I often use the phrase ‘loop of generosity’ to describe the good stuff I see happen in communities. It sits at the root of the most enjoyable work we get to do.
But what is it?
I think it is elegantly described by Terry Pratchett in A Hat Full of Sky:
“Filling what’s empty and emptying what’s full”
Tiffany couldn’t quite work out how Miss Level got paid. Certainly the basket she carried filled up more than it emptied. They’d walk past a cottage and a woman would come scurrying out with a fresh-baked loaf or a jar of pickles, even though Miss Level hadn’t stopped there. But they’d spend an hour somewhere else, stitching up the leg of a farmer who’d been careless with an axe, and get a cup of tea and a stale biscuit. It didn’t seem fair.
“Oh, it evens out,’ said Miss Level, as they walked on through the woods. ‘You do what you can, people give what they can. Old Slapwich there with the leg, he’s as mean as a cat, but there’ll be a big cut of beef on my doorstep before the week’s end, you can bet on it. His wife will see to it. And pretty soon people will be killing their pigs for the winter, and I’ll get more brawn, ham, bacon and sausages turning up than a family could eat in a year.”
‘You do? What do you do with all that food?’
‘Store it,” said Miss Level
‘But you -‘
“I store it in other people. It’s amazing what you can store in other people.’ Miss Level laughed at Tiffany’s expression. ‘I mean, I take what I don’t need round to those who don’t have a pig, or who’re going through a bad patch, or who don’t have anyone to remember them.’
‘But that means they’ owe you a favour!’
‘Right! And so it just keeps on going round. It all works out.’
The best public and social services do what is needed and they do their best to do it in collaboration with people. To recognise that what we are creating together is part of the loop.
At CoLab Dudley – where we’re currently working – everything involves some part of the loop of generosity. Whether it is a trade school where the learners bring something to say thank you, a crafting circle that exchanges materials and skills or the pay it forward stash in the Gather Cafe that allows people to receive a drink or food when they can’t pay. As Miss Level says,’You do what you can, people give what they can”. (even though some are more generous than others).
This generosity is commonly found in the stories we and others captured through the Community Lovers Guides (Birmingham here, full of others who get the loop) and forms the basis of the Participatory City movement Tessy Britton has built out of those who generously told and shared stories.
It is core to organisations like Gateway Family Services and Grapevine Coventry who may be delivering services, but do so with a mind to being generous and creating space for the people they help to close the loop and be generous in turn.
The social media surgeries are an exchange of time and skills, they are a kindness that gets passed on and passed round. It’s through watching those that I first started talking about the loop of generosity. It has led to more than 5000 small and local charities and community groups receiving help and passing it on. Generosity can make tangible things happen, at scale. Indeed, the loop is almost always found in peer to peer programmes.
It is also key to good help. The sort of support that Nesta and Osca are now encouraging public services to embrace. The sort of help that organisations measure through our Impact App – which records ‘helps”
Primarily though, the loop of generosity is found in people. How they think and feel and act. Not in formal contracts.
It often thrives in community groups and is often broken by large businesses with large contracts.
I’m not sure.
Perhaps to work it requires kindness and a memory of a kindness. Miss Level’s trust that she can store food in people.
This is recorded in communities but not so well in institutions. In a community, a kindness is seen as an asset.
To a corporation a kindness might look like a liability. Worse: a memory of a kindness is accounting for a liability! High liabilities lead to a lower share price. If you forget the kindness you lose the liability from your books, but at the same time you break the loop of generosity.