An Experiment in Gift Economics

In the year 2008 I was facing hard times. I was earning maybe $300 a month from book sales, I wasn’t known yet as a speaker, and I couldn’t really get a job because I was a single dad staying at home with three children including a three-year-old. One day, a workshop came to town that was highly recommended. It cost $15. At the time my bank account had $2, I had unpaid bills, and there was $25 in my wallet. I considered approaching the presenter to tell him, “I just don’t have the money to pay for this,” but then I thought, I really do have the money. I actually have $25. I was in a dilemma that was really uncomfortable for me.

That experience informs the way I run events today. I don’t want to put others in that kind of dilemma, and I understand the sense of injustice at being shut out, and the shame that comes up from asking for a free pass. I want to extend people in that situation a heartfelt warm welcome to participate in my events for free. That warmth is necessary, because I have found that it is often the people who truly cannot afford it who are the most reluctant to avail themselves of the scholarships.

Herein lies a problem: what about people who aren’t in a position of hardship? I will illustrate using the example of my upcoming online course, Masculinity: A New Story.

First, a little background. It is a 3-month course with 16+ sessions plus moderated online forums in between sessions. Building the website, traveling to record live conversations with guest presenters, scheduling everybody for real-time follow-up calls, doing background research, handling technical support issues, and so on requires months of commitment from me and a team of several people. And, judging from the recordings I’ve already completed, this is going to be a premium experience – as good as any online course on the Internet.

With all this in mind, I set a tuition price point in alignment with the resources committed and the quality of the course – $320. Then I offered a range of scholarship options for people to self-select: half scholarship, three-quarters scholarship, 90% scholarship, and full scholarship. I asked them to choose the level that establishes a commitment and that also respects their financial situation.

The results were quite the opposite of what I expected. Dear reader, maybe you are more cynical than I am, but I was surprised that among the first 150 or so registrants, half chose the full scholarship, and the majority of the rest chose 90% scholarship. The next largest contingent was the three-quarters scholarship, and only a handful paid full price.

I felt disheartened. There were surely some people who truly couldn’t afford even $32, but probably many of them could have. One of my main guidelines in navigating the world of gift is to judge the usefulness of the gift by the enthusiasm with which it is received. If you go around giving biscuits to thirsty people and ice cubes to the hungry, their thanks will be perfunctory. Right now I’m feeling a bit of hesitancy, along the lines that people kind-of-sort-of want this course, but not ardently enough to meaningfully commit to it. Maybe I should heed the message and do something else with my time.

However, because I recognize a wound operating here in myself (it feels like a tender bruise right inside my chest) I won’t grab my toys and stomp off the playground yet. Surely whatever victim story I am running, whatever misanthropic story, whatever judgements and projections, these must exist in the people registering for the course too. Perhaps by soberly considering where people are standing in their choice, I can understand myself better and turn the situation around. Here is what I have come up with:

(1) In our society we are accustomed to constantly being targeted for the sale. In the world of marketing, we are consumers to be fleeced, objects to be manipulated. Of course then, we unapologetically seek the best deal whenever we can. Some participants may have been doing this automatically.

(2) Because there will be many people on the course, one can comfortably assume that someone else will pick up the slack. There are no dynamics of mutual witnessing and accountability; i.e., there is no community yet, no sense that we are in this together. In a social vacuum, why not maximize self-interest? The remote nature of an online transaction contributes further to this depersonalization. Clicking “full scholarship” feels different than handing someone an empty envelope at a live event.

(3) People may not understand how much time, money, and effort is going into the course, and therefore can easily suspect me of profiteering. They have insufficient context to feel good about paying the full price.

(4) Because I am not demanding a high price, people may think that it might not be worth a high price. In a capitalist economy, normally speaking, a seller will ask the highest price that makes sense in the marketplace. If BMW dropped its prices to Chevrolet levels, you would suspect that their cars were no longer very good. Similarly, perhaps some course registrants think that if this course were really worth $320, I wouldn’t offer cheaper options.

(5) Some people may be taking a wait-and-see attitude, hesitating to make a commitment. “I’ll just sign up for free, and tune in to the sessions if I have time.”

(6) The concept of “affordability” is highly subjective. Conditioned by the inherent scarcity and anxiety of our economic system, many people never feel secure. Someone could have a six-figure income and a million dollars in assets, and still truly believe they cannot afford $320.

Of all of these possible reasons, the one that concerns me the most is #5. The quality of the interactions on the forum will suffer if people aren’t taking the course seriously, nor will those people get very much out of it. Even worse, they will fill up spots that could otherwise go to someone who really wants to be in the course.

Number 4 concerns me as well. I want a climate of high expectation around this course, a buildup of energy that will elicit my best efforts. If I doubt others’ commitment, my own energy flags too.

What will I do? I truly do not know. In light of the above, I will try to find ways to communicate better the value of this course in a way that doesn’t feel manipulative. One thing is for certain, thanks to my period of poverty seven years ago: I will not make payment mandatory. That is something personal for me, and not a prescription for others. I completely understand the view that we must value our work by charging money, that we must give others the opportunity to be resourceful, that a payment sends a message to the unconscious mind that one is doing this for real. It is not wrong to ask for payment. I am simply determined to find a way to do that that respects the experience lodged within me.

The transition from where we are today to a world based on gift is not a simple one – indeed, I wrote a whole book on it without nearly exhausting the subject. I cannot offer a formula, only what I’ve learned from my own small experiments. I know where I want to arrive: I want everybody (except the indigent) to pay an amount that makes them feel committed, and for the financially wealthy to cover any shortfall and turn “just enough” into real abundance. That part, I believe, is essential when the financial dynamics of capitalism in crisis are squeezing everyone but the very wealthy. It pains me that some people might want to take the course so badly that they would take from their grocery money to pay for it, while another has millions of dollars in investments. There’s got to be a better way.

We are caught by systemic forces here. As the concentration of wealth intensifies, the 99% must scramble for a shrinking slice of the economic pie, bringing to the fore issues that would formerly have remained in latency, covered over by affluence. As in a drought when the falling water level reveals the rocks and muck from the lake bottom, so we are seeing in sharp relief psychologies that had been hidden under the surface of financial normalcy. Our generosity and our stinginess, our empathy and our fear, our courage and our caution, are laid bare. We can retreat further into the habits of capitalism as we know it, into the logic of self-interest, but no retreat will be far enough in the end as the system crumbles. Sooner or later and one way or another, all of us, rich or poor, will be thrust into the world of gift.

I too am being thrust. On some level I know that what felt like a disheartening failure is, itself, a gift: a gift of understanding, of self-knowledge, and who knows what else. I do not know. I simply offer it to you so that you can share in the learning.