Employment in Gift Culture


I'm never quite sure how to introduce Marie Goodwin. Sometimes it is “my way over-qualified assistant.” Sometimes it is as my support person or my colleague. Sometimes she introduces herself with “I work for Charles.” But the one we like best is “Chief plate spinner and external hard drive.” I also like “support person” though, because she is such a tremendous support not only with the logistics of my work, but also as an intellectual resource and a source of wise advice.But let's cut to the chase. I write and speak a lot about gift culture, new economy, and how the defining narratives of our culture shape our relationships with each other. I write about it, but how do I apply these ideas in practice? Some questions might come to mind when you hear that Marie works for me. Some people think she works for free, and wonder whether I am using lofty notions of gift to justify what is really an exploitative economic relationship. Others might suspect that, when push comes to shove, I hire an employee just like everyone else, exploiting the surplus value of her labor, willfully oblivious to the attendant power dynamics of employment.

With Marie's agreement I would therefore like to describe how the money works in our relationship and how that came about, in hopes of illuminating one way to bring gift principles into the realm of work.

It all started three years ago when Sacred Economics was coming out. A prominent individual urged me to hire a publicist and recommended his own publicist to me as “the best in the business, someone with the perfect connections, experience, and intellect to get your work.” So I called her up and interviewed her and she did seem highly competent. Then I asked her, “If money were not an issue at all, if, say, you were independently wealthy and did this work for free, would you still want to take me on as a client?” She replied, “Honestly, no. From what I've read I think you do great work and I'm happy to represent you, but fundamentally I'll be working for you – and I'll do a great job – because you are paying me.”

I told her no thank you. I realized that I want someone to recommend my work only if they want to for real, and not because I'm paying them to. Otherwise, any promotion or publicity would be tainted with a kind of inauthenticity. And we are sick of the lies, the PR, the sales pitch. So I decided that I would only hire someone if they weren't doing it for the money.

Shortly thereafter, Marie came along. When we discussed the idea of her working with me, she insisted on working in the gift. At first, she was part of a small group of volunteers to help me deal with email and logistics. It soon became apparent that these tasks were interrelated and mostly needed to be done by one person. Over the course of a month or two she took on more and more of this work, and in gratitude I said, “Let me give you some money.”

She said, “You really don't need to, I'm not doing this for money, I just believe in your work and want to help you.”

I said, “But I want to.” And every month since, I have wanted to, always in a spirit of gratitude.

Often it seems to me that I am paying her too little, and to her that I am paying her too much. Of course these terms only make sense in reference to the mainstream economy, in which, both of us know, she could make a lot more money given her intellect and qualifications. As could I. But both of us have chosen a different path. Her work for me fits in not only with her values, but with her life as a homeschooling mom, Transition Town activist, time bank founder and facilitator, and running a small herbal CSA.

I offer this as one of many possible models for bringing the spirit of the gift into the world of money. Its success so far is built on mutual trust and our common commitment to a purpose that is sacred to both of us. I'm not sure how well it would translate to other kinds of work relationships that don't have these qualities. Nonetheless, I think this kind of arrangement may become widespread as more and more people take up work that feels sacred to them. When we depend on each other to further that work, we naturally desire to take care of each other, our comrades.


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Charles! Successful examples of working in the gift are much needed, and Marie is a wonderful human. Very glad you two found each other.

  2. Thanks Marie and Charles for sharing details of your working relationship, it is I believe a profound example of the shift in human interaction to achieve our now Sacred goals of a better world.
    I am an economist in the public sector in n Ireland and I see how so much community work is stalled by money issues its the great obstacle. ..I am mindful of the opening to Sacred economics which I have read. .. To doing what motivates people in a community spirit.
    Marie give me some advice on time banking which I greatly appreciated and sincerely hope to return to in my public sector job. I am also looking for ways to live in the gift and intend to start volunteering in near future with a view to moving career!
    Namaste my brother and sister continued successful wishes in your vital work,

  3. Thanks Charles (and Marie) 🙂
    100% with you both. Good practices rule!
    You are role modeling and leading by example.
    – I’m pretty much tired of preachers that do not practice their speech.

  4. The Camphill Movement is an international movement with over 100 places that include people with developmental disabilities in family units run by volunteers who do not take a salary, but “share life” with the handicapped people. Because the co-workers share their roof, their heat, their light, and their food with the people for whom they care, it is not possible to effectively separate the costs of “care” from the costs of “Living.” These communities are based on Rudolf Steiner’s Fundamental Social Law: “The more an individual works for the benefit of society or the needs of others, and the more society ensures that each worker is supported sufficiently to lead a dignified existence, the greater the well-being and prosperity of society will be.”
    Here is a really good article on the subject:
    Best wishes to all!

    • I recently visited Camphill Soltane. We love the idea of the family units as a place where our daughter could live. My wife and I are looking at this model as a place for our daughter. If only we had known about this 5 years ago when she was 21.
      Great example. Thanks for sharing Charles and Marie.

  5. Charles how do you deal with the “surrounding system” which would view this as employment. Example; tax, insurance and other legalities?

      • Sharon & Tim, I am an independent contractor. I actually have other clients too and work in the same fashion with them, although the vast majority of my time (and my head-space) is Charles’ work.

  6. “Clients” is an exaggeration — really it is “client” (one. Singular. And truly the work I do for him is loosely considered “work” in my book), the author Ben Hewitt, who also is deeply aligned with my values. I also consider his work sacred, and Ben & Charles know each other.

  7. One of the issues that comes up with the gift economy is how to interact with people who do not necessarily adopt the model or who would not adopt it unless you were the one to enforce it.
    People who work with clients on a gift-type basis, like consultants, have people come to them who either aren’t familiar with a gift economy or aren’t disciplined enough to stick to it. In these kinds of circumstances, gifters are commonly stripped of their energy because they did not receive enough in return. While we could get into the psychology of martyrdom here, we cannot deny that the Universe punishes unequal exchange.
    This problem can be handled, though, if we take a different perspective. When you pay for something, you tend to appreciate it more–like buying a CD versus downloading music on the internet. Investment commits you to whatever you are investing in, so your stake in it enforces upon you the discipline to appreciate the service. Thus, in the case of a consultant, some kind of payment agreement is actually a service to the consultee, because the consultee is more likely to take the consultant seriously thereby.
    It is best to judge on a case-by-case basis, but the underlying point is I’m trying to make is that sometimes requiring payment for a service is itself a gift, like climbing up a mountain before meditating.

  8. This premise that Charles is working with can also be understood as ‘Stewardship’. And there is a fantastic book entitled ‘Stewardship’ by Peter Block which explains how becoming a steward can reconstitute the roles we play in life especially that of the employer and employee. This coincides with Charles work on supporting a gift economy. Another point I’d like to make about this is there have been studies in aid programs in Africa offering mosquito nets to people in need and also offering nets to people for a small fee. Those who paid for the mosquito nets were more likely to use and take care of them. And to reference what the First Nation People coined as what makes a ‘good trade.’ They were expert traders because of living out a gift economy. This means that they traded what had value to them in order to receive something of value, thereby inherently preserving their integrity and instilling an authentic connection with what they acquired from the exchange. I once did this at a barter fair where I traded a highly valued native american flute for a pair of moccasins. It was a challenge to let go of something that was deeply sentimental to me but when I did I was gratifed by a new item backed by a good trade. Building these kinds of healthy relations in our lives is essential to a healthy and vibrant community. Applying integrity (the ethic) and gumption (the principal) are how to be proactive in this, living out a gift economy. From employment AND community / altruism to family and the ecological environment becoming a Steward is the rendering of a healthy working relationship and thereby cultivating a gift economy to it’s fruition.

  9. Thank you so much for such transparency and being an example of your own values put into action. I am also transitioning to a gift relationship with the readers of my digital magazine Mindful Money and it is scary and exciting at the same time. This has inspired me !

  10. Thanks for the information on Marie. I have corresponded with her through emails several times and each time I realized I was talking to a real human being and not merely to a social structure expressing itself through impersonal norms and rules. That may seem trivial, but it is not. It was my first real contact with this “organization.” And it made a good impression on me.

  11. I do what I like to to do because I love to do bussiness and have fun great speach Einstein I hope to win a noble Prize award like your grandfather I love you men I also make music

  12. This is a beautiful example of natural and joyful generosity that leads to mutual support within the whole. Thank you for living it.

    Mary, are you fully supported through this gift economy?

    I ask because I so want to live this way.

    • Hi Ryan,
      I have a partnership and two children. My husband works as well. If I lived alone and simply, I probably could live in the gift in this way. But it comes with less security, month to month, and if you have — for instance — a mortgage or something like that, it would be hard to do. But if you can live in a way where your payments “out” are also flexible, that would be ideal.

  13. 1. I have been practicing mysticism for 20 years and Charles definitely has stretched me to think bigger and deeper. For that I am grateful. Are there any groups with or without his participation meeting in Asheville? Also, do you have tasks that need volunteer help? I live in Black Mountain half time. I have good computer skills.
    2. Marie, I can find no reference to Charles having a not for profit structure for his work. Are contributions tax deductible?

    • Hi Ronald,
      Thanks for the questions.
      1) Sometimes he needs help at events, but it isn’t very often. Right now, Charles has pared down his speaking/traveling somewhat to finish his book and start another one (and some learning journeys). Those are things only he can do.
      2) He doesn’t not (yet) have a not-for-profit, but we are considering creating one next year. Contributions to him, right now, are NOT tax deductible, but possibly they will be in the future.


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