From Prime Mover to Freedom: Spirit Matters in Giving

By John Bloom

givingIf I could accomplish one change in the field of economics in this lifetime, it would be that gifts and philanthropy are understood as essential to a healthy economy, and even more so as the prime mover of all economic activity.  I think I can make the case for this with two examples.

First, each of us is born into a gift economy; that is, our physical needs for nourishment and care are met through the gifts bestowed by parents without expectation of recompense. So we begin life in gift, which we then develop, through education and other life experience, into capacities to serve others and meet our own needs. This means that what we absorb as gift, we are able to give back to the world through our own intentions and work. Of course, this is a reductivist picture, but pare away all we are conditioned to think about work and vocation — what, why, and how we get paid, the disintegration of experience that results from the division of labor. The result is a mega-bundle of gifts and needs waiting to be orchestrated into economic circulation through capacities and relationships.

The second argument for gift as the prime mover is its necessary role in cultivating all those creative human capacities up to the point where they have value in the world of exchange and transactions. The function of the parental gift so essential to early life is taken up more broadly by a culture (it takes a village) in how it transfers wisdom across generations. Culture would become stultified if there were no research and development, no evolving story, no place for experimentation and failure, and no avenue for new ideas to percolate and find their way into daily life. Since such experimentation is pre-production, it naturally absorbs money rather than producing it. Education, defined through this laboratory function, will never generate profit. Quite the opposite is true. It depends upon gift to fulfill its mission of fostering human capacities and fomenting new ideas and insights.

In the real economy, the one that includes both spiritual and material dimensions, there is circulation of human and material gifts. Clearly both have value in economic terms—if you accept my argument—and they also have an interesting relationship brought into sharp focus in the field of philanthropy. Consider the following from Lewis Hyde’s seminal book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property:

“Gift exchange is connected to faith because both are disinterested. Faith does not look out. No one by himself controls the cycle of gifts he participates in; each, instead, surrenders to the spirit of the gift in order for it to move. Therefore the person who gives is a person willing to abandon control. If this were not so, if the donor calculated his return, the gift would be pulled out of the whole and into the personal ego, where it loses its power. We say that a man gives faithfully when he participates disinterestedly in a circulation he does not control but which nonetheless supports his life.”

Understanding the full dimension of this release of control is vital to the human part of gift circulation. Of course, donors can only take a tax deduction if they have given up control to a qualified charity and have received no goods or services in return. But what about gift intention? Is that something that can really be given up or given over, even if the gift is truly released? Is this something of what Hyde refers to in the element of faith? And, what exactly might he mean by disinterested since most donors are anything but disinterested? Can one be disinterested and interested at the same time? If one looks at the spiritual dimension of gifts as one in which the gift actually carries the giver and receiver into a deeper destiny relationship (this is the interested part), and at the same time is given over for charitable purposes as determined by the receiver (this is the disinterested part), then the answer is clearly yes.

So what arises for the donor by truly giving up control of a gift? When the donor gives up control, he, she, or they are at the same time released from the gift, freed by it. Sometime this is expressed as a kind of relief, a feeling of well being or buoyancy, and sometimes a kind of grief. These are all transformative moments, moments in which new insights and consciousness can happen. The deep inner knowledge and process that led up to the moment of the gift giving, up to the moment of willing release of control, is also a moment of a renewed spiritual freedom.

One transformative aspect of money is that when a financial gift is made to a charitable entity, that gift money very quickly becomes purchase money. That which was “surplus” for the giver is given new life by the receiver in the rapid economic circulation of the day-to-day economy. It supports the development of human capacities and a kind of spiritual freedom that is essential to education, research, the arts, and other cultural endeavors in a free society. What a change it would be for philanthropy if it were to be practiced as an integral part of daily transactions rather than as something one does after accumulating “enough” to give away. In cultures where there is no such wealth accumulation, gift is essential to survival. Without gift, life withers; without gift, culture stagnates; without gift, economy languishes. The analysis is simple. The solution, the release of stored up wisdom and wealth—surrendering to the spirit of gift, is one critical way to recognize and engage what is desperately needed for the future.

John Bloom is the Director of Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.  If you enjoyed this post, read more of John’s work here: transformingmoney.blogspot.com.

Join the RSF Community
Invest your values Invest your values

RSF offers an easy way to invest in what’s important to you. Start your fund today with $1,000.

Learn more
Open a giving account Open a giving account

With a Donor Advised Fund, you can give when the timing is right for you and be part of an active community of donors and partners who share your passions.

Learn more
Get funding Get funding

If you’re an entrepreneur creating social or ecological change, apply for a loan to help you further your mission.

Learn more