thought I gave her three specific examples of people working solely in the gift economy, she couldn’t understand it. “But how does it work?” she kept repeating.

It works, although I could never explain this spiritual belief to her, because once you give up your incessant fear and belief that it’s a dog-eat-dog, every-man-for himself world, abundance can’t help but show up in your life. It’s actually the reality of the human condition, but as long as we’re “monetizing” and erecting walls of fear, we block abundance.

Perhaps the best example of the gift economy is Nipun Mehta, a guy I consider my hero, the guy I begged my People editor to let me profile. In April 1999, when he was 25, he gave up his lucrative paycheck at Sun Microsystems to become a full-time volunteer. A fan of Gandhi, who said, “be the change you wish to see in the world,” Mehta started “giving” as an experiment. He started with money (he gave to charity), moved to giving of his time (volunteering at a hospice) and then decided he’d go full-time, giving of himself unconditionally with no strings attached. Thirteen years later, his experiment has been a huge success.

He started a free restaurant, a free inspirational magazine and has given away hundreds of millions of dollars in free tech services. He’s a Stanford-trained engineer who was raking it in during the dot.com heyday. But he wasn’t sure that’s where happiness lay. He works with a network of more than 100,000 volunteers who operate on 3 principles:

1) Everything is strictly volunteer. Money is NEVER charged

2) No one ever ASKS for money. Many charities do good work, but they all ask for donations. They do endless fundraising. He says that forces people to be in a needy space and he comes from a space of believing in abundance and the goodness of mankind. And indeed, money has shown up in spades (from the billionaire founder of Sony, as just one example) and from anonymous donors who send in checks for $10,000 or more. But Nipun and crew NEVER ask or expect.

3) They focus on small actions. “You just take care of what you can touch, give to whatever is in front of you,” he says and the ripple effects have organized into what he calls their own magic. “I can tell you story after story.”

The Karma Kitchen that he and fellow volunteers started in Berkeley (there are no prices on the menu and the check reads $0.00) spawned karma kitchens in Washington D.C. and Chicago.

“We don’t charge for anything, nor do we advertise anything. The project is sustained by anonymous friends who donate what they can, not as a payment for what they have received but as a pay-it-forward act for someone they don’t know,” Mehta says.

In place of financial capital, Mehta and his network of volunteers are building social capital, synergy capital and a type of subtle capital beyond definition.

Another one of my heroes is Ethan Hughes who runs an 80-acre farm in northern Missouri on the gift economy. Everything he and his wife Sarah grow, they give away. They’ve given away goats, fruit bushes, seeds, soil and compost.  They’ve given trees to every major city in Missouri. Most importantly, they host more than 1500 people a year who come to their farm from around the country to learn about permaculture. Permaculture classes normally start at about $1500.  But Ethan and Sarah give them away free.

“At first people are shocked. So few mainstream Americans believe someone would actually give something away free with no ulterior motives. We’re in a cynical society that rarely trusts someone who says, “hey, I just want to help.”

The Hughes and their network of volunteers have helped build a library, bucked hay for a fellow farmer, cleaned up city parks and donated something like 50,000 hours of community service…all with no expectation.

“It’s really important to me to create access, and the gift economy is about access,” Ethan says.

Another example is Dr. Binal Shah, a naturopathic doctor with a biology degree from Rutgers, who offers a gift economy medical practice. She calls it the Karma Clinic and says it’s not about giving away “free” healthcare. It’s about sharing an experience of generosity that has the potential to shift both the giver and the recipient.

That’s why I say, “forget monetizing.” Think about something important, like what gifts do you have to give.

3 Comments on “Monetize, schmonetize. The real juice is in the gift economy.

  1. Pam,

    Thanks for sharing a great piece on the gift economy.

    For the developed western world the gift economy may seem unorthodox due to our dog eats dog attitude you mentioned.

    However, it’s not a far fetched philosophy for the 2 billion at the bottom of our global pyramid. These people still depend on their community for simple necessities which the rest of pay for.

    I’m hoping the evolving sharing economy will help us realize the value of ‘we’ over I. And eventually may various forms of gift economies become mainstream instead of micro-niches.

  2. The articles on this site continue to expand my soul and mind. Simply amazing. Thank you, Pam. Will be ordering E-Cubed soon.

  3. Pam, thanks for the information. I had never heard of “the gift economy” before listening to your E-Cubed audiobook, and I am glad to find your blog. I am trying to support myself with my own business, creating customized hand knitted garments for people of all needs and tastes, but I have a lot of bills from companies who don’t want to hear about karma, they want dollars. Since I don’t have the kind of start-up funds that Nipun Mehta was able to use, I wonder how I can get started without becoming homeless? I believe that once a momentum gets going, all will be clear, but how do you suggest I begin? I would appreciate any advice or references you can give. Thanks!

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