How to Host a Conference Gift Economy Style

For anyone interested in building community and activism, events are a mainstay of tribe creation. But gatherings come with challenges. Some, including lectures, film screenings, organized walks, workshops, and multi-day conferences, are large and need advance structure, organization, planning, and funding. While there are a lot of conference centers, they can be cost-prohibitive for some, which creates a tension as creative people with a great deal to offer are left out. Many organizers, understanding this tension, seek new ways to throw conferences, and many are turning to the gift economy model to do so.

How do gift-based conferences differ from traditional gatherings? The two main tenets of gift economics are trust and service: trust in your community to hold and support you, and service to the thing or idea that is being created by the gathering. You might be in service simply to building community around the event or a group project, or maybe you are in service to creating of a piece of art or a permaculture installation. Serve whatever it is you are creating. Acknowledging with each decision these two main features of the gift economy will help the gathering be successful on every level.

Smaller gatherings and larger, multi-day conferences both can be created in the gift, but they differ from each other in some fairly substantial ways. The following organizing principles exist for both short-term and long-term events.

Organizers must be in service to the gathering and not to particular people. For instance, if you have a speaker coming, be mindful that the event is not there to serve the speaker, but rather your service is to the community you are creating or to the important themes of the work. By keeping your eye on what you are serving, you will make decisions that support everyone (the audience, the speaker, yourself and other organizers, the event-space host) rather than one person, or a few people, in particular.

All of your promotional material should mention that the event is being offered in the gift. Avoid saying that the event is “for free.” Use your Facebook event page or group to discuss what working in the gift means and how it works. Help to educate your audience. You most certainly will put detailed directions to the the location of the event; isn't it just as important to help people feel comfortable about their supporting role as co-creators through gifting? Make sure that you have a “gift” button or donation space on your website so that people can come before and after the event to help out.

Keep costs as low as possible. Seek out free or inexpensive spaces that would be open to a gifted arrangement with you rather than a set price. Do not hire people, like a PR specialist, or purchase advertising for the event. Work with any speakers or gathered experts in the gift if it is at all possible. At the end of the event you can, and should, make gifts to all of these people who served the event, but not having set prices and financial goals to attain keeps your eyes on service rather than some bottom line. Trust in the community you are building to hold the gathering financially.

Whatever you do, do not put yourself in a position of going broke or creating stress on your personal finances. It creates too much fear and you will begin serving the fear and making mistakes that will impact the success of any event held in the gift. If you find yourself needing funds in advance, I suggest a crowdfunding campaign or an optional pre-gifted system to help ease your financial concerns. Be as transparent about your needs as possible, and be ready to ask for help.

Create a registration process. You are going to be asking for people to support you with money at some point in the process. This support should be directly related to the gratitude they feel for the event once it is over. However, you will have to find some way to gauge your attendance and a pre-registration process is a good way to make sure that you have not oversold your space. It is also a kind of ritual that signals to the attendee that “this is important.” What to do? Pay-what-you-want (PWYW) advance ticketing is a great way to create a registration process. Sites like Eventbrite, Eventzilla, and Brown Paper Tickets all allow you to customize ticket prices in multiple ways.

But is this truly gifting? Well, yes and no. You are asking the attendee to decide in advance of the event what they think their gratitude will be. Events thrown in the gift should, ideally, allow the attendee to decide after the event what they want to give. You can, as the organizer, just live comfortably with this conundrum (many do) or you can be creative. One thing you can do is return everyone's registration money in an envelope when they arrive for the event (for instance, if the registration was $20, then they get $20 back in the envelope.) Also in the envelope is a note that explains why the money is being given back. This way they can truly assess what the event is worth to them. This allows your attendees to add or subtract from their original registration fee to make their gift accurately reflect their gratitude.

If you do decide to go this route, note that ticketing sites on-line do not deposit funds into your bank account immediately. The funds are often held for several days after the event. I once had to remove everything (but $5.00) from a non-profit's bank account to accommodate this type of gift-based ticketing plan. You may have to borrow money in advance of the event to make this happen. You can also use a personal or non-profit's Paypal as the purchase nexus for your registrations, but Paypal makes the registration process quite cumbersome. You will, however, have your money almost immediately.

Make the space warm, inviting, and as “gifty” as possible. Use your space creatively to serve what is being created by this gathering. For instance, put out food and drink, which hopefully will be donated to your event by your community; create a host-sponsored service table to help people way-find and answer questions; have related items (books, tools, etc.) for sale, at least some of which are offered as gifts; make sure that there is a lot of time before and after the event for connection and community building; make sure all of the signage is clear to avoid frustration and late arrivals.

Gift circles facilitate gifting not only to the organizers and lead speakers, but among event attendees.

Short-Term Events

Short-term events have special challenges when you offer them through a gift arrangement. The biggest challenge is that trust in your gathered community is hard to build with an event that lasts an hour or two. Even a whole day is not really long enough to establish trust. To mitigate this issue, keep these things in mind:

  • At the very end of the event, be transparent about your needs (i.e. discuss the gifting arrangement you have created) just before crowd disperses at the end of the day. Keep the “ask” and explanation simple: “We are working in the gift with this event. There's a note in the envelope we gave you when you checked in about what that means. Our speaker and the venue have given of their time and space and we would like to give something back to them. If you enjoyed your time here, please check in with what you are able to afford right now and give according to the gratitude you feel. There is a box at the back for any gifts or you can give a gift at the website we've provided in the note. Thank you.”
  • Make sure that any needs you have, as an organizer, are discussed fully. If you need to recoup, for instance, $1,000 to cover your costs and feel whole, tell your audience of your need and why.
  • Make any donation ritual easy to accomplish. Make sure that it doesn't involve shame or singling out people who don't donate. Asking people to come up one-by-one to give their envelopes, passing a basket, or public pledges may cause discomfort in some of your guests. Make sure that everyone can give anonymously.
  • Take special care to make it possible for people to connect with each other after the event is over: Facebook group; opt-in mailing list; etc. There will not have been very much time for this during the event itself.

Multi-Day Events

Longer events, like multi-day conferences and gatherings, allow for active and creative community building at all levels, and it is easier to explain to your audience about gift economics and to trust that, in the end, your work in the gift will be supported. Multi-day events are full of gifting potential, and are only limited by your own creativity. Every multi- day event is different. Some are festivals, some workshops; some are focused on one person's teachings, sometimes it is a fully co-created event with the attendees and the organizers. Here are some suggestions about how to up the level of “giftiness” to your event and be of deep service to your gathering:

  • Facilitate gifting not only to the organizers and lead speakers, but to each other. One way to do this is to hold a gift circle toward the end of the event. Another way is to have a central place for envelopes or containers of some sort with peoples' names on them. In this way, people can gift to each other privately without using the organizers as a go-between.
  • Longer events will invite many types of needs that have to be filled: rides, technical help, an extra set of hands, music, equipment, etc. Make sure you have a place to share these needs with the entire community in an easy-to-access way. Explore ideas such as a texting-tree between all the attendees so that everyone gets the message in a timely manner.
  • Make sure everyone (organizers, space-holders, speakers, musicians) is working in the gift as much as possible to avoid a tiered system where some people are being paid and some are not.
  • If you are providing overnight accommodations, have people bring from home as much as they can: sheets, camping gear, food, ride-sharing, music, etc.
  • Make sure duties and chores are spread out as equally as possible.
  • Make sure that you do not create a geography of importance. If there is a central gathering space, make sure that there is no perception that there is an “in-crowd” with more access (or closer access) to the central space while others have less access or are less central to any hubs of activity.
  • Identify ahead of time people who need help with travel money to attend the conference; coordinate rides and pick ups from transport hubs. Help promote crowdfunding efforts of the individuals to attend. Create an online space that facilitates this kind of sharing of needs before the gathering has happened.
  • Identify and serve people who do not know people at the gathering. Some people, at any gathering, will have friends and relationships with organizers or others in the group. Identify people who know no one and serve them ahead of those already comfortable with friends. Perhaps you can create a fun process around this right at the beginning, making it clear that their comfort is the priority above other goals, like agenda setting.
  • And finally, take care of the site at which you are gathered. Organize a trash clean up; a repair gathering; plant trees or native perennials; and of course make a financial donation to the space if it is at all possible to do so.

All of these small details build gratitude: gratitude among the attendees, among the organizers, and within the space the gathering is held. Trusting in that gratitude is the very nature of a gift economy alongside the creative expression of service to a common goal. While gift based gatherings are not without pitfalls and hardship, the effort to create something new brings these gatherings into something beautiful and worthwhile.

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