Just Start The Giving

By Liesl Clark

A Fairy Bed, Made From Leaves, a Pod, Feathers and a Flower. Photo © Liesl Clark

Giving is complicated. There’s a growing perception among many of us that only the “haves” can give, only those who have excess or more than enough can contribute. No one would want what the “have nots” could offer.


At The Buy Nothing Project, we’re a collection of local gift economies that have popped up all over the United Sates. We have groups  from Galveston, TX to Amherst, MA and Upper Kittitas, WA to the Upper Keys, FL. And there’s one fundamental truth that underscores each gift economy: Giving begets more giving. Think of it as a cup of yogurt. For that yogurt to exist, you need a tiny bit of starter yogurt to make the next batch. Like yogurt, giving economies need a tablespoonful of starter giving to sustain more giving.

Local Fresh Goatsmilk Yogurt in Kolapani. © Liesl Clark

What strikes me is the similarities I see in the growth of each Buy Nothing gift economy. First people sign up quickly, wooed by the idea of joining a local giving circle where items and talents are offered for free and anyone is welcome to ask for what they need. It’s a utopic alternative to the market economy. There’s no judgment involved, just a celebration of the bounty around us, and it’s all free. But then, at the early stages of a startup gift economy, there’s a lull in the giving. At first it doesn’t even happen at all. People are, indeed, afraid to give, thinking they couldn’t possibly have anything that anyone would want. This is the crux of the problem of a stalled-out gift economy.

Stalled out? Why? People often think they have nothing to offer their community, perhaps they are struggling to make ends meet. Some members of the group might start things off by asking for items they need in an “ISO baby clothes”- type post. There’s no information about who you are or a story or picture of your baby, and the ask feels anonymous and, well, inhuman. People retreat into skepticism of whether a giving economy could truly work. It’s too good to be true. There’s too little out there and therefore not enough for me. This is the modern sickness of scarcity-thinking which is blind to the abundance in us all.

How do we kickstart a gift economy and overcome our fear of giving? We need to see ourselves as sources of bounty, whether it’s a story you can offer a group of elderly people or a cup of sugar to your next door neighbor, just start the giving. Even the poorest neighborhoods in our country have bounty to give. I’ve been stunned countless times by the generosity of people who are subsistence farmers in Nepal, who invite my family into their homes and offer us endless cups of tea, sweets, cookies, the best of what they have in their kitchens as a gift of pure generosity, celebrating our connection as humans. In a gift economy we can do the same, offer the members of our village a little of what we can spare, to spread the good will of our connectedness which spurs our neighbors to do the same.

© Liesl Clark

Everyone Has Bounty To Give

“I’d be happy to receive a wheelbarrow-load of dandelions,” my friend Rebecca declared. That was when it struck me: People are afraid to give because they believe they don’t have anything to offer, we lost our belief that we’re connected to each other and are needed by our neighbors. What if we started our Buy Nothing giving groups by asking for things that we know anyone can contribute? A bagful of dandelions would be gold for my chickens, but my neighbors don’t know this.

A tattered old book can be a DIY project for a craftsperson.

A box of old Christmas cards could be this year’s wreath for a creative spirit.

Mound of Christmas Cards © Jenny Lange

Shredded paper could be bedding in my henhouse.

Shredded Paper Bedding Photo © Liesl Clark

Broken ceramic dishes are coveted art materials for a ceramicist who makes mosaics:

Blue Daisy Stepping Stone:  From a broken serving platter and gems purchased at the Rotary Auction. Photo © Gillian Allard

A box of unwanted little plastic toys and stickers can be rewards for good reading in a teacher’s classroom.

The things you take for granted are what your neighbors would love. Those are the gifts that are the soul of a gift economy, the items you see everyday that someone on the other side of your town can put to use in new ways.

The bay leaves on the tree in your back yard, the corks from your bottles of wine:

photo © Earth911

Your clean odd socks can be treat bags for another person’s kids in the bulk department:

Clean old socks and tights make great small bags for treats from bulk bins. Photo by Rebecca Rockefeller

The flannel from a torn or stained  set of sheets are material for a seamstress’s creation:

Cotton Pads are Easy to Make and Reusable © Emily Groff

Your old wedding dress could become a young girl’s dream dress:


Your old fishing lures and the stories that go with them could make a boy’s dreams of fishing come true.

The ability you have to paint faces can make a group of children happy:


A gift economy requires a shift in consciousness where we see ourselves not as individuals but as connected selves where we understand that together we have our things, our talents, even our ideas to give to our community. Each week we all can contribute in ways that make a difference to everyone else and therefore ourselves because gifts create bonds between people, and when the whole community witnesses the gift-giving in their Buy Nothing groups the community is strengthened. I believe, no matter what your socio-economic situation, the bounty is there, hiding in plain sight. But we can’t benefit from it if we don’t ask for it or see the beauty in each gift we can offer to start rebuilding our connectedness to each other — And this great shift in consciousness, the search for the sweetness in our communities, the utopic ideal of a giving economy, can’t happen until we just start the giving.

DSC_0242.2, Photo © Liesl Clark

18 thoughts

  1. I love this project! I help out with it in Aloha, OR and have been inspired by all the giving going on to finally go through my garage and start clearing out things I don’t need but maybe someone else does!!!

  2. What a beautiful and awesome project. I just applied for the North Everett group under my personal Facebook account … can’t wait to give away some of my bounty! 🙂

  3. Do you know of any group in Southern Oregon? Medford area. Sounds like a good thing!

  4. Hi Sue 🙂 there isn’t a Buy Nothing group yet in Medford, and we’d love to see a gift economy started for your community … We just need a local volunteer to join us as admin (our entire network is run by volunteers). Let us know if you’re interested!

  5. Hi, Kimberley! Did you find the hyper-local Buy Nothing community group for your area? Below is the link for Lake Stevens. Just copy/paste the link for your neighborhood into your browser, which will then give you an option to ‘request to join.’ Thanks for your interest in our social experiment!


  6. I would like to start a group. Can you help me? I searched Facebook for one in my area (Murray, Utah) and don’t see one.

    Also, what are some ideas for making sure people live in your area if you don’t know them personally?

  7. Hi Eliza!

    If there isn’t a Buy Nothing group yet in your community (check this list which is updated frequently https://bnponfb.wpcomstaging.com/find-a-group/ ), we’d love to see a gift economy started where you are. We just need a local volunteer to join us as admin (our entire network is run by volunteers).

    If you’re interested, please fill out the form you will find on the page in the following link. Once you have done so, the Development Admin for your area will contact you. Please have patience, this process is done in our volunteers’ free time, as such a reply may take some time, but I assure you they will respond.


    As for ensuring members live in the area covered by a group, we send verification messages through Facebook Private Messages (PMs). We have plenty of assistance available for all Admins, new and old alike, covering this type of scenario, and much more.

    Thanks for your interest in our social experiment!

  8. Hi Rodney!

    Did you find your hyper-local Buy Nothing community group? Please have a look at the list, and copy/paste the link for your neighborhood into your browser, which will then give you an option to ‘request to join.’


    Also if you have already sent a request to join, there is a chance someone has already sent you a Facebook message.

    Remember to check your message folders in addition to the in-box.
    Filtered (Other): https://www.facebook.com/messages/other
    Message Requests: https://www.facebook.com/messages/pending

    Thanks for your interest in our social experiment!

  9. Hi
    Great idea.

    Problem is that many of us have now left FB.

    They send too much advertising and they spy.

    I loved Freecycle and have many friends now from that venue.

    We use Craigslist as we need several things. I also travel and buy along the highways.

    Love your concept and mission.

    My current location means no one gives anything away. They sell or throw. Not all areas are like this and many donate to the Thrift shops.
    FB also has tons of Shop and Swaps so giving is not done.
    I tried to give away seeds or plants and had not one taker.
    Which I found was so strange. Herbs and yellow crook necked squash may haVe been too strange. Ha ha

    Best to all. Just will no longer do FB.

  10. Hi Cheryl,

    Thanks for taking the time to write to us. All of the Buy Nothing Project groups use Facebook, yes, and people often ask us why we chose Facebook as our platform for The Buy Nothing Project. 1) It’s free; 2) Most of our friends and neighbors are on Facebook; and 3) It’s transparent. Transparency is the key ingredient to keeping a gift economy sustainable over time.

    Though there are some limitations to Facebook, the BNP is a network of groups completely run by Volunteers, without a budget (or time) to put the effort required into developing and maintaining a stand-alone site at this time.

    I will say though, within our Buy Nothing groups there has been plenty of giving and receiving of plants & seeds, and being on Facebook among the selling & swapping, we’ve still managed to have a vast network of thriving active Buy Nothing groups.

    May you find a satisfactory venue for your desire for participation in the the Gift Economy.

    Thanks for your interest in the Project!

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