The Gift Economy: A Model for Collaborative Community


Organizations ranging from the Elat Chayyim Center for Creative Spirituality (above) to Panera are testing the potential of the gift economy. Credit: Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

Imagine walking into your local cafe or corner grocery, filling your basket with what you need, leaving behind what you can financially, and walking away with no formal exchange. Now imagine that this economic relationship works as well if not better than a formal market economy. Impossible? Not according to “gift economy” theorists and the courageous communities that make this sort of system work.

Panera Bread has opened three gift-economy “Panera Cares Cafes” in St. Louis, Detroit, and Portland recently. And the model works. The revolutionary idea in the words of Panera’s founder Ron Shaich: “Trust people—they’ll surprise you.”

The gift economy has been called many names and is actually more ancient than the money economy. Money is the concentrated and abstract form of the gift—but when the way we connect with each other transcends fee-for-service, it’s more powerful than anything money can buy. Whether it’s called “sacred economics,” “pay-what-you-can,” or “the strategy of generosity,” the idea is catching on. When the film Pay It Forward was released more than ten years ago, the concept of the gift economy entered the mainstream. In recent years, skill-sharing, open-source coding, time banks, and WikiLeaks are some of the ways the gift economy has emerged. The only obligation participants in such an economy have is to give as much as they can and pass it on.

Giving transcends and includes monetary giving. There is money involved, but it’s not primary. The gift is essential, because its value is unconditional. It is a sign of care and support, not an exchange. This idea resonates with all spiritual traditions including modern secularism. In the Jewish tradition, the concept of tzedakah (charity or righteous deeds) is one of the three central practices that invite holiness into our lives. We are taught to give because it is good, not to get anything in return. And we are to give of our hearts, not only with money, but also with our talents, our skills, our leadership capacities, and our love.

Testing the potential of the gift economy as a organizing and educational tool, Elat Chayyim Center for Creative Spirituality at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center is producing a unique and exciting retreat this summer. We’re calling it MIKVAH.


The "participatory flavor that the gift economy generates" has inspired gatherings as disparate as the Burning Man festival and this summer's program at the Elat Chayyim Center for Creative Spirituality. Credit: Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

The word mikvah describes the ritual immersion in flowing water that prepares one for an encounter with the Divine. We chose this name because we are going to immerse in the flowing waters of the gifts of community. To register for the week, participants will declare their intention for offerings: cook a favorite dish, give a lecture, lead a hike, coordinate a collaborative art project, organize a dance, lead meditation or prayer, and on and on. This is a test of the gift economy’s capacity to both produce amazing collaborative programming and to cover our costs through free-will tzedakah donations from the heart.

The creative community that will emerge from this immersive, living laboratory experience will be anything but passive—its members will be passionately involved in the life of the community they create over the week. We are producers of our culture—both the emerging planetary culture and subcultures such as the Jewish teachings that root us at Isabella Freedman—and we ought not to rely on others to do that for us. It’s in collaborative community that the gift economy really shines.

This is not the first event of its kind of course. The radically creative, immersive, participatory flavor that the gift economy generates has caught the attention of the world in such forms as the Burning Man festival, built completely on the gift—and it’s been extremely successful in the Jewish world in the form of the limmud (learning) model.

Imagine arriving at our retreat center ready to give the gifts that you’ve been given, and having given the gifts that make this gift-giving possible. Imagine it’s easier done than said. This summer at MIKVAH we’ll prove that the way of the gift really can work. If you’re interested in joining us, you can register here.

A diverse variety of perspectives on the gift economy have been emerging for the past several decades, gathering momentum toward a fundamental transformation of our economic, social, and spiritual relations among a planetary community. Here are some resources I recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the gift economy:

“To Build Community, an Economy of Gifts”
by Charles Eisenstein

Sacred Economics
by Charles Eisenstein

Homo Donans
by Genevieve Vaughn

Women and the Gift Economy
edited by Genevieve Vaughn

The Gift
by Lewis Hyde

“Gift Economy”
by Lee Schneider

Gifting It: A Burning Embrace of Gift Economy
directed by Renea Roberts


3 thoughts on “The Gift Economy: A Model for Collaborative Community

  1. Pingback: The Gift Economy | Jack Saunsea

  2. I think that one of the great struggles within mankind is the battle between the known and unknown; or rather, the expected and the surprise.

    Trust creates the ability to be surprised. People want the kind of security that is known, which requires no trust. But trust is the only thing that ever brings true security.

    In business, we’ve created budgets and known variables required in order to be “successful.” We use marketing in order to know as much as possible about how to meet are necessary quota. We are trying to eliminate all unknown variables so that instead of trusting one another we can trust the bottom line.

    And yet, deep down, everybody really wants a surprise. Everybody wants to trust each other. Everybody wants peace.

    The only question is, who will take the first step? Who will take the plunge? Who will live in truth and freedom?

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