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From Susan Kerr's session at The Giving conference;

SUMMARY OF DISCUSSION, KEY POINTS, CONCLUSIONS, ACTIONS: From the book, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property comes the premise that the only essential is that a gift must move. There are other forms of property that stand still, that mark a boundary or resist movement, but the gift keeps going. (Lewis Hyde, p.4)

Cliff told the story of his software wiki design that he gave to all. It has been used widely, spread globally and been translated into other languages. For a short time, Cliff thought about what he received in return but came to accept it as a gift and felt good about how it has changed and grown beyond even what he created and gave. It was brought up that one benefit of that software as a gift is that it cannot be stolen; it's approperties as a free gift renders it free from stealing.

Chris' wife's thought for giving is that it creates a society and community that is nolurishing for all. Even in exchange involving money if we can let go of the "hooks" (the stories around money in our history and in our head) there can be nourishment.

Tracy told the story of working with wealthy women, how in talking with them how the feeling of isolation came up within the five minutes of the conversation beginning. She talked about how one of the benefits of philanthropy is that it teaches empathy, an antidote to to narcissim and isolation. When we reach out, it opens our hearts, empathy and pocketbooks. She mentioned the author, Geneviere Vaughn and her book, For Giving and Theodore J. Mallon's book, The Journey Toward Masterful Philanthropy. In Ted Mallon's book he tells how, after an experience of being struck by lightning, he changed his way of thinking to include using vibrational energy when making decisions. Spiritual sources - how do we source our giving and philanthropy.

Susan told a story of a gift giving game she and her siblings used to play where prized "treasures" from their personal belongings would be wrapped up and given to each other. At the time, they lived in a small farm house with shared rooms. Later, they moved to a larger house, each with their own room. They also stopped playing the gift game. She mentioned how a general feeling of isolation prevaded those years.

Another thought from the book, The Gift is that a gift, when it moves across the boundary, either stops being a gift or abolishes the boundary. A commodity can cross the line without any change in its nature; moreover, its exchange will often establish a boundary where none previously existed (as, for example, in the sale of a necessity to a friend). "Logos"-trade draws the boundary, "eros"-trade erases it.

Chris' daughter Aine gave him a rock one afternoon on a beach. Receiving the gift of the rock, Chris placed it in his pocket and carried it with him to New Zealand. After working at conference with Maori organizations, a community Elder expressed her gratitude to Chris for his work. To honour her he gave Aine's rock to the Elder. She received the gift and returned several hours later with a poumanou taonga, a Maori necklace made from jade. The Elder, Auntie Julie, asked that the taonga be taken to Aine. When Chris gave his daughter the necklace, it completed a connection between her and Auntie Julie that continues to nourish her curiosity. It was observed that if the gift had stopped when Aine gave Chris the rock, none of those connections would have been made, and the boundaries that were transcended by the movementof the gift would still be with us.


At the Giving Conference in Chicago, Susan Kerr turned me on to “The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property” by Lewis Hyde. Despite the fact that it is now out of print, it seems that lots of people at the conference knew this book (Phil Cubeta: “This is one of my favourite books of all time!”) Jill Perkins (no blog yet — wait until she moves to London) gave me her copy, which had been languishing in a box since her undergraduate days, the relic of an arts course that simply got in the way of her opening up a new branch of quantum chromodynamics (but, boy, that’s a whole other story).

At any rate, this is an amazing book, divided into two parts. The first part outlines a theory of gifts and the second part looks at the poetry of Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound as an aesthetic of gift.

I’m reading this book fairly closely, and I’ll post chunks from it as we go along. The first chapter, called “Some Food We Could Not Eat” posits the theory that gifts are always used, consumed or eaten and that in this consumption of the gift, the spirit of the thing is what circulates. When gifts are used, they are not used up but they become more abundant. Gifts which are converted to capital die as gifts, and the spirit that has circulated with them dies as well.

But when gifts are continuously in motion, especially within a society that has a gift economy, marvelous things happen: The gift moves towards the empty place. As it turns in its circle, it turns towards him who has been empty handed the longest and if someone appears whose need is greater it leaves its old channel and moves towards him. Our generosity may leave us empty, but our emptiness then pulls gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us. Societal nature abhors a vacuum. Counsels Meister Eckhart the mystic: “Let us borrow empty vessels.” The gift finds that man attractive who stands with an empty bowl he does not own.”


In Chapter two of the “The Gift” Hyde writes about how the benefits which arise from a gift must remain gifts in themselves if the gift’s power is to continue. He looks at the increase of gifts in three ways: natural, spiritual and social.

Honouring gifts from the natural world, such as in the First Salmon Ceremony practiced by the coastal First Nations here on the west coast depend our relationship with the natural world, and place us in a position of recipient of natural bounty. To treat this bounty as anything other than a gift endangers its long term sustainability

Gifts of the spirit increase beyond the life of the gift’s embodiment. It is the gift’s life that endures beyond the actual embodiment of the gift; a spirit of generosity.

The social increase of gifts happen when the circulation of gifts creates community out of individual expressions of goodwill. Blogging is a little like this. So is the community that has formed around people who have been given a copy of the “The Gift!”

Here is another interesting quote from “The Gift” which extends the ideas about what happens when gifts move: Where…the market alone rules and particularly where benefits derive from the conversion of gift property to commodities, the fruits of gift exchange are lost. At that point, commerce becomes correctly associated with the fragmentation of community and the suppression of liveliness, fertility and social feeling. For where we maintain no institutions of positive reciprocity, we find ourselves unable to participate in those “wider spirits” i just spoke of - unable to enter gracefully into nature, unable to draw community out of the mass, and, finally, unable to receive, contribute toward, and pass along collective treasures we refer to as culture and tradition. Only when the increase of gifts moves with the gift may the accumulated wealth of our spirit continue to grow among us, so that each of us may enter, and be revived by, a vitality that is beyond his or her solitary powers.

— pp. 38-9

Sending our own gifts out into a circle and receiving their return from another source is essentially a very good working definition of “community building.”


Chapter three of “The Gift” is called “The Labor of Gratitude.” In it Hyde examines the nature of the transformative gift, the gift that works a transformation in the recipient. These kinds of gifts are very close to my heart, for they include teachings (received from Elders, mentors and other teachers) and, in a purely prosaic context, the kind of information received from people in processes like stakeholder consultations and organizational change initiatives.

Here’s Hyde: In each example I have offered of a transformative gift, if the teaching begins to “take,” the recipient feels gratitude. I would like to speak of gratitude as a labor undertaken by the soul to effect the transformation after a gift has been received. Between the time a gift comes to us and the time we pass it along, we suffer gratitude. Moreover, with gifts that are agents of change, it is only when the gift has worked in us, only when we have come up to its level, as it were, that we can give it away again. Passing the gift along is an act of gratitude that finishes the labor. The transformation is not accomplished until we have the power to give the gift on our own terms. Therefore, the end of the labor of gratitude is similarity with the gift or with its donor. Once this similarity has been achieved we may feel a lingering and generalized gratitude, but we won’t feel it with the urgency of true indebtedness.

This is wonderful way to capture what happens when Elders pass on teachings. We receive them in a sense as a challenge and an invitation to raise our own standards to the standards outlined in the teaching. We are also invited to find our own way of achieving the similarity that Hyde speaks of. The very best teachers, in my experience, give us something to aspire to and nurture our own discovery of the path to similarity. The labor of gratitude, the work of becoming transformed by the gift of the teaching, is ours alone. And if you have ever been a teacher, you will recognize the gift that a student gives you when she responds to your teaching by intentionally incorporating it into her life.

I think that these kinds of gifts are actually widely available to us. I do a lot of work with groups who are asking other groups for their opinions, input or collaboration. I facilitate consultation processes where stakeholder are asked for their ideas on things like policy development. I work with organizations who are creating processes to work with employees, clients and other stakeholders to effect organizational change. I work with communities that are seeking to involve more citizens in their decision making.

In every case I make a point of informing my clients that the processes we are crafting will work only if people show up and give to us willingly. (The first principles of Open Space Technology is “whoever comes is the right people” acknowledging those who show up to offer and contribute). We have an obligation to treat these people as teachers and to treat their contributions as gifts. Consultation processes fail without this depth of relationship, because if the relationship is commodified, people feel taken advantage of.

Advice given by people who are usually volunteering their time and effort, is an unrepayable gift. The only proper way to honour it is to undertake the labour of gratitude that creates a similarity between consulter and consultee. And if the fruit of that labour is not transformation, then we have approached people dishonestly and bought their trust, which is a betrayal of that trust.

This has huge implications in organizations and communities. Imagine if everyone was engaged in a way that honoured the gifts they have to offer. Imagine if people in power established a reciprocal gifting relationship with citizens, recognizing that people who contribute are doing so out of a place that cannot be quantified, but must instead be honoured with the gifts of support and connection that people in power can offer.

Hyde’s idea of the labour of gratitude gives me some nice language to deepen my own understanding of these processes.


Here is a brief interlude from “The Gift” to give a real life case of how the gift theory at work.

Susan Kerr convened a session at the Giving Conference in Chicago on July 10 on the book “The Gift.” I attended the session because of a conversation we had during which she pulled out a copy of the book and read some passages about the gift creating bonds and commodities creating boundaries.

I was so taken with the book that Jill Perkins gave me her copy. I took that copy, cracked it open on the el train heading to O’Hare airport on July 12. On the flight home I read most of the first part of the book. I went directly from my home to Cortes Island to spend a week with my family and in-laws, one of whom, Peter Frost, was in the process of writing a chapter for a soon-to-be-published organizational handbook based on his book “Toxic Emotions At Work.” I tell him about “The Gift,” he cracks it open and gets taken with the ideas of gifts as bonding, commodities as bounding. Within a day he includes the line “Compassion is a gift, not a commodity (Hyde 1979)” at the conclusion of the handbook, which gets into the draft and submitted to his editors on July 18.

Within a week of this marvelous conversation, Susan’s gift to me has made it from Chicago to Cortes Island to some editorial office in New York where it becomes a small part of a widely distributed, soon to be published organizational management handbook.

Money hasn’t changed hands. None of us have engaged in any kind of transaction around this idea. As a result, the whole thing flowed quickly and effectively and graciously around North America and we’re all just a little bit closer.


Following on from the last posting on the labour of gratitude, I’d like to take a slight deviation back to the introduction of “The Gift” where Lewis Hyde is writing about how we receive the fruits of artistic gifts: The spirit of the artist’s gifts can wake our own. The work appeals, as Joseph Conrad says, to a part of our being which is itself a gift and not an acquisition. Our sense of harmony can hear the harmonies that Mozart heard. We may not have the power to proffer our gifts as the artist does, and yet we come to recognize, and in a sense receive, the endowments of our being through the agency of his creation…When we are moved by art we are grateful that the artist lived, grateful that he labored in the service of his gifts.”

This was foremost in my mind when I attended Jon’s session at the Giving Conference on art and mental models. The idea is that we are all gifted with resources to create and receive artistic expressions. When art really affects us (moves us, pun intended) it activates these resources. It makes us want to create, to engage in a form of the labour of gratitude that leads to further creative activity.

We don’t need to be great composers to understand Mozart’s harmony, and the more we listen to it, the more we recognize it and the deeper we respond. We may yet evolve into composers, but I think the real value of a creative response to a creative expression is that it triggers something of a poetic impulse in us to respond creatively to the world around us. Thus the gift of art is the unlocking of the key resource for democracies and thriving societies: creative citizenship.

You don’t need to make poems or create music or draw figures to put this creative impulse to use. Creative entrepreneurship, citizenship and responses to societal problems all become arenas for the expression of this impulse. Through those arenas, we share our gifts with others and perpetuate the cycle. We become artists engaged in the collaborative creation of the world we want.


Now we get into the juicy stuff, as if the book hasn’t been juicy so far.

Chapter four of “The Gift” is called simply “The Bond” and it is this chapter that took Susan Kerr’s interest by storm at the Giving Conference. The essential point of this chapter is that gifts create bonds and commodities create boundaries. It is characteristic of market exchange that commodities move between two independent spheres. We might best picture the difference between gifts and commodities in this regard by imagining two territories separated by a boundary. A gift, when it moves across this boundary, either stops being a gift or abolishes the boundary. A commodity can cross the line without any change in its nature; moreover, its exchange will often establish a boundary where none previously existed…Logos-trade draws the boundary, eros-trade erases it.

– pp. 60-61

There are all kinds of places we can go from this statement. One major thought that triggered for me was around the nature of markets. Our traditional sense of markets are changing largely because of the world wide web, but have we got to the place where markets are actually places where people create bonds? Seems to me that modern branding, and even the “markets-as-conversations” theory of Cluetrain operate within a transactional type of commodity exchange. Having said that, they do recognize that people do not form bonds with companies (or countries or other brands) but rather that bonds are formed between people. What is missing is companies (and their people) figuring out how to actually use the power of corporations to become givers. Corporate philanthropy is a step in this direction, but can it be taken down to the individual level? What is a corporation took a portion of its philanthropic budget and gave it to individuals within the company to pursue their personal giving plans in their communities, encouraging individual staff members to bond through sharing their gifts of time and money? Can we enable that for our staff? For our citizens? There must be some companies that do this. Are there countries that support their citizens’ engagement with their gifts?

Markets come up for me because I think of them as simply places (real or imagined) where people connect. What people choose to do there is up to them. People can connect in a gift relationship or they can connect to give something value and thus exchange it in a transactional deal. I think the kind of connection we forge here on the web is bulging forward a breach or a blurring in this traditional dichotomy. Even the revolutionaries are getting in on the act (thanks Tutor!).

Hyde goes on to talk about the social implications of these two kinds of relationships, giving and transactional: Because of the bonding power of gifts and the detached nature of commodity exchange, gifts have become associated with community and with being obliged to others, while commodities are associated with alienation and freedom. The bonds established by a gift can maintain old identity and limit our freedom of motion…It seems a misnomer that we have called those nations known for their commodities “the free world.” The phrase doesn’t seem to refer to political freedoms ; it indicates that the dominant forms of exchange in these lands does not bind the individual in any way - to his family, to his community, to his state. And though the modern state is too large a group to take its structure from bonds of affection, still, the ideology of the socialist nations begins with a call for community.

Yes, I am advocating more bondage and less freedom in this sense. And it starts with more political freedom, leading individuals to be free to create their bonds and connections to communities that operate far from the madding trap of commodification.


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