Saturday, September 14, 2013

Venturing into Risky Waters – Talking about Money

by Miki Kashtan
from Occupy Wall Street

I have written about money before, though not much. It’s been a complex topic to address. Because it’s so central to our way of life in modern times, both individually and globally, I feel drawn to address it, to excavate meaning, to find and support freedom in relation to it. Because it’s so loaded, I can’t imagine writing about it without ruffling some feathers. The result: I’ve been accumulating notes, ideas, and questions and mostly waiting for another time to do the actual writing.

Then, earlier this week, I had a very tough conversation about money with three of my most beloved supporters, a volunteer team that’s helping me put together the East Coast version of my program Leveraging Your Influence. The topic was about how we were going to handle money and sustainability in the upcoming retreat in November. One of the results of this conversation was that it reminded me just how important I find this topic, and I decided to up the priority of writing about it. I now have an outline of a mini-series with at least six parts I want to finish by Thanksgiving, when I plan to launch my new Maximum Wage campaign website.

Then I ran the outline by Dave, the man whose creative eyes find all the images that accompany my blog posts, and realized just how much bigger the task was than I had anticipated if I was going to do it justice. Maybe I will continue to write about money for much longer, then. Given the magnitude of the task, I decided to start by a preamble of sorts, writing about my own current challenges with regards to money.

I don’t often expose the difficulties I experience in their raw form on this blog. As much as I am committed to the path of vulnerability, I usually package my feelings into presentable learning before I write about them. This time, however, my intuitive sense is that the details of what made that conversation so painful for me might be meaningful for at least some people to read about. First, some background.

Aiming for a Flow of Generosity

Although I haven’t yet written systematically about all the aspects of my thinking about money, I imagine many people reading this blog regularly may have an intuition about what my vision is. I dream of a world run on a gift economy basis (one of the subjects of a future post). I see, vividly, the possibility of people self-governing, sharing resources locally and globally, attending to everyone’s needs in a collaborative way. The image of a flow of generosity replacing the world of exchange is a precious vision for me.

On some level, I don’t see any reason why I can’t live into that vision even now, in my own daily life, in the ways that I organize my work, and in all my interactions. In some parts of my life, I’ve managed to carve out small spaces that operate outside the logic of exchange. I take piano lessons, for example, and I have a unique arrangement with my piano teacher that works miraculously well for both of us. Rather than thinking of myself as “paying” him for lessons, I think of myself as part of the circle of people who choose to take direct responsibility for his livelihood. I gift him directly from my heart, fueled by generosity and curiosity. Neither of us looks at exactly how often I come for a lesson (since I travel, and he also sometimes cancels, the number of lessons is incredibly variable). A few times a year, I sit down and write him a letter describing how I have been enriched by our work together in the last while, I reach into my heart and ask myself how much money I feel moved to give to him, and I enclose a check with my letter. These are, clearly, love letters, and that is what we call them. I cherish this experiment and the beauty that’s come to both of us through it. I also have other places where there is no exchange or accounting, in small or larger ways. Each such oasis gives me energy to keep searching.

It’s harder, I have found, to create such relationships when I am the one asking for money. I carry with me the words I remember hearing from Marshall Rosenberg; something about not working for pay while always making sure we have enough resources to sustain us in doing our work. I love this idea of uncoupling money from my contribution, which is one step in the direction of perpetual gifting. Since it fit so well with my own sensibilities, I’ve been wanting to find ways of bringing the mindset of generosity and gifting into the ways I deal with money in relation to the people who choose to participate in events and workshops I lead. I’ve been wanting this since the very beginning of sharing Nonviolent Communication (NVC) with others, starting in 1996.

This was the topic of conversation with my friends, the conversation that went so sour: how can I make what I offer accessible to everyone who wants to participate while at the same time maintaining my own livelihood; what is the math that would make that possible? And, equally importantly, what is the way of asking that will not compromise my sustainability while at the same time maintaining my own integrity in supporting choice and clarity for people?

This is not a new topic for me, and it remains an ongoing experiment. It was hardest at first, when I was getting paid directly by the people I taught or coached. It so happens that it was also a time when I was equipped with a whole lot less skill, consciousness, and inner strength. Initially, I found that getting paid for a session, for example, was one of my least favorite moments. There was something that I experienced as demeaning the richness and sacredness of the moments I shared with people. I didn’t know how to settle into receiving money as the gift that would allow me to be able to bring my own gifts to the world with greater ease.

It wasn’t easy, even when I got that clarity, to engage with people about money. There were times, for example, when I received a check from someone and didn’t trust the amount. Twice I dared to cross the taboo, and directly asked people whether they were holding my own needs for sustainability in their mind when choosing the amount. Both times, my question startled the person into actual engagement, reflection of their own and my needs, in a way that I trusted the result of their inner deliberations. Both times they ended up giving me a lot more than they had initially written on the check. Both times we felt more connected, more real, more hopeful. 

The Gap of Vision and Reality

Over the years, I have collected moments like this, stories of when the flow truly worked. There was a woman, for example, who for years was coming to workshops and even private sessions and offering only small amounts of money. She had a low-wage service job, and there was no way she could give more. She kept saying that if ever she came into money, she would give us some of it. Then, when her divorce settled, she came into a small amount of money from that. Nothing else changed in her circumstances. Still, she gave us a check for $10,000 – the amount that made it possible to take the risk and hire Kit Miller as our managing director in 2004. Then there was the woman who, while being homeless, signed on to be a monthly donor at $5 a month. There are moving stories like this that happen all the time, nurturing and sustaining my faith in the possibility of generosity to make everything work.

Alas, there are also other experiences, painful in two persistent ways. One is about people being challenged to receive the generosity offered them. I hear from some people that they can’t cross some internal line, despite trusting that I mean it about people being welcome even without money at all. Sometimes it’s because of not wanting to carry a burden of obligation, and sometimes it’s because of shame about not having enough money. Either way, I know that no matter how I present the offering, it’s not as accessible as I would like because of whatever people carry within them, independently of me. This just breaks my heart, because often enough it’s the people I most want to welcome that select themselves out.

Similarly, I have had experiences of people not giving as much as I would like them to. I am struggling how to even talk about it now, with some real concern that some people will read this as “guilt-tripping” when what I want, and the reason I am writing this, is to have some companionship in grasping how deep the challenge is of stepping outside the usual exchange dynamic. I hope to be trusted in this intention.

I remember, in particular, one time hearing from a man the following, almost word for word: “I want to do your program and also another program offered by this other trainer. Since they are not offering scholarships, and you are flexible, I am going to give them money to that program and not to you.” In some small moments like this, I feel a spike of discouragement and helplessness that can be quite extreme. Some part of me interprets such events as being “penalized” for my generosity. So far, all the times such experiences happened, they subsided fairly quickly. I am choosing to accept this possible outcome and to continue to extend myself anyway, because I would rather trust and be disappointed than close my heart and give up on people. Not just about money; this is overall my approach to life, and I hope to be able to maintain it for as long as I live.

The harder piece is about finding ways to invite people truly to step into a different way of making the choice about how much money to give when the flexibility is there. My experience, overall, is that whenever I set a sliding scale, most people give the minimum on the scale. Whenever we have raised the minimum on the scale for an event, most people then gave the new minimum. We neither got fewer participants nor more people asking for scholarships. When I have lowered the minimum, as was the case for the Leveraging Your Influence retreat in April (compared to last year), most people gave the lowered amount despite being asked to give as much as they could. 

I’ve been thinking about this challenge for years, trying endless permutations, and not yet finding a way to transcend it. I have tried giving no sliding scale guidelines, and then many people experience anxiety and confusion. I have tried creating collective conversations to talk about all of our relationships to money, and have had experiences that were traumatic, both for me and for participants. I long to find a truly simple way to invite people into giving money based on a desire to support the vision and the people who work for it rather than as an exchange for value received. So far, I have not been satisfied with any of my experiments. 

Honoring My Vision

It was within this context that I had the painful conversation I alluded to earlier. My friends want to support the sustainability of the program and devised a plan to have me provide detailed financial information, including expenses associated with this program and overall how money is used within my part of BayNVC. While I have a “no secrets” policy and am happy to reveal everything about BayNVC’s and my finances, I couldn’t find a way to settle. I wanted to honor whatever it was inside of me that resisted the plan mightily. A big part of how I manage to do what I do, which involves a tremendous amount of work on my end (some people believe and tell me that it’s more than humanly sustainable), is because I never push myself to do something that doesn’t feel right inside me. I didn’t even know exactly what it was, I couldn’t quite find a way to even explain it well to my supporters, and yet I knew I didn’t want to push myself. It was particularly excruciating because I knew, even while feeling such stress and anguish, that the only reason they were persisting in asking me to do this, was because they wanted to support me. Saying “no” to people who love me and want to support me was truly challenging. It is a testament to our shared love and trust that we didn’t lose connection while having this difficult conversation, even while at least two of us were crying.

Now, a few days later, I have a dawning sense of why I was resisting the idea of giving a detailed accounting. I simply don’t see that path as inviting generosity, and I am unhappy to imagine people giving out of obligation. As much as I want to ensure that the work that I am doing continues and that my own livelihood and that of the people who work to support me is sustained, I am deeply committed to only receive money that comes my way with joy and generosity. Writing this, breathing in this moment, I touch the depth of this commitment with tears in my eyes. If there isn’t going to be enough money that people give with ease of willingness to support my work, I will certainly have a major problem to address, one that many before me have faced. I don’t know how I would face it. I do know that I would rather face it than participate in what I see as a subtle form of coercion – people paying because they believe they have to.

After settling emotionally, our little team continued to discuss the practicalities of how to approach this question for the upcoming retreat. And so we came up with yet another attempt to revise the language and the approach, one more experiment, one more hope that we can create an atmosphere of shared exploration. Come November, we will see how it works this time. Whatever else happens, I know learning will be part of it.

Perhaps now you can understand at least part of why I want to write extensively about money. I want to conclude this preliminary piece with a sneak preview of some of the questions I want to explore in this mini-series:

  • How do we tease apart and think freely about the meaning and relationships between value, exchange, and gift? (a more systematic exploration of some of the themes raised here)
  • How does money shape our thinking, decision-making, and relationships?
  • What is the role of money, and especially debt-generated money, in the unraveling of communities since the industrial revolution?
The final piece of this series is designed to be about the maximum wage campaign that I am planning to start, scheduled to be launched on Thanksgiving day.

There’s more, and I am both nervous and super-excited to be embarking on this. I so deeply see how much money has come to be a central factor in modern life. This makes asking questions and looking at it courageously a very necessary part of the possibility of a livable future. 

Click here to read the Questions about this post, and to join us to discuss them on a conference call next Tuesday, September 17, 5:30-7 pm Pacific time. This is a way that you can connect with me and others who read this blog. We are asking for $30 to join the call, on a gift economy basis: so pay more or less (or nothing) as you are able and willing. 


  1. Thank you *so much* for this, Miki. I didn't realise how much I was longing to hear your thoughts on money until I saw this post pop up in my feedreader. Feeling a thrill of excitement running through me to know more, and at what might change in my life as a result, and ENTHUSING for the Maximum Wage Campaign. Thank you from my grateful heart <3

  2. I too am excited to see that you are writing on money. I'm eager to read more, looking for clarity and inspiration.

    So far, a question arises from these words: "what I see as a subtle form of coercion – people paying because they believe they have to." I understand that some people would use information about your financial circumstances to convince themselves they "have to" pay. That's the way they have learned to think about resources and "fairness" or "balance" or "responsibility" or whatever comes up for them. What is harder to understand is how your providing "detailed financial information, including expenses associated with this program and overall how money is used within my part of BayNVC" contributes to "forcing" or how your keeping back the information supports people's generosity? I can imagine that information might equally inspire their imagination and generosity.

    This summer I participated in a week of nonviolent living and interdependence, including financial co-responsibility, at Findhorn in Scotland. After people wrote down what they wanted to give, two people from Findhorn, which had given us room and board for the week, and the two "focalizers" who had paid their own expenses to arrive to share their wisdom with us, sat around a table pushing back and forth the figures and sharing their thoughts to sort out how much of what we had collected would go to each focalizer and to Findhorn. Another place at the table was available for any participant who wanted to join the discussion in that "fishbowl" while the rest of us watched, listened, went through our own reactions, and if we chose, temporarily sat in that available seat.

    The women from Findhorn very much wanted wellbeing for the focalizers and for the experimental program to be continued and, at the same time, were partly responsible for Findhorn's sustainability and knew that others in their organization were deeply concerned about sustainability in these financially challenging times. As they looked at the amount gathered, which was less than in previous years, one of them made a simple statement that inspired me to add £200 more than I had originally chosen to give because it spoke to me about the reality of their situation. She said, "Looks like no more lasagna, no more peanut butter..."

    I did not feel obligated to give more; rather my perspective shifted. That information about one way their money was spent and what it meant to them opened my heart to view my own finances differently. I simply wanted to increase the likelihood that they would continue to enjoy foods that were special to them, in effect, to share my food with them now instead of laying it by for some situation that might arise for me in the future--and it felt good. It was about experiencing the joy of interdependence.

    So I’m curious what’s inside your intuition about the effect of your sharing that kind of information. Is it that people would be likely to address the choice with their conditioned minds rather than their living hearts? Something else I’m not getting?
    Sue Holper

  3. Thanks Miki, I wonder if you can use Marshall's idea of using force to protect what is dear to you, to feel well with taking money even when not given to you with joy, if and when it comes to a point that you don't have enough.
    Second, I want to share about my experience with a sliding scale - I feel confused and stuck, and torn between my needs to protect my resources and to care for the facilitator's feelings and resources.

  4. I find that having a complete picture of finances inspires my generosity because there is something pleasurable to me in knowing how much of a total I am contributing.

  5. Thank you so much for this article. I too have been trying to realize a rational way to utilize the current of money without operating from the commodity world view. It is a challenge as I, like you, would much prefer living in a gift economy. And while I can do it on an individual scale, I'm not quite sure if the consciousness of humanity has quite reached the tipping point to make it systemic.

    Nevertheless, I am experimenting with alternatives. At The Flow Factory, we are implementing both a "Pay-What-You-Want" and "Pay-How-You-Want" modality depending on the nature of the event or production. The "What" offers a sliding scale of Federal Reserve Notes depending on the person's ability and initiative to give, and the "How" offers a fixed number of Federal Reserve Notes with the alternatives to also pay in Time Dollars through our local Common Wealth Time Bank, Bitcoins, or bartering with an item from our wish list. If you'd like to read more about it, visit our website at

  6. Thank you, Miki! I hope my reflections help increase understanding about how some people are moved to give.

    As I read this, I recalled commitments I had made to two organizations to provide them ongoing regular support. I noticed that I still wanted to do this because I really connect with their work around nonviolence and creating peace in our world, and because I learn so much from them in how I want to be in the world. So, it was with joy, not obligation, that I went right to PayPal and signed up to give each organization a recurring monthly donation. I am totally willing to support this work, which has a lot of meaning for me, and to let go of less consequential things (like that ice cream I have while grocery shopping).

    I am laughing to myself right now; I did not intend to have this sound like an NPR station fund drive. Still, this is what's going on for me.

  7. Dear all,

    What a rich bouquet of responses and more things to think about. Rather than responding to each, I want to say some things in general.

    First, that I want to be clear that I have no problem with transparency about finances, and that was not the issue. It's more something about trying to tie some specific measurement to a specific workshop. I find it next to impossible to quantify things to this degree, and that was what was so painful for me. I have no difficulty expressing the overall need, or my hoped-for income from an event, and those I am prepared to do. Even this, though, is complicated. If fewer people than anticipated come to an event, then unless some of them give over and above whatever sliding scale I create, the event will generate less than what would make it all sustainable based on the annual budget.

    I have also experimented, twice, with setting a total number for an event, and inviting the group to take collective responsibility for the amount. This was the experiment that was so unsuccessful. The level of anxiety, shame, obligation, and judgment that most of us carry about money is so high, that engaging in open and honest conversations about it is really really hard.

    Note how one person said that even a sliding scale makes it hard to know what to do. At the same time, sliding scales tend to favor those with more money. Even setting it on a proportion of income favors those with more money, because a higher proportion of lower-income people's income goes to basic non-negotiable expenses. If I set things at a fixed amount, then it affects lower-income people much more than those with more access to resources.

    On and on it goes.

    In one of the entries in this mini-series, the last one if not before, I plan to provide complete financial information, and to have it, soon thereafter, permanently available on a website for all to see.

    I am appreciating all the feedback and comments. I see that this taps into a deep vein of interest and I get a sense that many of us would like to find a new way. That is hugely encouraging for me.


  8. The piece related to money that I found disturbing at a previous retreat was having one thought about what I was going to give when I signed up and then getting to the retreat and feeling pressure around being asked for more. Whatever information is to be given out or however it is to be handled, I want that to happen ahead of time. I just want no surprises. That said, I really have no desire to see your complete financial information. That again makes it almost like a business negotiation. I want to make my decision as an act of giving freely.

    In many countries there is a long Buddhist tradition of “dana” or generosity around teachers being supported by their community. My understanding is that when Western teachers brought those teachings to this country they wanted to maintain the tradition in some way although they knew it needed to be adapted given the difference in cultures. When I go to Buddhist retreats, we are told ahead of time exactly what the costs are (room, board, etc) and pay that upfront with a sliding scale. We know that none of this goes to the teachers and that we will be asked to pay the teachers from a place of generosity at the end of the retreat. There are also many other ways to offer support such as meal dana (paying the cost of a meal for everyone) and other forms of giving. No guidelines as to amount are given. This seems to have worked well for some 40 years in this country at many centers and I never feel the discomfort around money that I felt at the NVC retreat.

    Obviously, at this point, there is a difference in popularity of Buddhist retreats and NVC retreats but Buddhist retreats in this country started small too. So it seems to me there is something more systemic going on. It sounds like not enough people, or not as many as expected, are coming to the NVC retreats. Perhaps that’s why there seems to be such a feeling of pressure. You want money to be given based on “a desire to support the vision and the people who work for it”. The question then becomes: what would it take for a vision around NVC and NVC consciousness to really take off in this country? That would seem to be a core question to be addressed so that teaching NVC can be more sustainable for all NVC teachers.

    This does not in any way minimize the questions you bring up about attitudes around money. It seems to me that many people make decisions about money based on fear, especially fear of running out of resources later in life. This is a very big and systemic concern that relates to how we live in this culture. I know you have written about this before and made certain decisions for yourself. For me, a little more empathy around why I might have fear around this would go a long way.

  9. My favorite idea so far that I have heard come out of you about the topic of money is the idea of separating the source of the money from the specific work you do. I would love to live this way myself. I have this vision that if every person had the resources they needed, whether its money or food or whatever, then they would be free to give their gifts to the extent that it is healthy and productive for themselves and everyone. There would not be such a push to overextend oneself and there would be freedom to offer up what we have. I think the world would be much richer for it because we would see many more gifts being expressed and given to life for the pure joy of being ourselves. In my own mind I think if I can do that anyway, even with all the financial restrictions, as much as possible, I am breaking the paradigm that keeps me and all of us in invisible chains.

    I remember a part of a book that stuck with me for many years. It's from "the continuum concept" by Jean Liedloff. I know you read this one. She lived with a tribe in Venezuela and there was a man who had lived in the city and then come back to the tribe and when he came back he just sat around and didn't contribute anything. What struck me is that no one complained about it, they just let him do whatever he wanted to do and they fed him. One of the elders said something along the lines of, "eventually he'll start working. every healthy person wants to work and contribute something." I don't remember the exact language but I remember the attitude that says, "of course any normal person would want to work and contribute to their community." This little story provides a lot of guidance for me into understanding our basic human nature.

    I think we have been so warped by fears about having enough, scarcity thinking, and coercion that we have no idea what it would be like to just live and contribute as we are inspired.

    I found it so inspiring to hear of your vision of several different streams of income that you wish to have and that your vision is to offer the retreats totally free of charge so there is no obligation. You are not there yet and in the meantime you and your staff need to eat so this conversation continues. However, I think it would help workshop participants if they heard about that vision. It also might inspire them to think more about what they are doing with their own lives and why.

  10. miki, darling, i don't think the problem lies solely in how you are asking participants for money. yes, some strategies + tones make a more successful "ask."

    no, the real and growing challenge is that monetary wealth is being accrued among fewer and fewer people, $money$ become increasingly scarce for more and more people.

    as someone with small financial resources at this time in my life, the strategy i am leaning toward, for my own and for global health, is to lovingly reach out to folks with money, offer my gifts, and invite them to give to the vision I am dancing into the world.

    and to invite them to dance with me. <3

    i love this quote by lilla watson:
    "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time.
    But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."

    i don't think of my strategy as capitalism, or even barter.

    no, i have these gifts i am yearning to give... i am starting to give.
    and i think that folks w/ tons of money would be much happier if they had less of it... especially if their wealth is leading to their own isolation. i think of gated neighborhoods, mansions with big walls around them and security systems, and I think, how happy are these people? how safe do they feel? how well do the they sleep at night? how often do they wonder about the folks who have no food or shelter?

    a colleague remarked this week while we will designing social justice curriculum for teens,

    "they want to engage, they just want to know it's socially safe."