SINGAPORE (May 20): As a French citizen, I was deeply affected by the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and was happy and surprised that many people contributed generously to its reconstruction. But I do not understand why, while we were able to collect millions of euros in a few days to rebuild the cathedral, we still cannot collect what is necessary to help those in need and reduce inequality to fix our economy.

Once again, we have shown there is no lack of resources. Why do we not consider it as urgent to support entire parts of the global economy that are in danger of collapsing because of rising inequality? How can we accept that some countries are using the earth’s resources excessively at the expense of others, leaving entire peoples in desolation, when we have the capacity to act?

This was the analysis made 28 years ago by Chiara Lubich, founder of a worldwide movement of unity and winner of the Unesco Prize for Peace Education. Faced with the absurdity of immense economic inequality — for example, letting children starve even as vast amounts of resources are invested in technological feats — she observed that our world is deficient in relationships. We know how to produce wealth but do not know how to share it.

We must therefore reintroduce the shared sense of fraternity and communion to humanity. This was the meaning of Lubich’s call to build an “economy of communion” rather than an economy of predation.

Even more than capital, the world urgently needs us to invest in interdependent human relationships, a culture of giving and what I term as gratuity, or goodwill. Gratuity, which is derived from the Latin word gratia, or grace, means much more than “free of charge”. Rather, it refers to something given to us not because of our merits, and without requiring anything in exchange.

Financial capital is an effective but powerless resource in the most critical moments of life, such as in the face of death or illness, or broken relationships. While technology can do a lot, it will never completely replace what relationships and goodwill can bring us.

Talking to business leaders, investors or bankers about goodwill in the economy may seem provocative. Yet I am convinced that they too know how much economic success owes to relationships and goodwill. Any wealth or economic success is first and foremost a gift we receive because we know that everything we have invested in it alone could not be enough to achieve it. There is always a significant amount of risk, randomness and chance involved. There is always the uncertainty of the counterpart’s response, in the market and in the economic environment, which may change at any time.

Life, including economic life, is a gift. The economy exists and can develop only because we have learnt, through receiving, that by giving, we can build relationships of trust that allow us to trade. This was one of the main contributions of the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss a century ago.

He said social ties are the result of gift exchange, which is a cycle of “giving-receiving-giving back”. More recent work on gift dynamics demonstrates that goodwill, the ingredient that makes a relationship a positive, giving one that can build trust, is the engine and first resource of the economy — the most precious and strategic one.

Without giving and goodwill, the economic system cannot function. If employees stopped giving themselves in their work, companies would lose all competitiveness. We’ve probably all experienced it, when a colleague refuses to cooperate on a common task. If everyone does not put themselves into it, the work teams no longer work; there is no longer cooperation, no collective competence, no quality, no creativity or innovation. Production itself ends up blocked. This is the result of a research programme on gift dynamics my colleagues and I have been leading for more than eight years.

Investing in goodwill

Monumental sums are invested in new technologies. But why do we invest so little to safeguard the precious asset that is goodwill and to develop gift relationships in our companies? It is urgent that we invest the best of our resources and energies today to preserve this crucial capital. We need to invest in exploring the immense potential that gift dynamics could generate in organisations if the right conditions are created.

The good news is that gift dynamics already exist and that most employees often continue to give themselves to their work even when facing difficulties or when exploited.

Why waste this precious energy, which moreover is renewed and multiplied when it is allowed to spread, but can burn out when running on empty?

What does it mean to invest in gift dynamics and goodwill? I am not talking about philanthropy to ease our conscience. The donation of company profits, as it is practised for example in companies involved in the “economy of communion” network, is much more than a financial act — it is a strong gesture that expresses the very purpose of the company and its commitment to the most disadvantaged. I am talking first of all about investing our time and energy, investing ourselves in meaningful relationships, ensuring that we remain able to give priority to relationships without a transactional intent, including in our most economically strategic activities. It is about designing organisations that support gift dynamics rather than stifling them, or reducing them to focusing only on short-term economic profitability.

Creating value in organisations through relationships

Gift relationships are a huge source of value creation in the company. What can we do to develop them? In my most recent research, I have studied companies that have made it their operating principle and purpose. I will share some of these elements at the Shape the World Summit on June 20. But here are a few inputs.

Gift relationships are relationships of reciprocity. Let’s start by seeing what others are giving before inviting them to give more. We would be impressed by the amount of giving that already surrounds us. I did it, starting with my students, and understood that I am not the only one giving the lesson; the students also offer me — or not — their attention and participation. If, instead focusing only on those who don’t listen to me, I receive their attention as a gift, it would make me grateful and willing to give even more.

Recognition is what better nourishes gift dynamics. The joy of seeing that a gift is received makes you want to give even more. Conversely, when a gift is ignored or taken for granted, it hurts and ruins the desire. Giving is not easy to measure, but if we were able to appreciate and value it, we would discover an immense richness in our businesses. Let us then integrate gift dynamics, especially the importance of receiving, into the design parameters of our organisations. Rather than let cost steer everything, leave room for dialogue, exchange, initiative and creativity. Let us ask our managers to report on the quality of the relationships they have created in their team and not only on how they use the economic resources entrusted to them. Beyond coordination, do they know how to foster real cooperation based on the contribution of each one? How do they treat their employees’ commitment? Do they take it as a due or do they receive it as a gift? Do they know what makes their employees proud, happy to give themselves and recognise themselves in what they do? Do we make it a wealth for the organisation or a problem?

Investing is about making strategic choices. It means accepting that you will lose something in order to earn more because you believe in its potential. Similarly, giving means agreeing to give up something in the short term for a greater good in the long run. In the logic of giving, fostering the link is more important than what is given. Giving is investing for the value of the bond. It means taking the risk of not getting something in return, to offer the other party the freedom to give back, with goodwill, and not because he is obliged by a debt. Any commercial or professional relationship can be based on this principle.

Let us assume it completely and have the courage to make ambitious strategic choices, to give ourselves the time to build valuable relationships in our companies, to make goodwill and giving flourish. And to make it the very principle our organisations operate on. The returns will not fail us, if we accept giving it up at the beginning. It is a strategic investment that is for the future of humanity.


Anouk Grevin is associate professor in human resources management at the University of Nantes in France. Her research focuses in particular on work management, dialogue and gift dynamics at work, and on businesses that value the culture of giving. She is also associate professor at Sophia University in Italy. She has published various academic articles and co-authored three books. Grevin will be speaking at the Shape the World Summit to be held on June 20 and 21 in Singapore.

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 882, week of May 20) which is on sale now. Subscribe here