The power of gift in the economy

by Anouk Grevin

An urgent need to invest in relationships

As many people around the world, I was quite shocked to hear the we had been able to collect in a few days one billion euros to rebuild our Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris. This tells us two things. First that people care for a place that reminds us our culture and our spiritual dimension. Second, that unless many people are suffering from poverty, financial resources are not lacking in the world, they are just not circulating enough. I was happy for our Cathedral, but I am ashamed we are not able to do the same to save our common home and to rebuild our economy that is currently collapsing. And it is collapsing not because of the lack of resources, but because we lack an essential element: we lack the capacity to share, we lack the capacity to care for others and to design together a sustainable, equitable and inclusive economic system. 

We have been able of great technological developments. We have designed highly productive systems. Surprisingly, we invested much less in another resource that has an extraordinary potential: human relationships. We know that collective intelligence can be an enormous source of wealth, but our economic system is still based on organizational structures that do not allow to mobilize all the human potential of their workers. We invest in high tech and we let aside millions of people without the capacity to contribute to the economy. 

In my research at University, I discovered that most people – if not maybe all – would be willing of giving more contribution if only the business world would let them do it. It was also the main thesis of a famous French sociologist of organizations in a book called Give and Take: people are willing to give but companies only know how to take. Gift is not part of the economic system. But is it really so? My answer is: this is not true.

Gift is necessary to the economy

Did you know that gift is the fuel of your business? You might have never thought about it, but you couldn’t run your business without gift. What do I mean with gift? Just try to think of the contrary, a business where no one is giving anything: tasks carried out without that extra goodwill that makes it efficient, without that smile that makes you happy, no thank you as it is never needed, no help to colleagues, no sharing of information, no effort to cooperate or when facing a problem, just executing tasks as machines… I cannot imagine anyone would perform for a long time in that kind of environment.

A French anthropologist, Marcel Mauss explained that very well almost one century ago: gift giving is what allows us to create relationships and trust so that we can then trade together instead of fighting. The populations of the pacific that M. Mauss was studying would exchange shells and jewels, sometimes even women. M. Mauss explained that all over the world, all people have always been building social ties though gift exchange. He added concluding his research in 1924: it is not so long since man became a calculating machine.

Even though we have been taught for long that the business of business is business, actually all businesses are full of giving. Not only material giving, but also giving information, ideas, attention, care, kindness, effort, goodwill… We constantly give ourselves while working. And we all have experienced to be proud of our work as if it was a work of art, our masterpiece. Because we always give something from ourselves in our work. If we don’t, our colleagues immediately notice it, because they need our goodwill, our commitment, our effort, our involvement in cooperation, our creativity. Otherwise the is no quality, no productivity, no cooperation and therefore no collective intelligence, no team resilience. We could even say that it is impossible to perform for any business if the workers were not giving something of themselves. All the workers. Entrepreneurs are well aware of all what they give to run their business, and anyone living close to one of them can witness that. Top managers also are usually very committed, as they know their career relies on that. But are we always aware that all the workers, even with the lowest qualifications, give themselves in their work?

And if so, why do we consider it as a due? We all know in our private life that taking a gift as a due is offensive as it is equivalent to denying the gift. But in business, as we need it absolutely, we just take it without recognising that it is a gift. If people are giving themselves, we should be grateful, receive what is given with care and gratitude. We should take it as something precious.

The business world today is becoming more and more requiring, and incapable of seeing what is given day by day. How many people I met in my research, both workers and managers, who were suffering because they had the feeling they were giving so much and no one was caring. On the contrary, so many times they were even prevented from giving their best because the organization was not designed to let gift dynamics flourish. 

M. Mauss is famous for having described the gift dynamics as a cycle of giving, receiving and giving back. When our gift is received as such, it creates a link, it builds trust and fosters the desire to give more, to give back to the giver or to someone else but anyway to go on giving. Whereas when the gift is not received, it hurts and lowers our desire to give. Gift dynamics are the fuel, the engine of the economy. We could no trade, we could not manage, we could not produce without people giving while working. 

Gift is at the heart of business, within contracts and economic exchange, not only outside, in private life, with friends and family. It is necessary to the economy. Even though we have excluded it of economic thought for so long. It is urgent to take it seriously again.

I am convinced that rethinking our economic system with the lens of gift dynamics could be a way for designing a much better and more sustainable system for tomorrow. But how could it be? How would an economy based on gift dynamics look like?

28 years ago, the dream of an economy of communion

That might sound difficult to imagine. Fortunately, some entrepreneurs have been exploring that for more than 25 years. It all started exactly with the same observation as today: our world is capable of great innovations but does not know how to share. The experience I want to tell you about today is the story of an Italian lady, founder of a big international Christian movement. She was called Chiara Lubich, Chiara means Clare, brightness. She was an extraordinary inspiring person. She had always dreamt of solving the problem of poverty and invited her friends to share what they had in order to develop a culture of giving because only giving makes us happy. When she went to Brazil in 1991, she was very much struck by inequalities. In Brazil, you can see everywhere slums around the skyscrapers. She said: how is it possible that we are able of building high skyscrapers and we let children die in the streets? The problem of our economic system is not one of creating wealth but of distributing it, of sharing what we produce. We need an economy of communion, she said, an economy founded on sharing, on a culture of giving, where no one is let aside. Individual sharing is not enough at this point, we need to share on a wider scale, we need businesses that share the value they create. 

What she said that 29th of June 1991 spread immediately all over the world. Some Brazilian entrepreneurs answered: here I am, I want my business to be part of that economy of communion. And many others followed. That’s how this experience was born, 28 years ago. I will not tell you more now as we will deepen it tonight. I will just share with you now four examples on how Economy of communion businesses introduced gift as a founding principle of their business. Tonight, I will present the practices these companies developed.

Economy of communion businesses: examples of giving practices

Some businesses were created to answer that call of Chiara Lubich to build an economy of communion. That was the case of Maria-Elena in Paraguay. She decided to leave her job as a bank director to create a cleaning business that would give a job to very poor and unqualified women living in the slums. After 25 years, she is currently employing 900 workers and became one of the biggest cleaning company in the country. She chooses the most unqualified candidates but offers them a lot of support, help them to cope with all their daily problems until they really feel that the company has become their family. Although the competitors do not declare their workers, she chose to pay all the taxes for them to have social insurance, and offers them extra medical insurance and contribution for retirement. She hires a doctor and a psychologist in the company and every month she calls for a hairdresser and a dentist. This is her way of giving everything for her workers and helping them to come out of poverty. And her workers are so committed that she has the best quality of service in the sector and is even ISO certified and recognized by multinational firms as a highly responsible company.

Koen in Belgium cannot do that, as his business requires highly qualified workers. He sells heating, electrical and plumbing equipment and services. He therefore decided to give his profits to fund development projects in poor countries and activities promoting a culture of giving. But at some point, he felt it was not enough to give a big part of his profits, he also wanted to share the joy of giving. He therefore invented a new practice: together with the annual profit-sharing scheme for the employees, he gives them a 250 € check to allocate to a charity of their choice. And then he goes to each one of his employees, they are currently one hundred, to ask them which NGO they chose and why. Interviewing the employees, I discovered that for them, this check has a very strong meaning: it means that they are not working for someone but for a greater good. It teaches them that we should always work for others, not for ourselves, this is the real meaning of work.

Joseph and Amata did not create their bakery in Corea, they inherited it from Joseph’s father. But they also inherited the culture of giving. From the very beginning in 1956, the bakery never stopped giving bread every day to people in need. They now employ 400 employees in 10 shops and 4 restaurants. And they keep giving bread every day for an average value of 35 000 $ per month. They explain that the choice of never stop giving, even during very difficult crisis, has been the secret of their success, as their bread is always fresh and above all made with so much love that it tastes delicious.

One last example in Argentina, Dimaco, that sells concrete blocks and building materials. The entrepreneur, German, decided that his priority was to invest in an economy of communion. He therefore started to dedicate time to development projects to help microentrepreneurs of his region develop their craft activities. He got involved in social projects in the nearby slums. He also invested in other businesses to create more jobs and generate new profits to share or incubated young students or some of his employees who wanted to create their own business. But interestingly, when I studied all the projects he was involved in, I discovered that his main contribution was not the funds or material help he was giving but the relationship of reciprocity he was building with everyone, even the poorest, that would generate trust, strength, ideas, opportunities, connections. He was above all working to include each one in a network of reciprocal giving and receiving, where each one is recognized as being able to share something. 

Giving is not only the goal of these businesses; it is also their working principle. I had never seen before such a high degree of employee satisfaction, commitment and cooperation. Most of the employees of all these four companies told me spontaneously that this business was for them a family they would possibly never leave. Giving had become a corporate culture they transmit without many words but through daily practices. And it pays back.

Which inspiration for us today from that experience?

Is that possible for everyone or is it only the choice of a few mad entrepreneurs? As a researcher who has been studying for several years some of these businesses in seven different countries, I am convinced that they are not only encouraging alternative experiences but real innovating models for all the economy. Why? First of all because, as I said before, all businesses go ahead with gift dynamics. Gift is not a hobby for social activists or a touch of humanity to give a soul to the economy, it is the engine of business life. Why not therefore choose to invest on gift dynamics? People continuously aspire to give themselves; we just need to recognize it and to support it instead of preventing it and stealing it. People flourish when they can give themselves for the common good, it gives them the strength to fully develop their potential and give their best, to be creative and respond to the trust they are given. When we trust them and believe that they also have a lot to give and are willing to give it.

Gift dynamics will be the key asset for industry 4.0 businesses. A more equitable economic system will be one that invests on relationships of reciprocity and mutual giving. It will make the different for reaching a global performance and building a more inclusive society. Tomorrow economy will be an economy based on gift dynamics or it will not be sustainable. Thank you for your attention.

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