Gifts freely given

By David Parkinson

Our backyard peach tree in bloom

Our backyard peach tree in bloom

Everything you do
Returns at last to you;
So why don’t you do love
?
(Tom Rapp, “I Saw The World”)

This past weekend I was lucky to participate in a strategic planning exercise in my capacity as a director of the Malaspina Land Conservancy Society (MLCS), a fairly young but fast-moving new land trust in the region. We were recently granted charitable tax status by the Canadian government, so now we are able to issue tax receipts and work in earnest with landowners and interested parties to conserve lands of interest to the community, whether the reason for conservation be environmental, agricultural, recreational, scientific, historic, or any other comparable reason.

Having been involved with the MLCS since the very first meetings held to discuss the creation of a land trust specific to this region, I have had many opportunities to learn about what goes into forming and nurturing a volunteer-based not-for-profit organization. One thing I have realized is the enormous amount of invaluable and devoted care and attention that goes into the many groups and activities that we take for granted in the community.

As a quick and not very scientific example: I did a rough back-of-the envelope calculation of the value to the community of all of the volunteer work that went into Seedy Saturday, a five-hour event which draws around 500 people. I figured that if the hourly rate for volunteers’ time was $20, the event could be said to cost the equivalent of $12,000 in wages alone. We can consider that as  a contribution to the community, made freely and generously by the many people who pitch in to make this event a success. In fact, it jars slightly even to think about converting this volunteer time and energy into crude dollars.

And you can imagine — if you multiply this one fairly modest event by the number of volunteer groups out there, by the number of board meetings, by the hours spent researching, writing, emailing, keeping records up to date, and by all of the other many small but important tasks that keep any organization functioning — that the total value of the mysterious ‘grey economy’ of volunteer labour could be reckoned on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not in the millions of dollars.

When you consider that these gifts of tremendous value are given freely, that in fact they take place as the by-products of hundreds of people’s passionate desire to make the community a better place, you begin to see that this is about much more than dollars. It’s really about recognizing and respecting the existence of an alternative economy, one that has been called the Gift Economy. (I recently read Lewis Hyde’s amazing book The Gift: The Erotic Life of Property, and hope to write about it in future.) We can translate the activity of this economy into the currency of the classical economy (money, goods, etc.), but much is lost in translation. And there is no straightforward way to convert activity in the money economy into the spirit of selfless giving which is at the heart of the Gift Economy. They depend on entirely distinct impulses: in the Gift Economy, greater merit attaches to giving than to accumulating; whereas in the non-Gift Economy, which we refer to as “the economy”, greater merit attaches to accumulating and holding instead of giving back.

What is most interesting about this observation is that we almost entirely lack the vocabulary for describing and appreciating the wealth that we create through participation in the Gift Economy. It is certainly not as though we are creating something like money by using volunteer labour to ‘stand in for’ money. We are instead circulating the gifts that cannot be converted to money: our presence, our attention, our friendship, our support for one another and for worthy projects that we tend overlook — or at best treat as secondary — in the money economy (things like saving species at risk, preserving watersheds, creating safe spaces for marginalized people, and so on).

Which brings me back to our strategic planning session on Saturday. We got together as a board of directors to talk about our vision, our mission, and our values. These statements of what we believe, where we are headed, and how we intend to get there will shape our activities and give shape to the work we intend to contribute to the community (by bringing a lot of eager members on board to share the work). In a way, our strategic plan is like a list of the gifts that we hope to help the community bestow on itself: some of them more tangible, like parcels of land saved from devastation or preserved for public use; some of them less tangible, like a sense of shared work and accomplishment through conservation efforts.

And the role of the board of directors, as directors come and go through the board, is to stay true to this vision, to adapt it to changing circumstances, to continue to enlist participation — in short: to continue working away in one tiny corner of the Gift Economy, greatly benefiting our region without necessarily engaging in monetary activity, of less worth but greater value, no commerce but the commons.

All the groups out there who have taken up one cause or another are working in the Gift Economy when they contribute freely, with no expectation of payment, to the things they value most. And these groups, whether or not they have engaged in an explicit exercise of articulating their vision, their mission, and their values, are giving gifts of incalculable worth and deserve our recognition and thanks. Thank you all!

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March 2010
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