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The Gift Economy Paradigm

Updated on July 12, 2014
Open hand stencil, Google Art Project 2000. (Public Domain, USA)
Open hand stencil, Google Art Project 2000. (Public Domain, USA)

The gift economy paradigm is gaining currency.

Ideologically, it is a way of doing business that leaves determination of value in the hands of the client.

Ethically, it challenges the receiver to give back.

Philosophically, it offers a worldview centered on relationships instead of money.

With a gift, the exchange of goods and services happens as a one-sided event without any agreement that it will be reciprocated---without, by definition, an exchange at all.

Instead of the commodity being offered for money (as with a market economy) or traded for another commodity of similar value (as with a barter economy), it is given freely. If a return happens, it occurs when and if the recipient chooses to offer a gift back; perhaps the return will be of comparable market value, perhaps not. There is some debate whether this even qualifies as a true economic system.

"Mankind was my business..."

“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

~Marley's ghost in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Is altruism in the business world possible?

Most people are familiar with personal gifts. The giver’s intentions may range from loving to obligatory. There are usually social norms involved, such as the anticipation of getting another gift or thank-you note back. Sometimes gifts are exchanged immediately, as with major holidays. Sometimes one person receives all the presents but cultural customs assume a future reciprocal event (as with birthdays) or other gift-giving opportunity.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Gifts in the professional arena almost always have self-serving agendas or debts attached. Promotional items, referral perks, and special deals can feel like gifts but involve professional benefits or consumer costs.

The pragmatic application of a gift economy system likely involves the expectation that most clients will choose to offer payment---even if only out of guilt or a sense of propriety. Some business owners report an increase in income after switching to gift-based transactions---and anecdotally, their returns seem motivated by good will. Cynics might note that humanitarian-minded principles are good for business.

Most human beings live in a community where currency is necessary. Unless one subsists purely on charity, barter, or self-sufficiency, money is required for survival. It seems challenging to circumvent this reality because philanthropy does not currently make the world go round. But it does make a difference.

No strings attached.

A true gift implies no return…no expectations, no hidden agendas, and no egotistical motivations. At its most idealistic, the philosophy of the gift economy offers a new paradigm: goods and services are given to those who want them. It trusts that appealing to noble ethics will inspire more of the same. The act of the gift is not a manipulation but a blessing and an invitation.

The Gift:

-places the recipient at the center of the interaction (not money)

-expresses to the recipient that they are worthy

-appeals to the recipient’s own generosity

-makes “tips” obsolete while allowing for payment to reflect perception of quality

-allows for abundance to flow from recipients back to givers, sometimes in unexpected forms

-allows for those in need to receive benefits they cannot afford while neutralizing the power dynamic of “charity”

-transforms the market relationship from seller/buyer to giver/giver

What are you working for?

How can one survive without overtly working for money? Gift economy pioneers are figuring it out. Even under a dominant market economy, even with risks and uncertainties, they are making a living. More than that, they are making life meaningful by offering their skills in accordance with their ethics.

Most people do pay it back...they will give what they think is fair or what they can honestly afford. Other people choose to pay it forward---to offer a gift later, or to someone else, when they can. If a recipient takes advantage of the gift situation and the interaction feels negative, the giver is under no obligation to work with them again. But even if there is no visible return, the gift transaction can have lasting ripple effects.

Gifts can change people. And a pure-hearted giver never suffers a loss, because they are not working for material rewards...they are working to make a difference.


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    • MrsBrownsParlour profile imageAUTHOR

      Lurana Brown 

      4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Heidi--- Yes, a sharing approach is growing. It's exciting to see people contributing different ideas; it makes you realize there are many ways of doing business! Thanks so much for contributing your thoughtful comment. :-) Lurana

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile imageAUTHOR

      Lurana Brown 

      4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Audrey, Thank you for the supportive comment! I really love this concept too. Hope all is well with you. :-) Lurana

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      4 years ago from Chicago Area

      An allied concept, the sharing economy, is definitely becoming more of the way we do things these days. Great coverage of the gift economy concept! Voted up and interesting!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      4 years ago from California

      I loved this article--such a wonderful concept!

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile imageAUTHOR

      Lurana Brown 

      4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Hello Jodah,

      Thank you for your input! I hadn't heard of LETS but am aware of those kind of systems---it sounds great. Your points are good ones. Thanks and take care,

      :-) Lurana

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      4 years ago from Queensland Australia

      A gift economy is a worthy concept and could work to some extent on a local community level but not on a large scale because there are too many greedy people in the world and big business won't allow it. I lived in a community that worked under the 'LETS' system however (look it up on Wikipedia) which was a barter system but people exchanged goods and services for LETS points(which took the place of money) so you could either offer goods or services in return or use points to pay. You accumulate points by giving goods or services to others. It gives more incentive for people not to just take take take...but give something in return...even something like mowing a lawn or cleaning house for someone to receive points. Good hub. Voted up.

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile imageAUTHOR

      Lurana Brown 

      4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Hi Theresa,

      Thank you for reading and for your supportive comments! I agree that gift, barter, sliding scale, etc. modes of operation can be healthy economic complements with much potential for positive social impact. I appreciate your visit and hope you are enjoying the summer!

      :-) Lurana

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Hello Lurana- Very interesting, very well-written. I have been interested in gift and barter economies for a long time. Perhaps they will never completely replace our current (and unhealthy ) economic system, but they certainly have their place. I hope this sector of the economy continues to grow and continues to influence us. Blessings. Theresa

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile imageAUTHOR

      Lurana Brown 

      4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Frank---Hello, and thanks for commenting. I'm happy to hear that it came across clearly to you, since it does feel like a nebulous, open-ended concept in some ways. I appreciate the feedback!

      Take care,


    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      4 years ago from Shelton

      Mrsbrown.. thought i was going to go in circles reading this.. but no everything was clear and interesting

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile imageAUTHOR

      Lurana Brown 

      4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Hi Jo,

      Thank you! It's so nice to hear from you. :-) Yes, it appears to me that operating this way is easier done on a small scale. But I'm hopeful that the shift in thought (from acquisition to interdependence) can have a grassroots-movement impact on how we view "business".

      Thanks for your support and best wishes in all your endeavors!

      :-) Lurana

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 

      4 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Hi Lurana, lovely to see you back with this thought provoking article.

      As income for the top 1 percent of earners continues to dwarf that of middle class earners, trading by bartering and the exchanging of gifts and goods are looking very appealing for the ordinary man in street. I love the idea of a gift economy, if only we could make it work. Voting up and sharing.

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile imageAUTHOR

      Lurana Brown 

      4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Hi Bill,

      Thank you for taking the time to's a gift from you, especially since I have not been around much this past year on HP. Yes, change begins with one person and then another and so on. :-)


    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I was tired and going to call it a night, but this was worth the visit. Anything the disrupts the status quo is fine by me. Hey, the economy is obviously not working, or I should say our economic system....why not a gift economy? Well, the answer is obvious why not...the big players will never allow it on a national scale...but, and I've been singing this tune for quite some time now...change begins locally.


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