January 23

Cheryl Heller

NexThought Monday: An Economy of Kindness

For most of my life I have been a fairly unremarkable participant in the capitalist economy in America – evolving, as I matured, from being paid for time worked to being paid for what I know and what I can do. That’s the typical progression for people in creative fields who make a living by helping businesses and other organizations fulfill their visions. It is an economy of exchange, value created for dollars earned. It’s the old-school-what-made-this-country-great economy where both parties benefit from the exchange, in contrast to the one we know from Wall Street where the dollars traded and the profits earned are the only outcomes, with value realized only for those doing the trading.

There is still another economy to be found in the world of social enterprise – an economy of scarcity. It is evolving as it matures as well. In the beginning of the explosion of mission-driven organizations, many people expected help would be given for free. It was noble to donate one’s time to people who were working to “save the world”. And so many of us did. Until every second person we knew decided to save the world.

It stands to reason that we will not ever, regardless of right-minded missions, make the social enterprise economy sustainable or scalable if we expect everyone to work with only soul-satisfaction as payment. Moreover, if help remains free, we lose one of the most important measures of its potential to ever become self-sustaining.

Reason aside, I have continued to strategically give about 25% of my time for the past ten years to people and organizations that I believe will have significant positive impact for others. I have done this without expectation – or frankly much hope – that things would ever change. I did this because I couldn’t think of anything more or better to do.

Something remarkable has happened, though, that I would never have noticed were it not for the fact that at this moment I need help myself that I could never hope to pay for with money. I find myself on the receiving end of this “kind” economy – helped by people I know and many that I don’t.

The realization that there is an enormous networked resource to draw upon that is real, available and willing can’t be called a surprise but somehow is. There are people who will stop what they’re doing – some just for a moment (thank you Malcolm Gladwell), and others over an extended period of time – to become partners in the endeavor. This is value that no amount of money could buy because it is spontaneous and fueled by passion to contribute. Some of it comes from the people I have dedicated time to, and some from out of the blue.

It is a bank account that should never be balanced, should never be abstracted in the way that we treat or count money. Accountants have no role in it, and deposits cannot be made with the expectation that they can be withdrawn in the same form. It is an economy of relationships, of giving. The degree to which it is fungible makes money look as inflexible as it has in fact become.

Gwendolyn Hallsmith and Bernard Lietaer, in Creating Wealth, Growing Local Economies with Local Currencies, wisely wake us to the possibilities of new systems of exchange by matching unmet needs to underutilized resources. Exciting ideas indeed, but how long will it take for all the local economies to add up to global impact? Gar Alperovitz writes in America Beyond Capitalism that our current economic system, in which a very small number of people make all the money and are encouraged to share with everyone else, simply does not work and never will. Gar argues for a worker-owned model, with ownership shared by all participants. But a shift in our culture from greed to a willingness to share will not happen until we change our relationship with generosity first – recognizing, prototyping, honoring, enjoying, appreciating it so that it assumes a real and present value.

I’m not an economist, which is amusingly obvious to anyone who knows me, but I’m willing to be laughed at here and ask some questions of those of you who are.

Instead of trying to measure the value of everything we are and do in cash, what if we recognized a “pre-cash” economy and studied it as a legitimate on-ramp to money-generating enterprise?

How can we make it part of our mainstream economy? How can we spread it to people in the base of the pyramid who we can’t see, can’t talk to, and who don’t have obvious value to give in return?

What if we could evaluate its useful trajectory to making people and individuals financially solvent? Not all help is equal, after all, some of the kindness circulating in this economy is as useless as money poorly spent.

Could it ever become a kind of bank? Would the corporate world join this experiment and could it ever help them see the value derived in their quarterly earning statements?

What I now see all around me is that this economy of kindness is already gaining traction.

So what if we treat it like it’s real? What if we recognize it as the beginning of something; not automatically discounting it because it is the almighty dollar inchoate but not yet pocketable.

To those of you already heavily involved in this economy of kindness, thank you I am humbled by the help that has been offered and delivered.

Invest in kindness. It pays.

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poverty alleviation, social enterprise