The Buy Nothing Academy: Lesson 2
What A Gift Economy Looks Like
Lesson 2.1 – Gift Economies: A Past, Present, and Future Tradition

Before we dive into what a Buy Nothing community looks like, let’s take a look at gift economies throughout history. The act of giving a gift builds “social capital”. In The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan, we define social capital as “the productive social relationships in any community that make up the true web of mutual bonds.” In small communities where the whole community has to work together or perish, gifting strengthens the bonds between community members. A stronger community is more likely to survive than a weaker one. Gifts of time are given to harvest crops or build a barn. You just literally can’t do it all by yourself and neither can your neighbor. Gift giving and thus the gift economy strengthens relationships.
Many indigenous peoples see humans as part of the natural world in which there is a cycle of giving and receiving. Thanks are given for the gifts of food, shelter, etc and in keeping with the cycle of life, gifts are given back to the Earth in return. One example of gift giving is a Potlatch, a practice used by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest in Canada and the US. Potlatches are held during major life events. A family or families host the event and give away items to build social capital. The more you give away the more connections and wealthy in relationships you become. As an example of people outlawing things they don’t understand or see as a threat, the Canadian government outlawed potlatches for a time.
As communities grow larger and more urban, those bonds no longer feel necessary for survival or even for currency, and the monetary system becomes the currency. The social capital that serves a valuable purpose is eclipsed by financial capital. Accumulating more money and using it to buy items or services separates us from our neighbors. Our relationships have become strained as money is used as the primary strength of our economy.

Yet many of us still give our time to those we love, creating a social capital bond. We volunteer to help at our kids’ school or help a friend move. In doing so we keep alive the idea that if we give of ourselves then others will do the same, perhaps when we need it. Giving also can’t happen without receiving, creating a loop of reciprocity. When you give, you also receive the gratitude and fulfillment that comes from helping others. The person receiving your gift of time or material goods has the opportunity to experience gratitude as well. Bringing gift economies back into our lives brings strangers together with social capital. It allows us to see beyond ourselves to the community around us and share in the giving, asking and gratitude.
There is space and need for both the market and gift economy to exist, yet the market economy has shaped our psyche, and indeed our behavior, for so long we’ve lost the lessons learned from the gift economy. The popularity of the Buy Nothing Project and other models of giving freely with no strings attached, such as Karma Kitchen, has shown that it’s time to bring back this practice of the circular system of giving, asking, and gratitude that strengthens our social fabric and reconnects us with our neighbors.

Activity 2.1
We would love to crowdsource resources about gifting economies. Do you have a local resource like a time bank or pay it forward kitchen? If you don’t know, take this as an opportunity to look and see. Do you have a favorite book, video or podcast about gifting economies? Check out other gift economy resources in the crowdsourced Gifting Economy Resources spreadsheet. If you have more resources to add, share them with us using this Google form.
Lesson 2.2 – What Buy Nothing Communities Look Like

An active online Buy Nothing community features many posts that fall into the Give, Ask and Gratitude categories, each with a discussion attached to it. People also share their suggestions about how to improve the community, and offer activities or games to help bring people together through sharing. Not sure what that looks like? Let’s see! Check out your feed in the BuyNothing app to see things in action. Check out this post on our website that has real examples of what happens in a Buy Nothing community. If you search for #buynothingproject, #bestofbuynothing or #buynothing on Instagram, you’ll see posts shared by people around the world.
Take a look and see what resonates with you. People post in a variety of different ways that show their personality. Picking the recipient of your gift can also be done in a variety of ways. We want people to give in any way they’d like. There is no rule or expectation that anyone needs to use “first come first served” to choose a recipient for their gift. In fact, always choosing the first person can turn your giving community into a daily race to get the stuff, and it leaves many people out. Instead, we encourage you to choose recipients in a variety of ways, to pause when you can before choosing a recipient, and to look for ways to include new community members and anyone who hasn’t received a gift recently. This way, your giving will build community by connecting you to more and more people, and by allowing everyone to experience the joy of receiving gifts.

How People Know What to Do
If you’re new to gift economies, you may be unsure of how this all works. You can see our Buy Nothing 101 sheet for a short and sweet introduction to the basic actions. If you’re not new to these ideas, keep in mind that new participants will be joining every day. We can all be models, showing the community what it can be. The more you model with your posts what is possible, the more others will see, understand, and copy your lead. This is the most sustainable means for replicating the gift economy mindset in every community around the world. As you are busy modeling, you’ll also be educating those around you. You’re going to teach them what a gift economy is.
What best practices can you model? Look through the ideas listed below to get ideas of how you want to structure your posts. We offer these helpful posts, linked below, for anyone to use in their Buy Nothing communities to help educate everyone about the Buy Nothing mindset and foundational gift economy ideas. Feel free to copy and paste any of the posts that we link you to. They are freely given to you by the founders and long-time volunteers here to use within your Buy Nothing community!
  • Create Give, Ask, and Gratitude posts.
  • Use pictures to grab attention. (An example is the child in sombrero post in the resource above.)
  • Let your gifts simmer or stew for a while and allow everyone to find and comment if they’d like them. (Find examples of “let it simmer posts” vs “flash gives” in the Sample Posts linked to above.)
  • Pick recipients creatively. We don’t assume first come first served (See “Grumpy Hen” post in resource linked to above).
  • Don’t be shy about asking for what you want. Asking is often the hardest thing for people to do. Give your neighbors a chance to give to you.
  • Make a gratitude post to share gratitude for the community or for something you’ve received.
  • You can use our reminder posts to share with other members of your community.
  • A gift doesn’t have to be an item. Model a ‘gift of self’, which is an offer of your time or talent (watercolor paintbox).
Activity 2.2
Create a Give, Ask, or Gratitude post of your own, using your own words and image, to share with your Buy Nothing community (or simply share it to your personal profile on any social media platform – gift economies can start anywhere). You’re also welcome to use any of the images and text in the posts shared with you in the documents above!

Lesson 2.3 Give From Your Own Abundance

A Buy Nothing gift economy gives each of us a chance to build a strong community with what we already have. Focus on what you can give from your own hands, heart, stuff, and skills. Please do not tell people where they can purchase an item, pay for a service, or receive charitable assistance. If you know of a free assistance program or free community resource that would be helpful to your community, we encourage you to fill out the Community Freesource document we offer, then share that with your community. This can become a document that lists and links people to free community resources they may find useful. Then everyone is able to turn their own focus to how we can share with each other as individuals.
The traditional charity and community support paradigm often splits people into “haves” and “have-nots,” and the two aren’t on equal footing. Buy Nothing gift economies are not charities, Each is a person-to-person gift economy that can subvert this traditional “have and have not“ relationship. Everyone in a gift economy is both a “have” with things to give away (whether those are tangible goods or gifts of self), and a “have not” with wants and needs that the community can help fulfill.
This Buy Nothing social experiment is about finding ways to strengthen connections between neighbors through giving, receiving, and sharing creatively, person-to-person.