Generosity economy

In the ultimate world-colliding evening, last night I attended the graduation for the Class of 2011 Acumen Fund Fellows.  These 10 Fellows, selected from 700 applicants from more than 60 countries, are a humbling and inspiring assembly of talent, commitment, grit, drive, and empathy, and they spend a year working with Acumen Fund investees in India, Pakistan and East Africa as a training ground for lives in social change.

Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conference and all-around deep thinker and mind-bender, gave the Fellows graduation speech, and he led it off saying, “Thanks to a nice talk featured on the website last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about generosity and the role it plays in our lives.”  I couldn’t feel more humbled, or more honored, that Chris took the time to reflect on generosity – he’s the one who helped us all understand that taking the most incredible, insightful, and (at the time) exclusive content in the world and giving it away for free was the right business strategy and the right thing for the world.  He’s the ultimate generosity inspiration.

Chris started off talking about the evolutionary and biological bases for generosity, and all the research that has been done on the value of reciprocity, especially amongst pairings of individuals and groups that have reason to believe that they will have multiple encounters over time.  But he went further and shared research from experiments in which one subject was given $100 and had the option to give away any amount of that money, with the knowledge that the amount given away would triple.  Many subjects gave away all $100, and, even better, many recipients then gave back $150 to their donor.

Generosity begets generosity.  Trust begets trust.

At the same time, it’s incredibly easy to break the cycle – all you need is one shirker and the whole things spirals into a “no trust” equilibrium.  But the cycle can be broken: someone can take a generosity risk and reset the system.

At any moment, we have the chance through our individual actions to transform others’ behaviors.

Going further still, Chris observed that the best way to create generous action is through transparency: tell people to behave however they want to behave, but add the caveat that how they acted will be publicly known, and people act much more generous.

Transparency transforms behaviors. 

Chris’ final observation is that we can be generous in infinite ways, not just in sharing our money but in sharing our thoughts, our ideas, our wisdom, and that today the friction around sharing what we have to give has reduced dramatically.

It’s easier than ever to give (= spread ideas)

And suddenly we arrive at the big conclusion (not Chris’ exact words)

Increased transparency (e.g. living in a Facebook world) + frictionless idea-sharing (e.g. living in a blogging, YouTube, TED world) = We are living in a generosity economy


13 thoughts on “Generosity economy

  1. Great post, Sasha. I’m so glad your generosity talk is getting the visibility it needs and deserves. I have been thinking a lot lately about the latest research on the mind – and our mirror neurons – which shows the extent to which we’re hard wired for empathy and by extension, generosity. At the same time, yes, technology makes it easier than ever to act upon our generous impulses. Yet giving to charity isn’t growing at the pace of other elements of our generosity economy. I think one aspect is many of the people in charge of unleashing generosity (fundraisers, namely) have failed to fully understand and embrace this landscape. We as a sector must engage with supporters in a more meaningful, connected and GENEROUS way ourselves if we hope to inspire the generous actions that come to people naturally. As Seth Godin once said, be generous when you’re hungry. Generosity inspires generosity – so let’s give people the amazing feeling of making a difference in the world rather than treating them like a walking wallet. Then maybe the generosity economy can attain its true potential not only on social media but in the entire social sector.

  2. Thank you for sharing this, Sasha! You mentioned, “Chris started off talking about the evolutionary and biological bases for generosity”, and I think that’s great because when most people think of ‘evolution’ they think of ‘Darwin’, and when most people think of ‘Darwin’ they automatically think, “Survival of the fittest… only the strong survive.” That’s not what he said at all. What Darwin actually said was that those who found the best way to live in their particular niche would prosper and reproduce. As humans we’re growing more and more interconnected, and we’re also becoming more and more aware of that sense of interconnection (NB: there’s a difference between being interconnected and being interdependent). As such, generosity, respect, outreach and more are vital to the way our world is moving.

    Sending hugs your way!

  3. You spoke about “frictionless idea-sharing”…maybe that’s just another way to say “increased transparency”, so they’re synonyms more or less…and for the economy to really be one of generosity there’s a need for another element there. I agree that spreading ideas = to give, but maybe for things to really transform (into an economy of generosity) there is the need for real “sharing”, which, I think, is diferent from transparency or idea spreading.

    Abraham Verghese’s talk about the ritual of a doctor examining a patient and Joan Halifax’s talk about compassion and empathy, on Ted, come to mind. They are both about how we relate to people , about listening, about leaving the other person room to express themself fully, without interruption and without being judgemental.
    (And everybody uses these words and “knows” and “agrees” but it’s hard as hell to do it and anyone relatively aware and honest would admit how seldom we succeed. Or maybe it’s just me.)
    But for this act of generosity to take place and to be learned it takes two, face to face, and it takes time to repeat until awareness sets in and behaviour is changed.

    So, as a conclusion, I think increased transparancy and/or frictionless idea-sharing are great and I’m happy to live all of it, but there’s still the need, I think, for sustained one-to-one interaction for embracing generosiy, not only with the mind and the wallet but with our guts. And I don’t think we’re very advanced in that area…we’re still around the MS-DOS period…
    And if generosity isn’t found in the little things, to start with, then it probably isn’t that… Wanting to be something and actualy being it are two diffrent things.

  4. Heck yes. Found your post thru a tweet by @TEDChris.

    I’ve been feeling this lately, mostly in the context of open source software development. As I think about it more and more, I become increasingly convinced that closed development with secrets, copyright and patents is a broken system.

    Anyways, in the interest of brevity, thank you for your post!

  5. Can anyone here reassure me as to interest rates charged these third-world borrowers? Please browse the websites of organizations offering such loans (otherwise known as loan sharks).

    These rates, according to the relevant websites, range between 20% and 30%. I would ask my readers whether they would stand still for such interest rate charges themselves, and if not, and then, why these charges are OK in the third world. A further question: Why are we supporting such usury, and then we feel good about it too? Incredible.

    There is nothing to feel good about here. The people who are funding this thing are themselves loan sharks.

  6. Nate Schiff, you are right on. Intellectual property is all about creating artificial scarcity on goods (intellectual capital) that, by virtue of the internet, requires 0 reproduction costs. Why create artificial scarcity? So we can make money. Why make money? Aye, there’s the rub.

    I’m fascinated by the idea of a generosity economy. In addition to sharing ideas, what about actually sharing material goods, resources, know-how and even cash? I have more cash than I know what to do with. It’s just sitting in the bank. Why don’t I just give some of it to someone who can use it (i.e. spend it?) If they want, they can give the total amount to me later. That would be a zero-interest loan. It’s generous. And it’s not like I’m earning an awesome rate of return, anyway.

    In fact, what about that rate of return? Why are we focused on that? If I get rewarded for being generous, is that *really* generosity?

    Thanks for this blog post Sasha.

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