Online Conversation | Gift Logic & Abundant Life with Louis Kim and Tim Soerens
What is the significance of ‘the gift logic’ in a public sphere increasingly defined by individualism and self interest? How might adopting this logic shift our understanding of the sort of leadership, community, and economy that is needed to effectively serve the common good in our time?
Online Conversation Transcript | Louis Kim + Tim Soerens | March 11, 2022
Cherie Harder: Welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Tim Soerens and Louis Kim on “The Gift Logic and Abundant Life.” As Anne just explained, this is actually the first in a series of Online Conversations that we’re collaborating with our friends at Comment on. And as you of course saw, Comment is ably led by editor-in-chief Anne Snyder, who’s also a Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum. So this is a particular joy for us. It’s always a gift to get to work with friends, and so it seemed particularly fitting to get to address our topic together: “The Gift Logic and the Abundant Life.”
And we’re so pleased that there are so many of you who are registered for our Online Conversation today and want to especially welcome our first-time guests, as well as our many international guests joining us from at least 16 different countries that we know of. If you haven’t let us know already where you’re joining us from, please do so in the chat box. And welcome to all of you joining us from across the miles and across the time zones. If you are one of those first-time attendees or are new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so and to come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope that this conversation will be a very small taste of that for you today.
So over the last decade, there’s been a growing buzz about what has been called the “gift economy,” where the currency is social rather than financial, built on relationship and trust. The logic of such an economy can often seem starkly at odds with some of our current modes of exchange, and particularly at a time when relationships have been thinned or stretched, divisions are growing, and trust has been fractured. So what is a gift economy? Is it practical or even possible? Or, as Comment magazine asked, if gifts and grace lie at the heart of all reality, how might that be reflected in our shared civic life? And how might real-world experiences of gift logic shift our ideas about what kind of leadership is most needed in the 21st century?
It’s a real pleasure to get to introduce our guests today who have wrestled with precisely those questions from their different vantage points in different vocations, as well as on the pages of Comment magazine. Tim Soerens is the co-founder and director of the Parish Collective, a growing Christian movement aimed at reimagining what it means to be the church in, with, and for the neighborhood. He’s also the author of the recent book Everywhere You Look: Discovering the Church Right Where You Are and the co-author of The New Parish, which won multiple awards, including Christianity Today‘s Award of Merit.
Joining him will be Louis Kim, who has served for many years as a technology executive in San Diego and also serves on the board of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, and the Institute for Ecological Civilization.
Louis and Tim, welcome. Great to have you all here.
Louis Kim: Thank Cherie. Hi, Tim.
Tim Soerens: Hi. Hi. Good to be here.
Cherie Harder: So we’ll just dive right in and start at the very beginning, which is what do we mean when we talk about the “gift economy” and the “gift logic”? What are they? And Tim, we’ll start with you on that one.
Tim Soerens: Well, first off, what a gift to be here. I’m thrilled. And I know Louis is as well. I would, I suppose, answer that even by the introduction, Cherie, by saying, what isn’t a part of the gift economy? What is outside of the economy of grace? What is not created? And so the place that I begin and try and work through in what I was writing and so much of my life actually is to begin with, we are creatures, we are not the creator. And if we received everything then as gift, then there is a seamless whole to it all. And so I would love to kind of begin, I guess, by thinking about what is not a part of the gift economy. And with that in mind, I think there’s all kinds of directions that we can go. But I was, what I was trying to write about in the article that I’m really interested in, is how we separate these things. There’s an idea called two-pocket thinking where we basically think that money or the economy has a functional purpose that you can name. And then maybe some of us take some portion of that and then do good with it. And I just feel like that’s actually not true, either theologically or even practically.
Louis Kim: I would add for me the concept of the gift economy starts with focusing on relationships and the other in a selfless, altruistic way. And I think that impulse can exist, whether it’s in some sort of nonprofit, local community environment or in a big corporation. And that was one of my focuses in the essay.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Thanks for that. Tim, you mentioned two-pocket thinking and in your article you mentioned that mode of thinking is one of the fundamental disorders of our moral imagination as well as our financial practices. And would love for you to kind of describe a little bit more about how you think essentially dividing our thinking into a giving pocket and a getting pocket effects, distorts, or corrupts our thinking about both the common good and the purpose of economics.
Tim Soerens: Yeah, I first wrote about this idea of two-pocket thinking from my friend and colleague Kevin Jones, who is—I write about this in the piece. He was on a team of a new social enterprise coffee company. This was years ago, and I should say I don’t think that he thinks like this anymore. But they were actually, they got to pitch Bill Gates for funding for this new company. And as it was related to me, Bill Gates said, “Look,”—after having heard the pitch, he’s like, “look, I have a whole bunch of money from Microsoft in this one pocket”—and pointed to one pocket—”and then take some of that money out, and I put it into this pocket, and that’s what I do with my foundation. What you’re talking about right now confuses my pockets. I’m frankly not interested right now.” And I feel like, well, so what’s the big deal on that? Well, if we believe that God is one, if we believe in a sense that the economy is one, then we actually shouldn’t split it up like that, as though you can call one thing good and one thing bad, as though that kind of binary or polarity is true. And I think what happens is we can potentially—and even I should say I can do this too—we can kind of live part of our lives that’s like practical or functional, and then maybe a little bit of that seems idealistic or infused with a moral imagination. And I just think that abuts against the idea that all is God’s, that God is one. And so I think it takes more courage and creativity and innovation to say, no, if it is all God’s, then how then do we begin to think about both what our economy is, and maybe even more importantly, what is our economy for? What is money for? What is business for? I think these are some of the animating questions that matter most for us today.
Cherie Harder: Louis, I’d love for you to follow up on that. But before I do, I want to ask you about that question that you just raised, Tim: what is an economy for? And you made kind of a fascinating argument that the point of the economy is to maximize what you called public joy. So what is public joy and how would it relate to the gift economy, and b) the purpose of an economy in general?
Tim Soerens: Well, I borrowed that phrase from my friend DeAmon Harges, who is in Indianapolis. And I just—there may be other viewers and even the two of you might disagree with this—but I feel like we’re living in an era, at least in this country, the United States, when it feels like so much of our systems and structures are up for grabs in the sense of we’re not necessarily all agreeing as to what economies are for or what politics are for, what the church is for. That’s a big part of what I write about in my book. And so I was like, let me take this on a little bit. And I actually began the question without that answer of public joy. And it came honestly as a gift, pardon the pun, from DeAmon. And I think it’s a beautiful metaphor for the shalom of God, the dream of God, God renewing and restoring everything. And I love the phrase together, because you could argue that part of the American dream is like private happiness, perhaps, or kind of private safety and security. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I don’t think it’s as big or as full of a story as public joy. And I think joy just gets at the brimming, hopeful, abundant, capacious reality that we’re longing for, that’s bigger than kind of maybe a potentially smaller story of happiness. So when we think, “what is the economy for?”, I think that gives us a good goal or a good telos of what could this be for. And I think that it’s big enough that we can all be a part of it.
Cherie Harder: Louis, thoughts on that?
Louis Kim: I wanted to comment on the two-pocket thing because it touches upon I think what is sometimes a false duality between whatever is associated with a traditional gift as kind of all good, and anything related to a market economy where money’s involved is all bad. So I think what people are associating with the market economy is kind of a sense of acquisition and kind of hoarding for yourself. And then if you’re an artist or a craftsperson, you give something away. You’re not collecting anything for yourself. And one of the things I tried to address in my essay is you have to be careful, because I think at heart, sometimes we’re acquiring something else in a gift economy and sometimes it’s status or reputation or feeling good about ourselves. And it’s too easy to impugn everybody outside the sort of gift milieu in the market economy as sort of in it for themselves or greedy.
Cherie Harder: Well, just digging into that, you know, Louis, you’ve worked in the private sector in technology, and whatever the shortcomings of the market economy, it has produced more overall wealth and more resources than any other economic system thus far, and also catalyzed really remarkable ways of bringing life-saving, life-changing and life-enhancing innovations to scale. And one wonders how likely that would have been without the accelerant of both competition and a profit motive. So is it possible for a gift economy to scale, or are those incentives necessary to essentially bring innovations to large numbers of people very quickly?
Louis Kim: And that’s something I was wrestling with in my essay. I mean, clearly, there are a lot of benefits from scale organizations: the MRI machine that will save your child’s life, the car you drive. And it’s kind of a cliche to say corporations have brought a lot of benefits. I think the other point I was trying to make is that many of the issues that caring citizens worry about—sustainability, climate change, equity and justice—to be addressed at a really large scale involves really large-scale organizations. And often these organizations or movements are below our awareness. Most of us don’t worry about how things appear on our shelves, how water enters our homes. Notice my lights went off. And it’s going to be corrected here in a minute, but we can’t even take that for granted.
Cherie Harder: Right.
Louis Kim: So, yes, I think scale is necessary. But one of the points I try to raise is even within a scale economy where people are interacting with each other, we can have a gift orientation and transcending profit, transcending just kind of business metrics. Keep in mind, the point of an exchange or a gift economy is to help someone else, to produce something useful. And that needs to be remembered in any context. And I would argue that sometimes that is often forgotten in non-market contexts: academia, nonprofits. I mean we’ve, I think we’ve all seen examples of that.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Just to follow up on that and, Tim, I’d love for you to comment as well, but maybe we can start with Louis, that many of the great steps forward in terms of flourishing or even public joy have come not just from gifts per se, but from investments where there’s an expectation of both exchange and profit as well. And we’d love to get your thoughts—and we can start with you, Louis, on how investment might relate to a gift economy.
Louis Kim: Not sure if this is what you’re referring to, but clearly a lot of charities, endowments, and arts organizations would not exist without hundreds of millions, sometimes billions of dollars, that come from corporations. Yes, you need capital, you need resources. And the most fluid form of that resources is money. And often that comes from, at scale, large economies.
Cherie Harder: Tim?
Tim Soerens: Well, I would add actually something that Louis began with in answering this, and it has been a personal experience of me—and maybe this is not true for the two of you or others viewing in—but at the kind of relational nature as it relates to money, I have seen that it actually shifts pretty sometimes dramatically when alternating between, for example, philanthropy and investment, or you could say even like impact investment or zero-interest investment. I know Louis and I have had some conversations about this. Sometimes the nonprofit sector or arts or whatever—religious communities—could be seen as like they’re doing the holy good work. And then there’s the kind of grubby business world. Well, honestly, I have certainly seen as much kind of darkness in control as it relates to philanthropy, working with programs, probably more so than the clarity that comes even from approaching an entrepreneur or a social entrepreneur and saying, “I’m investing in you. We believe that this thing that you’re going to do is going to work, both from a market side and perhaps the good it’s hoping to do in the world.” And it fundamentally changes the relationship, I think, generally for the better. I think that’s an interesting thing for us to keep playing with. I think I personally would prefer to, with new ventures, begin more as an enterprise or social enterprise and then discern it actually should probably be more in the charity or nonprofit sector or even more aggressive growth mode. But we rarely have those conversations. And because we don’t have the conversations, I think our defaults take over.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s fascinating. I want to ask you both about an idea that we actually discussed in an Online Conversation earlier this year with Gary Haugen, who’s the founder of the International Justice Mission. And one of the things that he has written about is the fact that the majority of the world actually lives in systems right now where essentially they are outside the rule and protection of law, such that economic development or philanthropy become very difficult to sustaining increased long-term flourishing, simply because they are vulnerable to the predations of local and community bullies, not just big international forces, but the bully next door who takes what they had been given or earned. And, you know, this isn’t obscure. This is like the majority of the world. Would love to kind of hear from both of you your thoughts—and, Louis, maybe we can start with you—about the relationship between gift—the gift logic—and justice and the rule of law. And is the gift logic even possible without the bedrock of justice and rule of law, including the rule of law regarding economic exchanges coming first?
Louis Kim: No. I think the way I understand gift economies is without trust and kind of an expectation that one’s gift will be sort of compensated back in a just way, it just won’t work. I would add—and I want to be careful, I don’t want to be seen as an apologist for all things capitalism—but in many of these areas that you’re referring to, I think there’s a) a lot of giving, which does a lot of good. But I think there’s also another kind of foundation or bedrock that’s needed, which is value created and value sort of within an organization. And that’s often through local nitty-gritty kind of businesses and entrepreneurship. And Tim I know is an advocate of that. A lot of his Parish Collective work is beyond just relational. It’s about building local economies as a foundation.
Cherie Harder: Tim, other thoughts?
Louis Kim: Tim, that was a prompt for you.
Tim Soerens: Thank you. Thank you. I’m taking it. I appreciate it. I mean, it’s almost a cliche, but relationships move at the speed of trust. And I think that you could say that economies do, too. And so if there’s not a rule of law, it’s nearly impossible to have any kind of trust. If we push it a little bit further as to even some of the public joy ideas, which was not exactly the question, but I think that’s actually interesting. And that’s part of why having that as the goal—which I feel like is so, so big—is that necessarily I personally couldn’t fathom pursuing public joy in any of our economic practices or ideas without going through pain, without going through the truth, without naming past injustices that have happened. I feel like if public joy is the point, then it is going to necessarily mean that we are confronting—usually with repentance and honesty—where public joy has not been point, where there has been oppression, where there—you know, there’s endless scenarios there. But I think part of orienting our accounting towards public joy means necessarily that repair will be a part of it.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. For this next one, Tim, I’d like to start with you, which is part of the assumption—if I’ve understood you correctly, please correct me if I haven’t—is that part of a gift economy is based on generativity and grace and mercy and a free gift. But in the workaday world, in a fallen world, gifts often come with strings attached. There often is a sense incurred of debt or obligation. We can think of examples of gifts given to us unwillingly in that we felt obligated as a result, one way or the other. And would love to hear you kind of reflect on how that common dynamic plays out with the gift logic. And those of us who do want to be more oriented towards gifts and just the kind of grace-based non-transactional interactions, how [do] we think about and navigate that?
Tim Soerens: I would begin by saying I think by having an imagination or a perspective of “all is gifts” actually increases responsibility as opposed to taking it away. Just because it was freely given or freely received it doesn’t mean that it’s not precious or valuable. And so I think that might sound kind of abstract, and we can move into more kind of tactile imaginations of that. I mean, one of the simplest would be, I’ve got three kids. In a sense did I kind of create them? Sort of. Theologically I guess I would say not. I don’t know. I don’t know where you go with that. But there are huge responsibilities. So powerful, powerful, incredible, beloved, absolutely precious gift. A lot of responsibility. And I think that’s true with literally everything. And the more that we would begin to take on a sense of, yes, responsibility—as an individual, as a community, as a neighborhood, as a city, as a country, and on and on—I think that actually it increases our capacity truly for gratitude at all of those levels, but it doesn’t ever diminish the responsibility that we hold. I think shirking from that responsibility is actually what erodes looking at the world and all of God’s gifts as truly gifts.
Cherie Harder: Louis?
Louis Kim: Cherie, you were asking about the strings attached to gifts and that often it’s just not giving it away like a helium balloon and you don’t expect something back? Is that kind of where you were going?
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that so many gifts that are given, like I said, they come with strings, even if they’re not necessarily intended, but they come with a sense of debt and obligation. And how [do we] kind of think about and manage that even in a personal orientation towards a gift economy of extending grace and mercy?
Louis Kim: I guess, something I referred to earlier and also in my essay, in the end, all this discussion about an economy is about an exchange and about how you act. And I think a fundamental issue is what is your motive? What is your orientation? We all have traces of wanting something back, whether it’s status or something financial. It’s sort of in our human nature. There’s a reason why in the Bible by chapter three, something bad really happens. And a little bit later, the Tower of Babel. And it’s sort of human nature. And one of the things I try to reflect on in the essay is a little bit of a call to humility that we’re always kind of wrestling with this impulse to give and be altruistic, but we always want something back. And I think the thing that is a challenge for me and I guess a challenge in the essay is to always try to come back to why are you doing this exchange, whether it’s local and giving away a cake to working in a big company. It’s to serve. And not just to serve, but to serve with a sense of, I would say, self-forgetfulness. I mean, this is sort of the Christian message in the end, and that’s a very extreme challenge. And that means being maybe completely anonymous. You know, if you write something not even have your name attached to it. And maybe sometimes the most charitable person is someone working in the bowels of any organization with no recognition at all and not even a self-recognition that there’s something really good. So it’s a little bit maybe different from where you were intending, but it’s a really strong kind of theme for me in this sort of gift discussion.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers in just a moment. But one of the things I wanted to ask you both and, Tim, maybe we can start with you, is in reading your two essays, it’s clear there’s a slight difference in perspective just based on your own vocation, life experiences, and the like. But there also seems to be a coalescing around some of the ideals embedded within a gift logic, that of looking beyond what one is given, looking towards the needs, how to bless, how to buttress and spread the public joy that you’ve talked about, Tim. And so I’d love to hear from both of you, in your respective positions as a social entrepreneur and a technology entrepreneur, how this plays out in your own work and how it affects your ideas of vocation and stewardship.
Louis Kim: Tim, can I start?
Cherie Harder: Sure.
Louis Kim: When I was invited to “debate” Tim, I had already read his essay, and I was like, well, this could be very boring because we don’t disagree on much. And then we had a call and sort of confirmed that. Let me just address what I thought kind of unifies our perspective, which is to sort of transcend this easy sort of market gift. You know, Tim could be seen as parish-church, religious, and I’m corporate. He talks about joy and grace. And for me, the unifying theme is how we view another human being, you know, with dignity, love, selflessness, grace. I would add maybe one little bit of contrast in our essays is I think I reflect a little bit more on the dangers of spiritual pride. You know, I think in the bio Anne read, you know, I’m on multiple nonprofit boards, NGOs. I started a nonprofit. My father was a priest. I grew up in the church. It’s not like I just grew up, you know, popped out of an MBA school. And I’ve seen both sort of grace and sin everywhere.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Tim?
Tim Soerens: Well, yeah, just to go back, you know, sometimes the rules change when you find out you like each other. We figured that out on Sunday. We’re like, this is not going to be much of an ideological cage match. But I would say that for me personally, as I think about my vocation, most of my work is trying to help connect people to be the church in the neighborhood. And that is oriented towards, I mean, the language that we’re consistently using is how as a team of people, a team of Christians, how are we pursuing the dreams of God in, with, and for this place? And I have some of my own kind of entrepreneurial bent and love to start things. And that’s part of why I love being a social entrepreneur. But also, from my perspective anyway, our local and broader national, international economies just are so powerfully influential. They so powerfully, I think—for better or worse—create not just culture but infrastructure and the world that we live in. And I don’t think that it’s value neutral. I think we should bring our—whatever our kind of theological or religious or moral, whether we think of ourselves as religious or not—I think we need to be reflecting much more seriously as to what are we doing all this for? Because I think that I pretty much believe that, if we’re not, that vacuum, that narrative void, will be filled and not necessarily by something that we’re excited about. So I think we need to keep pressing into what are God’s dreams for our places and learning from each other. And I think it’s a really powerful way to begin starting new enterprises that we’re really proud of, that hopefully are oriented towards public joy or at least are trying to. I mean, it’s easy to say “start a new company,” “start a new enterprise that’s oriented towards public joy.” That’s a much easier thing to say than to actually do and make, for example, profitable and run a great staff, etc., etc. But I think that at least for those of us that are taking our faith pretty seriously, that needs to be our orientation.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. So we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers now. And just as a reminder, if you’re joining us, you can ask a question, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps us get a sense of what some of the most popular questions are. And so we’re going to start out with a question from Michael Lundy. And, Louis, I might ask you to take a first crack at this. Michael asked, “How does the gift economy contrast or coexist or conflict with individual property rights?”
Louis Kim: Well, I guess it can. It doesn’t necessarily have to. I guess I’m pausing because the question goes back to reflecting, I think, a false duality. Yes, individual property rights can lead to acquisitiveness and hoarding and greed and balances. Yes, it all happens. But imbalances and injustice also occur in what’s seen as a gift economy also. So my short answer is it can. It doesn’t necessarily have to. And the key, again, is individual orientation, whether it’s a traditional kind of notion of a gift economy or a market economy.
Cherie Harder: Great. Tim, anything to add to that?
Tim Soerens: I’m not an expert in this and this might get me a little bit of trouble, but if we’re trying to pursue public joy and we look back through the history of private property, for example, there’s a lot of stolen land throughout lots of our countries’ histories, not just in the US but all over the world. And reconciling that, or at least if not reconciling, wrestling through it, I think is really, really crucial and very complex and very difficult.
Louis Kim: Very complex.
Tim Soerens: Very complex.
Cherie Harder: Yes. Question from Tay Song. And, Tim, I’ll ask you to take a first crack at this. Tay kind of mentioned some of the things we’ve talked about a little bit already, which is “What are the limits of the economic modes of the gift? For example, do you worry about the kinds of indebtedness and resentment that both Nietzsche and Derrida worried about?”
Tim Soerens: Hmm. Um. I am not super familiar with how they approached—either Nietzsche or Derrida—indebtedness. Like what I was saying before, I think sometimes by having frankly more of a clear market understanding between two parties, that clarity both can create more trust and create a longer timeline for us to keep moving together. And I think the cloudier or murkier things are, the more room there is for obviously for trust to break down.
Cherie Harder: Makes sense. Louis, the next question I’ll direct towards you, as does the question asker. So Fritz Heinzen mentioned that you are connected with the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, or so it said in the introductions. “How much do you draw on the writings of Albertus Magnus and/or Thomas Aquinas in thinking about the gift economy?”
Louis Kim: Well, I think it is at the heart of my thinking. You know, those theologians were looking for first principles independent of context or systems. Going back to what it means to be a human and what it means to be following the will of God. Right? If you look at their writings, they transcend easy categories. Part of the reason why I’m affiliated with the Dominicans is they bring both this kind of rationality and reason with this fidelity to God. So it informs it a lot. And that’s why I’m still part of that community.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So, Tim, I’ll toss this next question to you first at least, and it’s a question from an anonymous viewer, and they ask, “Can the speakers discuss whether God’s gift economy is even achievable in a fallen world as ours? Or is this bifurcation between scarcity and abundance in fact necessary to decipher between opposing economic logics and therefore provide much-needed discernment between different forms of value in a financially defined market economy?” So that’s a mouthful, but would be interested in your thoughts on that.
Tim Soerens: What a fantastic question. I wouldn’t want to—by thinking primarily through the lens of gift or grace or all the things created—to, like Louis has said multiple times, make it seem like it’s simple or easy or not complex. I don’t know that even I like my answer, but I think that to see the abundance or even super-abundance of God in our lives does take an actual amount of faith. I think that we— I believe it’s true. It’s kind of an “I believe, help my unbelief,” I would say. And so, I think, is it a default within me to approach every single circumstance as abundant? No, absolutely not. And is there a gritty realness to scarcity? Is it true? Oftentimes, I think it is. But I think that the more that we dig into why it’s true, why there is scarcity, my bet is that a lot of times the telos or the narrative was profoundly deviated and it created more scarcity. Not always, probably, but I think for the most part. And as for those of us that are, again, trying to be really faithful in our fidelity to God’s vision, I think we essentially, by faith, have to keep pushing into the reality of God’s abundance. But it is something of a choice. So that doesn’t maybe get at some of the logics of it, but that’s how I’d approach it. I’d be curious about what Louis would say.
Louis Kim: Tim, I think when we talked, I think we both acknowledged the world’s a tough place. And I think sometimes our most cynical, jaded, bitter people are ones that have not fully accepted that. And once you do accept that, then it is a choice on your orientation. And do you seek grace? Do you seek to make grace? And that’s an act of will. And also, you know, it’s kind of part of this kind of gift orientation.
Cherie, on that Dominican question, I just want to share a quick anecdote. So I’m a member of the board and I’m a member of the board at some other nonprofits. And when I began this board work, I was always struck by how 90 percent of the meeting was about fundraising and budgets and the difference between that 50th student and the 55th student and whether or not the organization was going to be solvent and who to go ask money for. And so, you know, Aquinas was kind of in the background during those meetings.
Cherie Harder: It’s fascinating. So our next question comes from Nancy Chan, and, Louis, I’ll toss this one to you first. And Nancy asks, “Does the concept of social enterprise or benefit corporation undermine the idea of corporate citizenship? It just seems to let companies off the hook from thinking ethically about their work if they don’t label themselves as social enterprises.”
Louis Kim: I’m a little skeptical of these classifications and labels because I have seen in my nonprofit work, I’ve been around some of these novel kind of corporate structures, benefit corporations, and I’ve seen both really good work and malfeasance in all contexts. You know, a large traditional for-profit corporation, it’s multi-billion dollars, there’s an engineer in a cubicle that can make one decision on packaging—to go from plastics to paper—that can make a huge impact on sustainability, you know, a lot more than sometimes a smaller, overtly kind of self-described social enterprise or benefits corporation. So I understand the question, but having lived day-to-day in the bowels of some of these organizations, I think it’s sort of a false duality again.
Cherie Harder: Now a question from Ed Savage. I’d love to hear from both of you on this. And, Tim, maybe we can start with you. Ed asks, “If an organization wants to add key performance indicators related to the gift economy, what would that be and what would be the measure of good performance?”
Tim Soerens: Hmm. That’s really interesting. And strikes me as actually pretty important because, of course, what we measure matters a lot and oftentimes begins to create the cultures that we inhabit. I think I would—I mean, there’s obviously some of the kind of like environmental-social goals at kind of a macro level. And those are important, even as Louis was just saying, switching from paper to plastics could have a massive—you know, that could literally like, that could be a very big deal. Because I tend to work with smaller organizations—20, 30 employees or less—the metric usually is dictated by both the kind of social or environmental goal and its market response. And that’s why social enterprises are kind of interesting to me. Not as like a counter to say “social enterprise is good, corporations are bad,” but we’re trying to be kind of a hybrid type of thing. For me, social enterprises are as much a critique—if they are going to be a critique—of classic nonprofit sector as they are, say, cutthroat for-profit culture. It’s trying to figure out, is it possible to do both? And I would say I don’t think it always is. I think there’s absolutely cases where, certainly as it leans nonprofit—aid being an obvious example—no, let’s not try and figure out how to turn this into a product or a piece of the broader economy. I need to keep thinking about that. That’s a fantastic question. So I would say usually they’re embedded within the organization itself, but I don’t know if that’s a very satisfying answer. So let’s keep thinking about it.
Louis Kim: I think, yes, having the right metrics is important. It drives behavior. I think sometimes there’s a simplistic assumption that companies only have one metric. You can download any annual report, you’ll see a lot of socially oriented metrics, especially in the last several years. But I think it only goes so far. I met Anne at a retreat that was around character and the domain was around philanthropic organizations. And how do you screen or select organizations to give money to that have a kind of a strong character element? And I think embedded in that question is that, despite all the structures, metrics, management theories, or whatever, the character of the leaders at the top is a fundamental driver. And so I guess my response to that question, if you want to see better behavior from large corporations, it’s not just metrics. Hire for character. The boards need to hire for character. Push for character. Under duress, that’s when true behavior sort of shows up. And it has, I think, the largest impact on organizational behavior.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating.
Tim Soerens: Cherie, could I mentioned something quickly on that? Just right on that, I actually think that we—and maybe it’s too difficult to measure—when you think about from a purely financial perspective the cost of bad character—whether that be in a business setting, political setting, neighborhood setting, religious setting—it’s profound. But it does often have a huge economic fallout. And we do rarely talk about it, even within boardrooms. I feel like I’m just kind of double-clicking on what Louis said. I think not only is it important and of course we all, I think, know that leadership matters a whole lot and the character of the leader and the team and the culture, but just, frankly, getting at the economic cost of bad character, I wish was a broader part of our conversation.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s a great point. So our next question comes from Lydia Dugdale. And Lydia asks, “We can get some gifts that we can’t give back, such as intellect or creativity. We can use those gifts to serve others or we can ignore them, but we still possess them. Other gifts we can receive and then give away entirely, such as money. How do Louis and Tim determine how much of a giveable gift one should give away? And do they distinguish the gift of wealth from the gifts of intellect or creativity?” Tim, why don’t you take a first whack at that?
Tim Soerens: Sure. And that’s also a delightful question. Well, obviously, the easiest thing to measure is financial capacity to give. I think that we’re living in an era—maybe I live in a bit of a unique bubble in Seattle where I live—but I think there’s increasing awareness for the assets that contribute, that are not necessarily financial, and they’re much more difficult to exactly measure and discern. That could be around social capital, which often does have a very direct financial relationship. It could be around narrative capital, meaning curating the story of a place. It could be around wisdom. It could be around—. There’s all kinds of things around that that I feel like we’re not always paying attention to. I think we’re beginning to try to and it’s by necessity complex and difficult because the clarity of the dollar—or name your currency—is just easier. But I think that we’re increasingly living in a world and a culture where we’re saying if that’s the only thing that we value as currency, we’re missing so much, so many gifts, and we’re all at a loss if we don’t begin to honor the gifts that different people bring. Difficult but really important.
Cherie Harder: That’s great.
Louis Kim: I guess my response would be what is one’s orientation towards giving, even if you can’t give it all away? And even if it’s always difficult to know how much to give away. I don’t know how much money one should give away or how much time one should spend on their other gifts. But if you sort of revisit the principles of some of our faiths here, we have a very extreme example of giving. So it’s a model that very few of us will even try to approximate. So it’s, for me, more a question of orientation. And I go back to that theme of self-forgetfulness and self-denial. And, you know, I know Lydia, and we’ve talked about this. As an extreme example, we should forget any notion that we’re going to keep for ourselves an idea of a reputation or a career or achievement in our lifetime, because true gifts are probably going to be realized multiple generations after we’re here, if at all.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. That’s great. I should also add that Lydia is not only the question asker in this case, but has also been one of our Online Conversation guests a year ago on “The Lost Art of Dying.” So would certainly recommend that people check out a fascinating presentation and interview with Lydia. So our next question comes from Joyce Campbell. And Tim, I want to toss this to you first. “What would a gift economy look like on a systemic level?”
Tim Soerens: I think at a systemic level, it would probably begin with doing our best—and again, this would be complicated—to begin to honor and name the multiple gifts that multiple people bring, and try and create a far more interdependent and rounded set of currency, you could say, around that, so that the clarity that we have with money could be a little more clear with other slightly less tangible gifts. It does prompt the question to me at least, something that Louis has both written and thought a lot about, and that is scale. And I think that that’s a great desire, probably for most of us, it sounds delightful to scale the gift economy. Practically [it] feels a lot trickier when, well, what are we talking about? So that’s maybe a beginning. I’m curious as to what Louis might say about that—maybe particularly, not to press it too much, but when you think about global, you definitely think about scale, and that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be repeatable and the same everywhere, but maybe to some extent as far as efficiency it does.
Louis Kim: I would argue I think the gift economy already exists at scale, in how eyeglasses just magically appear on your face, food appears on your table. And I’m not trying to be cute. I go back to what I wrote in my essay. There’s sort of an implicit hierarchy people have within economies, that at the bottom, at the grubby level, is money being exchanged. Then above that is I’m going to give something away and I might not want something back. But I would argue that really you’re looking for some sort of affirmation. Above that is, “I’m going to give something away. Not only do I not expect something back, I have no idea what the outcome is.” It’s an act of faith, a true act of faith. Well, that’s how a lot of the economy works. You have some employee, you know, in some cubicle designing something, making something. It’s one little small component of a hospital machine that will save someone’s life. They don’t know what’s going to happen to that. And this is much of what the magic of our scale economy, you know, sort of exists on.
Cherie Harder: We have so many questions that we’re not going to be able to get to. So for this last question, I’m actually going to combine two related questions. And, Louis, maybe we can start with you and then hear from Tim. So we have a question from an anonymous viewer that says, “How can we live out the gift economy when we feel both financially and relationally overwhelmed and depleted?” And then another question from an anonymous viewer who asks, “What is one step we can take to live out the gift economy?” Louis, why don’t you take a first swing at that?
Louis Kim: Well, I would challenge the question. Do you know people who have no resources and who are depleted, who are still giving?
Tim Soerens: Yeah. If I could jump on that, I would tend to agree with that. I have been personally really shaped through what has become known as the asset-based community development kind of model, which is kind of a counter to a classically needs-based approach. You could even say a scarcity approach. And so I would begin with how we’re seeing, which is what Louis just said. I think I don’t believe you can look at anyone and maybe any anything without seeing gift, asset, strength, possibility. That might sound very fluffy, but I actually think it’s hard and firm and and crucial. So I would begin with the orientation. I understand perhaps the exhaustion within the question. And so whether there’s room for lament within that, that seems important. But I wouldn’t allow that lament to grow into a kind of a sense of no capacity and no responsibility and no imagination.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Thanks for that, Tim and Louis. In just a moment, I’m going to ask both Tim and Louis for a last word. But before that happens, just a few things to share with you. First, immediately after we conclude today, we’ll be sending around an online feedback form, and we’d really appreciate your thoughts and comments. We read every one of these. We try to take your suggestions to heart to make these programs ever more valuable and encouraging. And there is a special benefit to sending us your thoughts and opinions. All of those who do fill out an online survey form, we will send you a code for a free digital Trinity Forum reading of your choice. We have a library of over 100 different titles. There are several titles that pertain directly to our conversation today. You can check out Thomas Aquinas’s “On Happiness” to talk about both Aquinas and public joy. “Babette’s Feast” by Isak Denison to talk about the gift economy, “Hannah and Nathan” by Wendell Berry, “The Gospel of Wealth,” “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” and many others. So we encourage you to take advantage of that.
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Finally, as we discussed, I want to give the last word to Louis and Tim. So, Tim, maybe you can start us off.
Tim Soerens: I wanted to end with this quote by one of my favorite writers who was actually just mentioned that I think encapsulates a lot of what we’ve talked about here, at least from my perspective. It’s from Wendell Berry, and he says, “There are no unsacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places.” So may we see the sacred in everything and fight against what has been desecrated.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Louis.
Louis Kim: I want to thank everybody for this opportunity to have this conversation and the chance to meet Tim. And I’ll just close with, to choose to give is to choose to love. And that’s a choice available to us anytime, anywhere.
Cherie Harder: Louis and Tim, thank you for your thoughts and your insights and for joining us. Thank you to all of you who are joining us as well. Have a great weekend.