Two pairs of black hands, belonging to an adult and child, wrapping a gift in an African print cloth.
Image Credit: Askar Abayev on

Leaders in the social sector hear it all the time: nonprofits should run like a business. 

The distinct purposes of businesses and nonprofits require unique approaches.

Of course, nonprofits are businesses. And often, they do operate using principles of the market economy: making a business case for support, calculating return on investment, focusing on inputs and outputs, and translating results into numbers and dollars. 

Yet, there are consequences for adopting business principles in nonprofits, particularly when it comes to volunteer engagement. The distinct purposes of businesses and nonprofits require unique approaches.

Fortunately, an approach that is resonant with nonprofit purpose and values already exists, even if it is overlooked. It is the ethos of a gift economy.

Aligning with Purpose

Businesses aim to make a profit. Nonprofits seek to meet community needs. Adopting business or market principles in nonprofits without considering their suitability can compromise the work nonprofits do to convene community to meet a shared mission. The drive for efficiency can undermine values and relationships. 

The cumulative impact of business approaches can especially impede volunteer engagement. After all, where do volunteers fit in an increasingly professionalized workforce? What role is there for community members whose schedules cannot accommodate the pace and requirements of today’s social sector?

Viewing Volunteerism through a Gift Economy Lens

So, if the business mindset fails nonprofits when engaging volunteers, what is the alternative? In Braiding Sweetgrass. Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, scientist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, introduces gift economies as a fuller way of relating to each other. Her own lessons of the gift economy came from picking wild strawberries in the fields behind her house and were steeped in Indigenous practices. Here she learned that gifts “establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate” (25).

Her work led me to scholar Lewis Hyde who further fleshed out gift economy practices. He defines a gift economy as a system of exchange that occurs when items or services are given without an explicit agreement for payment. On a deeper level though, it is a form of governance that answers the question of how we want to be in community with each other. 

Modern-day gift economies are all around. They range from mutual aid associations that pool and share resources to professional associations that exchange knowledge and support. They include Little Free Libraries with their invitation to take a book or leave a book and Buy Nothing groups that help neighbors swap items for free.  

Comparing Market and Gift Economy Principles

In gift economies, the essence of exchange is worth. Worth includes value but also taps into meaning, tradition, sentiment, and even spirituality.

What strikes me about gift economies is how much better the principles align with volunteerism than market principles. They provide a framework that more closely reflects what happens in volunteerism. The language is expansive enough to capture the meaning-making that occurs in service. 

Gift economy practices offer an antidote to the frequently transactional feel of one-time service projects. The gift economy seems like a valuable fit for the work of engaging the community as volunteers, as demonstrated in the following principles:

  • Worth over Value: The essence of exchange differs in market and gift economies. In a market economy, exchange is driven by value—or the price assigned to an item or service. In gift economies, the essence of exchange is worth. Worth includes value but also taps into meaning, tradition, sentiment, and even spirituality. It is multidimensional.
  • Interdependence: In a market economy, exchanges are transactional. Money is traded for a good or service. The interaction maintains independence between those involved. In a gift economy, however, interactions are more relational. They cultivate a sense of interdependence between two or more people. Exchanges strengthen bonds between participants and cultivate a sense of reciprocity.
  • Stewardship and Sharing: In a market economy, status flows from ownership and possession. By contrast, in a gift economy, collective stewardship, resource sharing, and a spirit of abundance are all held in high esteem. 

Drawing on gift economy principles holds much promise. Yet, the reality is that nonprofit leaders operate in a society dominated by market and business principles; they cannot just opt out of the prevailing worldview. However, they also live in a world desperately in need of community and connection. Might volunteerism—a portal into the work of community—be able to draw on principles that govern community? 

Promoting Worth

Engaging volunteers has many positive outcomes, or worth, when designed well. Strategic volunteer engagement benefits a program’s participants, the nonprofit, and volunteers. It can enhance trust, lead to more donors or volunteers, and increase awareness about the mission. Yet, the industry standard of counting and pricing volunteer value does little to capture the full picture about volunteer impact. Embracing a gift economy ethos provides permission to highlight the diverse facets of volunteer impact and worth. 

For example, Barbara is an artist who draws pictures of children during their care at a nonprofit hospice. Her drawings are beautiful mementos that become a cherished gift for the child’s loved ones. Barbara’s value could be calculated as her hours served or even her drawings’ dollar value. But it’s her worth that is powerful: her presence, love, witness, and talent. Omitting volunteers’ worth, like Barbara’s, from reports excludes the deep meaning of their contributions. It glosses over the humanity at the heart of community work.

We can articulate volunteer worth by reporting more than volunteer numbers and hours. This includes:

  • Communicating the results of volunteer efforts. 
  • Sharing how volunteers fulfill the mission. 
  • Identifying how volunteer efforts express nonprofit values or purpose.
  • Using stories and images to convey what numbers cannot.

Making Time for Relationships

Volunteering is ripe for connection. But it takes time to cultivate connections among volunteers. As a result, some nonprofits omit the relational elements of service. A gift economy ethos prioritizes these community building activities.  

Leaders can prioritize relationships and cultivate interdependence in volunteerism by setting an expectation for service with the community rather than to them. They can also promote honest discussions about why the nonprofit is needed and what volunteers can do beyond service to support the mission. Such leaders also incorporate reflection after a project is completed about what was learned or accomplished.

Practicing Stewardship and Sharing

In their 2009 article for Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Lucas Meijs and the late Jeff Brudney reimagined volunteer energy as a resource shared among the whole community rather than one organization or department. Their vision implies that everyone engaging volunteers in a region has a responsibility to steward the service experience well. 

The gift economy ethos reflects their thinking by diminishing organizational boundaries that typically enclose volunteer development. It shifts the emphasis from managing volunteer activity in a program to cultivating volunteer talent within the community and—as noted above—it is anchored in the notion of stewardship. 

Some practical ways to steward and share volunteer energy include:

  • Framing volunteer placement and training as a mutual process between the volunteer and agency rather than directed by the nonprofit
  • Inviting and equipping new volunteers for leadership rather than overextending a few “super volunteers”
  • Referring volunteers who are ready for a change to other roles, departments, or agencies
  • Investing in community intermediaries that connect volunteers with the causes that need them

Integrating the Gift Economy in Nonprofit Work

Adopting a gift economy ethos…re-situates community need as a priority and elevates community participation as a strategy.

Nonprofits may be businesses, but they are not businesses exclusively subject to the motives and whims of the market. The blanket implementation of business strategies, therefore, can do a disservice to the very human and communal aspects of nonprofit work. Attempting to standardize community or parse needs into the lowest common denominator does not reflect the complexity or wholeness of those served. Focusing on efficiency may undermine the effectiveness that is necessary for positive change. Change itself may not be measurable in the short term or in meaningful ways. It might not even be visible.

Adopting a gift economy ethos offers a counterbalance. It re-situates community need as a priority and elevates community participation as a strategy. Intentional volunteer engagement becomes a key method for gathering community to meet a shared goal, not just an afterthought to the real work of the nonprofit. Gift economy principles amplify community voices and insight and offer an alternative to top-down decision-making. 

A gift economy ethos also obliges leaders to consider their return on purpose and return on values, not just their return on investment. As such, it provides permission and a pathway for nonprofits to act in more equitable ways. Along the way, it may also help us discover more nourishing ways of being in community with each other.