From Exchange to Gifting Part Three: Reintegrating into Flow One Experiment at a Time

In the first part of this mini-series, I laid out the global, collective predicament we are in and the imperative I see for us to turn towards maternal gifting as a primary element of a possible future for humanity. In the second part, I focused on how that very predicament makes it really difficult to jump-start ourselves into that future, even when we want to with all our might. I included some notable examples I am familiar with in each of the three dimensions of the shift. Still, overall, we are left with very little wiggle room to move towards our vision, and to do so without re-creating what we are aiming to transcend.

In this third part, then, I want to look more clearly and fully at what we can do, both individually and as groups, communities, and organizations; what is still available to us, even within systemic conditions that are not of our choosing, which is to experiment, again and again, and to learn with and from those experiments.

We experiment, always, from where we are, with what we have. In each experiment, we rely on our strengths and learn ever more about our limitations, the ways we have internalized the patriarchal narratives we were socialized with. In each experiment, we find the openings available to us and do what we can, within capacity, as we face the enormous obstacles that constrain us. All along, mourning the gap between vision and reality is an essential ingredient for staying open and soft rather than bitter and harsh. We mourn, as always, both our own internal limitations and the vast external obstacles.

Alongside the three dimensions of shifting from exchange to gifting that I outlined in the previous part, I want to now outline three areas within which such experiments can unfold: how we ask for money or other resources, how we distribute money or other resources within a community, and how we give to others. Each of these presents different challenges, both as external obstacles and as internal limitations.

The presence of external obstacles doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t do anything. Clearly, if we want to transform how we engage with resources and re-adopt, globally, a maternal gifting approach, almost everything we now take for granted will need to change, and even small bits of experimentation and learning pave a pathway. Simultaneously, as we face any particular situation we want to shift, the bigger the external obstacles, the smaller will likely be the actual material shifts we are able to orchestrate, so careful discernment of capacity is essential for any movement at all.

The presence of external obstacles doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t do anything. Clearly, if we want to transform how we engage with resources and re-adopt, globally, a maternal gifting approach, almost everything we now take for granted will need to change, and even small bits of experimentation and learning pave a pathway. Simultaneously, as we face any particular situation we want to shift, the bigger the external obstacles, the smaller will likely be the actual material shifts we are able to orchestrate, so careful discernment of capacity is essential for any movement at all.

In general, there are very few if any external challenges in relation to how we distribute money and other resources within a family, community, or organization. All we usually face when doing it is our own limitations, our internalized versions of the narratives and ways of being that are common in whatever culture we are part of.

When we request money from others who are not part of our active experimentation, or when we respond to others’ requests for money – and even calling them “requests” rather than thinking of them as “paying” is already a major step – we often do encounter external obstacles. Because those who offer something to the public are usually the ones who set prices, such external obstacles are fewer when we ask for money than when we give money to others.

A full layout of all such obstacles, including what happens when we include resources other than money in what we ask for or give, would both be overwhelming, and I doubt would be useful. What I am called to do instead is to share some stories about my own experiments and draw some principles and insights from those so that anyone who wants to experiment can do so with more context and companionship. I long for a common resource where such experiments can be logged and where we can increase our collective capacity faster than each of us learning again from scratch.

Exploring alternatives to “paying”

The experiments that I have been part of in this area, both individual ones and as part of the Nonviolent Global Liberation (NGL) community, rely heavily on the existence of an ongoing relationship. Without it, I can’t imagine they would work at all.

Uncoupling individual giving from service received

I have twice engaged in a similar experiment with two individuals. One was a very beloved piano teacher (now deceased) and the other a naturopath and homeopath. The basic idea was the same: that I send them money on a regular basis independently of how many piano lessons or health consultations, respectively, I had during that time. I literally stopped counting. There was very complete uncoupling for me. I adopted an attitude of taking on a portion of caring for the sustainability of both of these dear people, both of whom I simply love and care about. Of course, as I said in the previous piece, it’s not random. I am part of an unformed and unrecognized community of care for each of them. The would-be community surrounding my piano teacher actually came together on very rare occasions. I knew some of them a little bit, and I sensed, amongst us, an unspoken shared cherishing of him. Sadly, as is so often the case, we came more together after he died, when we shared with each other moments of exquisite beauty we had with him, what we loved about him, how we had been nourished by him. The one around my naturopath and homeopath isn’t even known. I have no idea who else is in her circle, and whether or not there is any kind of care towards her. It may be that others have a much more instrumental relationship with her. I won’t know. This is part of what I think of as structural obstacles: there is normative and legalized confidentiality around health care that doesn’t exist in relation to music, and that prevents those who benefit from a doctor’s love and healing to come together in celebration of what they receive and of the healer. In both cases, I am 100% confident that no one else in the respective circles is thinking of it in the same way that I have been. This is why what I am doing isn’t scalable or possibly even replicable.

With my piano teacher, I could also sense that it stretched him. This was, no doubt, because I also included, with each check I sent him, a letter I wrote him, each time, sharing how learning with him had contributed to my well-being. I explicitly called them “love letters” though they were not love of that kind. I imagine that as he was socialized into being a man in the early part of the 20th century, it was inherently challenging. A couple of years before dying he asked me to change it, and I only gave him money, without the letters. It was a loss, and I am fully in acceptance. Any such experiment when done only individually, without a web of social relationships, can only go as far as the individuals themselves have liberated themselves from the clutches of scarcity.

The other experiment is simpler and has had unexpected emergent outcomes. My unusual approach has been fully embraced by my health provider. And, somehow, the relationship has mushroomed into this person being a “community” health care supporter. I turn to her with questions from the super close people in my life, and she answers. We have celebrated all this together. The cycle of gifting now includes, in small measure, other people who benefit from the flow of generosity, just like gifting does when it is received in full. There is life magic to it, for me; not exchange logic. And, even here, even with the joy of it, it has the same limits to replicability.

Nonetheless, I am inviting readers to embrace and experiment. Is there anyone in your circle of those who sustain your life and currently do so within the exchange paradigm that you could imagine aiming to shift that exchange with, even a little bit? If so, please write in comments to this piece what the experiment is and how it’s affected you and the other person.

Financial Gift Hubs (FGHs)

The term “financial gift hub” (FGH) was born with the Resource Flow team of the Nonviolent Global Liberation (NGL) community. It took some effort to come up with a name that felt accurate enough to what we were doing. Until some time during the evolution of NGL, we were using the term “Money Pile,” which is the term used by Dominic Barter within a larger frame he calls “Financial Co-Responsibility,” one of the dialogical systems that he and others developed in Brazil. In 2020, Dominic offered a presentation through the East Point Peace Academy, entitled “From Mutual Aid Networks to Dialogical Social Systems” in which he included explanations about financial co-responsibility. For us within NGL, we wanted to both honor and acknowledge that influence, that lineage of development, simultaneously with recognizing that both our aims and our context differed from the original context in significant ways. Using the terms he coined would neither honor the lineage, given how different what we are doing has evolved into being, nor would it give us sufficient freedom to experiment in new directions.

One of the specific features of how we operate within NGL is that we aim to shift to having all resources be based on maternal gifting, not only money. At the time, we were thinking primarily about what was going on within the NGL in-person retreats. We identified four initial areas: logistics, information, money, and one other I literally no longer remember – this was several years ago, and much else has unfolded since. Our core principle, when it comes to resources, is radically simple: resources flow from where they exist to where they are needed, based on willingness and within purpose and capacity. With regards to tasks, to doing things, we are gaining some traction in the four years of experimentation. Fewer and fewer things are done with the energy of “should” or “have to,” though we are not yet integrated into only doing that which is within willingness and capacity. We are more and more accepting of voids: things that we all know we want someone to attend to and where no one has the capacity or willingness to attend to them. We are taking in how true voids are; how important to note, document, and mourn rather than pretend they don’t exist, over-stretch to attend to them, or accepting them with resentment.

When we decided to rename and expand what we are doing, we came up with the name “gift hub” as the metaphorical location where resources flow to and from, where requests and offers meet. Financial gift hubs (FGH) are where we attend to the flow of money. The way we operate FGHs within and around NGL means there are three key focal points: identifying the need, asking others for contributions, and distributing money to those who have stepped forward to name their needs. Each of these moments is fraught with challenges arising from internalized patriarchal conditioning.

In four years of operating, our experimentation with money has been slow even while our learning is deep, intense, far-reaching, and both shocking and at times unsurprising. Here, below, are some key ones that stand out to me.

Focusing on sustainability: finding freedom to make requests

The first task in operating an FGH is to know what the need within the community is. We learn this information through having individuals (or small groups/communities who pool their resources together) come forward and name their sustainability needs. It sounds simple enough as an abstract principle, and it is excruciatingly difficult for almost all of us. Here are some, though not all, of the challenges we have encountered. Each of them could be unpacked to a full post.

  • Sustainability: How do we know what we really need for our sustainability; what is enough? How are we affected by our upbringing in that discernment? This focus includes a shift from spending more when we have more, without checking for real needs, to orienting based on what we need to see how much money to ask for.
  • Relational needs: How do we interrupt and shift the deeply ingrained habit of tying money to relational rather than material needs? How do we ask and give only based on material needs instead of using money as a way to experience appreciation, mattering, relief from annoyance from a partner, or anything else? How do we, simultaneously, choose to put our needs on the table, transcend shame about what we need, and step into the open, intoxicating, and overwhelming world of entrusting ourselves to flow, in full?
  • Contribution: We are so habituated to exchange, that it is almost impossible for most of us to focus on what is needed independently of how much we have contributed. How can we truly discern what portion of our sustainability to assign to any particular moment within the life of an FGH? (See below about one-time and ongoing FGHs.)
  • Mutual commitment: In the context of deep, ongoing, long-term commitments to sharing resources, even if I contributed five minutes to any particular project of four months, the entirety of my sustainability is held within the community. Within NGL, while we are pooling our resources in remarkable ways that are quite beyond any market sensibilities, we still mostly function as independent units of individuals, families, or tiny pods of deeper shared commitments. What does this mean about what to ask for?
  • Inclusion: NGL now consists of about 300 people. The resources that have so far come into NGL (more on this later) are ridiculously smaller than what it would take to sustain 300 people in different parts of the world. How do we decide who makes a request and who doesn’t? So far, every single FGH within NGL online hasn’t generated sufficient resources to cover the totality of requests.

I am presenting these as questions because much of the learning we’ve had is simply exposing and chewing on the questions. We also know now that we can’t make these leaps without support. We now have support that people can lean on for their discernment. A couple of members of the Resource Flow team offer coaching to people to think through what to ask for. I, too, have availed myself of this option to discern how much to ask for on behalf of BayNVC (where I get my own salary from as an individual). These conversations were brief and liberating. I’ve heard the same from others who have chosen to seek this support. They also provide information and feedback for us in refining our design. This is no short-term quick fix; only a painstaking and very gradual integration of the move towards trusting flow and surrendering to the unknown. Precisely the opposite of what patriarchal conditioning has prepared us for and what patriarchy itself emerged from initially: loss of trust in life and the move to control the future.

Countering stratification: one-time and ongoing FGHs

Prior to the pandemic, each NGL in-person retreat ran its own FGH. During the retreat we asked participants for money, always tying the request to specific amounts that were based on sustainability needs of those who made the retreat possible, including those within NGL online who were not there physically and who were still actively holding some aspect of the retreat. Those of us who were physically present at the retreat – providers, organizers, and anyone else who contributed to the retreat – then got together in a distribution circle to share what came from the participants.

It was only after the retreats stopped that we began to realize that continuing in this way would mean contributing to stratification within NGL between those who participate in projects or events that bring in resources and those whose work consists of tending to the overall infrastructure, systems, and maintenance of NGL as a whole. Because very few resources were, and still are, coming to NGL as a whole, we could see how, over time, those who engage in projects would receive more to sustain themselves than those who don’t. We could just see this leading to differences within NGL, as some needs become more important than others, precisely how it is in the culture at large. We wanted to change this and called a community gathering to explore options. The result was a resounding agreement: we are moving in the direction of dissolving all specific FGHs that are tied to specific events. When a new project began that was going to bring in new resources, we agreed, within the NGL Resource Flow team, that all money would come to one FGH and be distributed from it. Instead of concrete, self-enclosed FGHs, one per event or project, we now have an ongoing NGL FGH for the online community.

Moving towards greater uncoupling when we ask for money

Every four months, the NGL community as a whole asks for money. This schedule has been set to match the trimester structure of the NGL Provider Apprenticeship Program. Stubbornly wanting to keep moving ever faster towards uncoupling giving from receiving, we have taken two major steps in that direction.

One has to do with what we ask for. We made the decision, some time ago, to release any ties between how direct someone’s contribution is to what we are asking for and whether or not their needs are included. In essence, we are now asking, wherever and whenever we ask, for the totality of NGL’s sustainability needs, not for what human energy and other expenses have specifically gone into the program itself. Everyone who is an NGL member, or a non-member who contributes to a team that brings in resources from any source, is welcome to submit requests based on their sustainability needs. It has nothing to do with whether or not they have anything directly to do with the program itself. The total of those requests is what we then ask for.

The other step is about who is being asked. Rather than only program participants (now about 50), we are including everyone else who is part of NGL (another 250 people) in the invitation to contribute to NGL’s sustainability. In particular, this means that a number of people are both submitting requests to the FGH and invited to contribute money.

Vasudhara, "stream of gems", goddess of abundance in Buddhism

This is the most complete uncoupling we have ever been able to do. It amazes me that there are NGL Friends, including some who contribute monthly on a regular basis (which half of the NGL Friends do), who are contributing money when asked, even though they receive nothing because they are not participants in the program. Some of them also contribute their life energy in support of various teams they are members of, and also give money. They are doing it, clearly, as unilateral giving. A tiny bud of maternal gifting in action. Reflecting on this is what supported me in realizing that the uncoupling can be both about who is being asked to contribute and about what they are being asked to contribute to. In this case, the “who” is expanded widely to include all of NGL. The “what” is expanded from being about the program itself to being about NGL’s sustainability as a whole.

We don’t always have that much capacity to play in relation to everything. This summer, for example, we ran two courses about the Vision Mobilization framework. In part because we created only a one-time FGH for these courses, we couldn’t achieve that much uncoupling. Only those who participated in the courses were asked for money. They were completely free to choose how much to give or not, and indeed there were people who gave nothing. This is some degree of uncoupling, and not complete, because they were still being asked directly in relation to the courses in which they participated. In this case, one complication is that one of the courses was offered through a collaboration with the NVC Academy, which makes it more difficult to uncouple more fully. Every situation is its own unique set of constraints and opportunities. Nothing can be copied as is. There is no way to eliminate the need for discernment. No rules.

Increasing trust within distribution circles

Our initial way of distributing money was based on what we had understood about how “money piles” operate, an understanding limited by being out of context and without coaching support. In that understanding, all the people whose sustainability is intertwined with the money that was asked for come together to distribute the money, doing it openly and collaboratively.

That rapidly became unmanageable: there are only so many people who can participate as co-distributors within a circle before we run into hours and hours and more hours of engagement with one of the stickiest areas in human functioning, with all the shame, “deserve” thinking, and internalized oppression along race, class, and gender that can easily re-create societal patterns of resource distribution even while trying to shift them. We left each such event exhausted and bruised, even as we remain determined to find a path forward.

To stay within capacity, we have added a lot of specific agreements to how the distribution circle functions. This includes turn-taking as well as spelling out what options are available to each person when it’s their turn to make a decision within the circle. This has resulted in now having more capacity to complete the process with a decision that is the composite of all the individual decisions made within it.

How to maintain a sense of participation and inclusion in decision-making without having to have everyone participate in all decisions ?

We are also engaging in other experiments. Ultimately, since we are seeing ourselves as researching possibilities that could, in principle, be applied to the entire global population, having one circle for everyone involved cannot solve the problems. We need to find a way out of this bottleneck. It’s a familiar bottleneck in many decision-making processes: how to maintain a sense of participation and inclusion in decision-making without having to have everyone participate in all decisions?

There are three basic directions of exiting this bottleneck. One of them is creating shared-risk pods, groups that tie together their resources more strongly, and having only representatives of pods be part of a larger distribution circle. This is already beginning to happen spontaneously and by design. One such pod, the one I am part of, is the topic of the fourth and last part of this mini-series.

A second pathway is maintaining one-time or multiple ongoing FGHs while developing clear and robust ties between them and the main NGL FGH. How to create the ties in meaningful ways that are attentive to purpose and to sustainability needs all around is an active area of investigation that is too early to reach any conclusions about, and thus I am not including it here.

The third pathway is one I want to share about here: entrusting a smaller group of people to make the decision for everyone else in the circle based on full information about their needs. This is what happens, now regularly, in the FGH that exists for the Convergent Facilitation learning community. This is also what we did within the one-time FGH that we created for the summer courses in Vision Mobilization that I mentioned earlier.

When those who contributed to the courses were invited to submit requests, they were also asked if they were happy to entrust the decision to Emma Quayle and me or wanted to be part of the decision. Everyone was also given the option of participating as an observer and of watching the recording afterwards, for their learning. One of the course assistants, Keiko Silbermann, joined us, initially intending to be an observer and then joining us in the actual process of deciding who would receive what amount from the money that was collected.

There is nothing 'fair' about distributing based on needs, which is precisely the point, as fairness emerges from separation and doesn't attend to needs.

There was much more that we learned from the ninety minutes that followed than I would be able to put into this post. I am focusing only on one key insight: when some of us are entrusted with deciding for others, this ends up increasing togetherness. Precisely because we were holding more than our own individual needs, we held the trust given to us with a sense of reverence and immense care. Instead of a series of individual decisions which still somehow keeps people at least in part as advocates for their own needs, we were truly holding the whole, everyone’s needs, all the vulnerabilities we did and didn’t know about. All of it featured in how we prioritized the resources available to us which, as is likely to continue, were not sufficient for the needs we were aware of. We came up with several new principles that are now feeding the Resource Flow team in thinking about what comes next. We shared all of it with the entire team of trainers and assistants that delivered the course, and we are planning to share the results with the participants, so they know what came of the money they gave and see a visceral example of the wide disparity of what different people received, ranging from $9,000 to zero. There is nothing “fair” about distributing based on needs, which is precisely the point, as fairness emerges from separation and doesn’t attend to needs.

Plugging capacity leaks

Is there an answer, then? Not yet and maybe never. We are continuing to learn. We are experimenting with various configurations. No conclusions, no recipes, only experimentation. We are collecting feedback and information and adapting future iterations of what we do based on what we learn. Our capacity is very limited, in no small part precisely because we have so few financial resources. As part of our ongoing learning, we have identified two capacity leaks that we are actively engaged in learning how to shift.

I am writing this piece at a time when our inquiry in these areas is both raw and too early to say much about. I am confident that the same would be true at any time I would choose to write this. The commitment to continually moving towards maternal gifting leaves any of us who make it always on an uncomfortable edge of deep and intrinsic uncertainty.

How far is the risk shared within NGL?

Over the course of the first years of NGL, more and more people have been making requests of the FGH with hardly any increase in the number of people joining the mobilization to bring resources into NGL. Without a shift in this pattern, we will become progressively less sustainable. Those of us who have been thinking about why this is so and what can shift it have reached a preliminary conclusion that NGL has not gone far enough into full resource sharing. Almost everyone within NGL is still living primarily individual or nuclear family lives, with their own income and expenses. The sense of holding a shared responsibility for the ongoing sustainability of NGL is entirely embryonic. We believe that many still see NGL, and BayNVC the mother organization, as abstract entities that generate resources in some invisible manner, resources that are then available to those within NGL to make requests of. Tiny pockets of experimentation are sprouting, and I remain curious and in mourning about how difficult it is for all of us to empower ourselves to be true co-creators of collective outcomes.

Connecting resources to purpose

The resources that come in don't necessarily flow towards where they would most contribute to purpose.

At present, there is no mechanism within NGL to support discernment about what people choose to do with their energy that is available to contribute to NGL’s purpose. This means that everyone is essentially free to do whatever they want. We haven’t created robust mechanisms for offering each other feedback on our purpose-related activities that would lead to course correction. Our feedback mechanisms, imperfect as they are anyway, mostly focus on values and relationships, not on how we contribute to purpose. This means that the resources that come in don’t necessarily flow towards where they would most contribute to purpose, only to a collection of sustainability needs that are largely independent of purpose considerations. This is true even though our core principle invites flow within purpose. We are now beginning a process for creating mechanisms for supporting each other in knowing where to focus our human energy and attention while still aiming to maintain uncoupling of how much we contribute from how much we receive. I have faith that when we have such clarity in place, the flow of resources overall will become clearer.

Leaning on faith

Ever since the original loss of trust in life, likely based on extreme experiences of collective trauma, that landed us in the mindset of scarcity, separation, and powerlessness that patriarchy is based on, moving towards reintegrating into flow requires faith where trust is absent. Faith isn’t necessarily blind, and mine isn’t. Wherever I bring these insights and frameworks to new people, I see deep hunger and responsiveness to them, even alongside dismissal and harsh critique. I see the amazing willingness, on the part of so many, to contribute despite uncertainty. I see, time and again, resources showing up, unexpected, when the need is clear and precise, even as so often we don’t have as much as we would like. I see that we have survived and grown from 25 to nearing 300, and that even with the limited resources we have had access to, we have created much that moves me to tears. I know, from elsewhere, that humans are fully capable of coming together to solve problems and share resources collaboratively. We’ve done it throughout our existence. We are continuing to do it, even in very adverse circumstances, even as our control-based systems are collapsing around and within us. We can’t know anything, and we can still lean on faith as we aim to realign with the flow of life.

PHOTO CREDITS

Construction Work, by John Salvino, on Unsplash

Bee feeding bees, by usdagov, on flickr

Berries, on pxhere

Art of Himalaya in the Cleveland Museum of Art, by Sailko, on Commons.wikimedia.org

Minister W.W. on a visit to Japan, by polandmfa, on flickr

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