A Culture of Gifting

There are three indications of real generosity: 
To remain steadfast without resisting, 
To praise without the emotion of generosity, 
And, to give before being asked. 
—Maaruf Karkhi 

There is no community without gift and gifting. The acts themselves may not be visible, they may not have names, they may elude materiality, and yet, we depend on them for our very existence as givers and receivers. Warmth, recognition, love, care, and sometimes money—these are the bearers of our deepest feelings, longings and needs. Wait, did I miss something? What is money doing in that list? On one hand, money is the necessary evil everyone needs and no one likes to talk about. On the other, money is the emblem of modern mysteries, meaningful through circulation, in movement that defines our relationships, our values, our needs and priorities—that is our economic self. 

But not all money is the same. A dollar bill can be differentiated not in how it looks, but in how it is used. You need only ask yourself how you experience the money and the transaction when: a) you need to buy something; b) when someone asks you to lend it to them; and c) when you decide to make a gift or someone asks you for one. It is this last that is the hardest to grasp because we are so wired to be consumers, to engage in the exchange of commodities and services. We are conditioned to think of these transactions as the primary drivers of economic life. They are definitely connected to the generation of wealth—no question about it. Virtually every economics textbook would confirm this. But the fundamental assumption in this view is the primacy of self-interest, which is a myth, highly problematic, and one of the key reasons we are where we are in our economy today, regardless of how you might feel about it. 

My reflection on the Karkhi quote is that it epitomizes a sense of service to others, and further that we are part of, and not greater than, the community of relationships in which we are embedded. I would propose that if we are going to rid ourselves of the myth of self-interest and the social damage that seems to accompany it, and move instead into a recognition of our real interdependence, then our greatest leverage point for change is through gift and gifting. That is gifting understood as coming from our capacity to recognize the importance of others’ destiny paths, both for us and the world at large. That is a lot to say in short form. But, it names the essence of gift and gifting. It names why and how we actually support each others’ success. It names how lasting value is created through the continual passage and transformation of a gift. Here is a personal example. I had wonderful teachers and parents growing up. They took good care of me, provided form and discipline and support even for mistakes. I received these as gifts, continued to work on them and on myself, to discover my own gifts, so that I could put those gifts, such as they are, in service to others. This is no thing, nothing, that could be bought or loaned. In some ways, a gift of money works in the same way. For example, a gift goes to build a building, many children are educated in it over the years, many of them will change the world. Was the gift the bricks and mortar, or was the gift what the building makes possible into the future? Well, the gift purchased the construction—that is to say it was transformed into purchase—but the value of the gift actually lives on long after the purchase. Such is one mystery of money. 

There is no community without gift, and without community there is no economic life. We actually depend upon each other, whether it is those who make the clothes we wear, the car we drive, or the school we choose. And others are depending upon us to contribute our capacities. While we may “earn a living” through those capacities, what we earn does not constitute a life. Rather it is what we care about and value that brings meaning to life. Money is but one thread in this story; hopefully as we use it in alignment with our values, it becomes meaningful through what it makes possible. Gift, despite what the textbooks might say, whether in the form of love or money, is the first grace in economic life. In its purest form it is a liberator of human inspiration and capacity. And gifting bears the future for community life, it is the key to regeneration, to education, to wellbeing and sustainability.

John Bloom is Senior Director of Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance in San Francisco. He worked as the administrator at San Francisco Waldorf School for eight years before joining RSF. He is the author of The Genius of Money—Essays and Interviews Reimagining the Financial World. John Bloom ©2014