Are You Ready To Make Some Change – Then Give It All Away?

Free Money Day logo - coin breaking chains around wrists

Free Money Day – 15 September 2012

Many of you may know that I am involved with a group called the Post Growth Institute (PGI), an international network of volunteers whose work is about exploring paths to global prosperity that do not depend on economic growth (‘beyond bigger, towards better’).

One of PGI’s initiatives is ‘Free Money Day’, a global stunt held on 15 September each year, in which people hand out their own money to complete strangers and ask recipients to pass half on to someone else.

The premise is very simple: Get some money, break it down into small coins or notes, and give them away two at a time. Ask each person you give it to to pass one of them on to someone else. That’s it! People got very creative last year, with events ranging from handouts in the street, to a cyber-event, to randomly distributed pieces of art around town.

Free Money Day is an opportunity to get creative and have some fun in order to think differently and have some different conversations about money: the meaning it holds for us, the ways we engage with it, and how we might do so differently. It is a way to spark conversations about the benefits of economies based on sharing, and also allows us to think about wealth in ways other than those that centre on money.

If you’d like to be part of this social experiment and ‘signal interruption’ to business as usual, it’s as simple as making a pledge, and giving away even a small amount (say $10), anywhere, and telling your story. If you can get pictures or footage to share, even better!

Check out this short clip to see what happened when people gave away their money in public, for free, last year:

The options are endless. For instance, Free Money Day would be a fantastic school-based event through which students of any age can explore the history of money and experience the ‘richness’ of giving.

Being a symbolic event intended to inspire dialogue and alternative possibilities, participation does not require having a lot of cash to give away. In fact, including barter activities in Free Money Day events would be an exciting development! Free Money Day 2012 aims to kick the giving up a notch by also including the forgiving of formal and informal debts on both personal and institutional levels in the activity.

If you’re curious about how people respond to such a reversal of giving (handing money out, instead of asking others to do so), here are a few reflections from last year’s event which took place in over 60 locations worldwide:

Those are the moments in life that I’m PASSIONATE about. Moments that challenge common conceptions, touch people in a different way that might actually make a shift in paradigm, generate debate and bring back LOVE to our lives – Axel

Inspired me to become more pro-active about the things I value and believe could improve the standard of living of others – Nudzejma

I think about all the time. I have a family, I want to look after them the best I can. So, obviously amassing as much as I can gives them the lifestyle that I want to give them. This concept of…having someone give it back to you throws everything on its head, gives me a chance to reflect…It never is enough. You just tend to spend as much as you make – Ted

I’m a homeless man and I often get confronted by beggars coming up to me in the street, cutting me off, confrontational, and asking for spare change. Now, the awareness of this today is so cool because if everyone went around giving, no one would be asking…and the world would be such a better place – Joe

If you wish to participate, please sign up! You can be the driver of your own event, and share the experience with others around the world via photos, video, text, or whatever media works for you.

If you want to learn more, you can find frequently asked questions, contact information, news from previous events, and more details on the Free Money Day website.

This post includes content from the article by PGI’s Janet Newbury, which was originally published at


Has The Green Door Been Bolted?

Cartoon of 'Titanic' style boat labelled 'World Leaders' heading towards an iceberg labelled 'climate change' - caption: 'It's settled - we agree to sign a pledge to hold another meeting to consider changing course at a date to be determined'

Image credit: David Horsey

The Rio+20 Summit has been and gone, was largely considered a failure, and has barely registered in the consciousness of the average person. We are no closer to any co-ordinated, serious global approach to addressing sustainability at the international level than we were in 1992 at the first Rio Earth Summit, which set out the ‘sustainable development’ agenda (itself a contested concept among sustainability activists).

Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, called Rio+20 ‘a failure of epic proportions’ and bluntly described the 253-paragraph Summit statement as ‘the longest suicide note in history’.

Writing in The Guardian, George Monbiot noted the absence of a popular movement:

It is the system that needs to be challenged, not the individual decisions it makes. In this respect the struggle to protect the biosphere is the same as the struggle for redistribution, for the protection of workers’ rights, for an enabling state, for equality before the law.

So this is the great question of our age: where is everyone? The monster social movements of the 19th century and first 80 years of the 20th have gone, and nothing has replaced them. Those of us who still contest unwarranted power find our footsteps echoing through cavernous halls once thronged by multitudes. When a few hundred people do make a stand – as the Occupy campers have done – the rest of the nation just waits for them to achieve the kind of change that requires the sustained work of millions.

While there is an increasing number of environmental and social groups around the world doing this work – involving more people than ever before in history – it seems that Monbiot’s observation is also correct.

In many OECD nations, a combination of budget cuts, austerity measures and increasing costs of living associated with the GFC fallout appear to have diminished popular concern with environmental and sustainability issues. Data collected from the UK, US, Germany has shown that environmental issues are not top of mind for these populations, and according to a recent research report ‘What Matters to Australians’ cited in The Australian:

A study of what matters to the average Australian found environmental issues “mattered intensely” in 2007 but had dropped to being of “middling” importance today.

The resulting picture was one of a conservative society intensely concerned about day-to-day issues.

Global sustainability dropped from third in 2007 to eighth in 2010, the only category to see any big movement either up or down…tangible things such as health and family “always were and always will be the things that really matter”.

Leaving aside the not-insignificant question of what people understand by ‘sustainability’ or ‘environmental issues’, and whether or not they see connections between issues (for example, food and health issues rated as the biggest concern, and yet sustainable food systems are intricately connected to a plethora of environment/sustainability issues), it is clear that for many people, all things environmental have fallen off the radar. The report does note that the high profile around climate change 2007 may have been an aberration.

With pressing day to day concerns around cost of living, access to basic services and local crime prevention, abstract notions of invisible gases causing major atmospheric and geographical changes at some undefined point in the future are simply not the immediate worry for citizens.

Similarly, just as people do not experience ‘the economy’ – they experience availability of work, fuel and food prices and mortgage repayments – the scale at which most sustainability advocates are attempting to communicate issues is beyond the realm of many people’s experience and therefore seen to be irrelevant. If people feel no sense of agency about how their individual efforts can effect change, and if daily demands leave little spare time to contemplate, let alone plan to enact change, it simply will not be a priority for most people.

For businesses facing economic downturn, and governments facing budget cuts, any initiative that involves investing money and employee time to become more resource efficient – even if it can ultimately save them money – is off the table as organisations retreat to focusing on ‘core business’. Sustainability is still being perceived as an add-on rather than an integral part of how organisations work.

If the general public and organisations have gone into siege/survival mode, then sustainability advocates need another approach to find their way in than exuberantly flinging open the ‘green door’ carrying a basket laden with all kinds of messages about carbon, climate, energy, waste, water and efficiency.

Because by and large, the ‘Green Door’ to the wider public is bolted.

ornate green door with two padlocks

Image credit: Breno Peck

What to do?

We could start with what’s going right, what is working using an assets-based approach, rather than talking about insurmountable problems.

Then there’s the packaging – ‘sustainability’ might work better if it’s more subtle and less overt, a bit like hiding vegetables in the kids’ pasta. It might be good for them, but they’re doing it because they enjoy it, or because they identify it as meeting their needs, not because someone told them it would be good for them and/or the planet.

A cynic might say we need a Sustainability Trojan Horse – to conceal the intent in a different guise. But we really do need to start where people are, with what they value.

head of Trojan Horse tinted green

‘Sustainability? Oh no, we’re talking about how you can make your life more fun and easier right now!’

An example: an initiative developed in Australia called MamaBake was established to encourage collaborative meal making as a means to lighten the daily evening meal preparation burden on women. A group arranges to get together at a member’s home, decides what to cook, and the task happens as part of a social occasion. At the end of the session, the women divide up all the meals into portions for each family who then has a week’s worth of frozen meals on hand – not to mention a week’s worth of free evenings.

These women are not cooking in bulk, and reducing potential temptation for for time-saving but often expensive and less healthy take-away because someone told them it would be better for the environment.

They are doing it because its fun, it offers them social connection, and to turn what is a chore into an enjoyable occasion and claw back precious time during the work week.

Now MamaBake is not going to save the planet or address concerns for healthy eating and more work-life balance for families on its own – but it is a contribution, and if we identified, worked with and supported the replication of many similar initiatives, it would amount to a social shift. MamaBake groups are also a ready-made audience and social norms transmission device for talking about local food production, healthy eating, recycling and food waste, modern cloth nappies in lieu of disposables, and a whole range of other things that are captured under the sustainability umbrella.

In the broader collaborative economy, people are finding ways to meet their needs through sharing, not because it is a government policy about reducing consumption, not because sharing – and therefore needing to buy less – is good for the environment, but because it makes sense to people, allows them to meet their needs, and has been enabled by technology, the social web and the ‘currency’ of reputation.

It’s a model that can also be applied to business:

“Most business owners are currently overlooking the renting potential of their business equipment. At Open Shed we believe renting out the equipment you own, when you are not using it, creates a number of opportunities for you. It can reduce your operating costs, help you establish relationships with other businesses and customers, reduce waste and keep money in your local area,” says Lisa Fox, director and co-founder of Open Shed…other common requests by businesses that use the site include projectors, projector screens and PA equipment, which people often need for a one-off event.

Is the Blue Door of the sharing and collaborative consumption approach the one we should be knocking on? That’s where people are.

We might find that progressing sustainability could be more effective if we treated it like acupuncture – subtly channeling the flow of energy through providing a platform for encouraging the existing momentum out there – rather than the major surgery of international action that we keep putting off.

Sustainability advocates can always carry the spirit and intent of sustainability into their practice, but present it in ways that are relevant and meaningful for people. Find the door that opens for them, rather than the one we want them to enter through.

Have you had any experiences where a message couched in ‘green’ or sustainability terms has been rejected, but a similar message framed in a different way has been accepted?

What other ‘doors’ are there through which to reach people?

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Visual Guide to Cognitive Biases

One term often heard in relation to sustainability, and any other kind of change, is ‘cognitive dissonance’, which was discussed in a recent post, Motivating Sustainable Behaviour:

Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas, beliefs, values, or emotional reactions simultaneously. If something conflicts with an existing belief or value, people will be more likely to move out of the discomfort by rejecting the new information or request than changing their belief or value.

For example, if someone who identifies as being concerned about biodiversity and species loss discovers that their favourite dinner fish is on the endangered list, they may choose to ignore or not act on the information because they can’t bear to give up the meal they love the most.

Crux is just pleased that there are a number of fair trade and organic options for chocolate.

An easier, simpler term for cognitive dissonance is the ‘Say-Do Gap’ – what an individual says is different to what they actually do. Other terms are the Value-Action Gap, and the Attitude-Behaviour Gap – ‘Say-Do’ is just the simplest term with the least syllables.

This bias alone is a tough one to tackle, however, cognitive dissonance is only one of a large group of biases.

Great, right? As if cognitive dissonance was not enough, there’s a whole stack of the things lurking about, waiting to trip up the communication efforts of change agents!

A close relative of cognitive dissonance is confirmation bias, which is:

…a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

Learning a little bit about these can help you to identify and choose communications approaches that effectively respond to the bias.

But first of all, what exactly are cognitive biases?

Cognitive biases are psychological tendencies that cause the human brain to draw incorrect conclusions. Such biases are thought to be a form of ‘cognitive shortcut’, often based upon rules of thumb, and include errors in statistical judgment, social attribution, and memory. These biases are a common outcome of human thought, and often drastically skew the reliability of anecdotal and legal evidence. The phenomenon is studied in cognitive science and social psychology.

Further to previous posts concerning tools to help change agents in thinking and practice – Know Your Logical Fallacies, and Pattern Language – there is now also a ‘ready reckoner’ for getting your head around the taxonomy of Cognitive Biases.

The Royal Society of Account Planning have developed a guide to help people get to grips with all the different cognitive biases in a fun way, designed to introduce the different types of biases and make them easier to memorise.

visual contents page from guide with icons for four categories of bias

The guide is comprised of four categories of biases, and examples in each group. All the examples are represented with an icon, summarised in once sentence, and most are hyperlinked to a Wikipedia reference.

Here is an example of each category – no doubt you will spot the relevance to sustainability and your work!


Social Biases:

screenshot of social bias - 'projection'; unconsciously assuming others share similar thoughts, values, beliefs


Memory Biases:

screenshot of memory bias - 'consistency'; incorrectly remembering one's past attitudes and behaviours as resembling present attitudes and behaviours

Decision Making Biases

screenshot of decision making bias - 'hyperbolic discounting'; people's preference for payoffs sooner rather than later, focusing on short term over longer term


Probability/Belief Biases

screenshot of probability/belief bias - 'hawthorne effect', the tendency of people to behave differently when observed

Crux confesses to being guilty of planning fallacy – the underestimation of task completion times.

Note: the content – derived from the Cognitive Biases wiki – is still a work in progress in terms of comprehensiveness and accuracy. The guide should also be viewed as an introduction and pathway to the works of professionals in this field. Regardless, it is a useful introduction to the layperson.

Do you recognise some of the biases in the guide? Are you aware of using any yourself?

Which biases do you think are the most important ones for sustainability change agents to be putting their attention to?

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Money Martyrdom – I’m Not Buying It

One of the wonderful things about change work and the sustainability movement is meeting so many people who are willing to give.

I have been a giver, and also a grateful receiver of the gifts of other givers. I wouldn’t be who I am today without their time, their willingness to share their knowledge and their mentoring.

But there is a flip side to change work – the frustrations, the defeats, the burnout, as I’ve previously discussed in ‘Be The Change – But Not All Of It! I deeply empathise with those who’ve experienced this, as I’ve been there, done that. No doubt many of you have too.

And then there’s the personal financial sacrifice.

Often the work needed to shift the status quo, particularly in the early stages of a shift such as getting climate change into mainstream debate, equates with no means of generating an income from doing this work.

It’s not until the hearts-and-minds-changers, and the practitioners plugging away on small but working prototypes, have built enough momentum to move things to a tipping point that feasible ways of creating an income emerge.

You would have struggled to get paid gigs doing carbon footprinting ten years ago.

Right now, I can think of three friends of mine (and no doubt you can think of many people you know too) who have spent a huge amount of time making a contribution to the greater good, including:

  • one who took over running a Facebook page that helps reunite lost pets and owners, who spends hours and hours of her time contributing to this community service, utilised by almost 5,000 people
  • another who is running a high profile campaign in the UK, but because its goals are for the public interest (and because it’s not the kind of work that will attract funding easily), he is earning far less than what he would be if he was working in business as usual, rather than trying to change BAU for the wider societal interest
  • one who was teetering on the edge of personal bankruptcy after donating thousands of hours of time to community education over many years, time that could have been used to undertaken income-generating, BAU consultancy work

Is it their choice? Absolutely.

Although when people are intrinsically motivated by their values, they often don’t have a choice. They simply can’t not do the work they are called to do.

Do they lack the entrepreneurship nous and business skills to monetise their work?

Possibly, but not always – sometimes it’s because they are too far ahead of the pack and the demand for their expertise is not yet there, or their work is challenging something that will prevent them from being able to go down this path. Sometimes they don’t have the know-how, or access to the mentoring they need.

Regardless, when my ‘lost pets’ Facebook friend was invited to come to the city from her country home to be interviewed about her work, she needed her car brakes fixed to make the trip.

Now, why isn’t there some way for her to ‘withdraw’ on the social contribution she ‘deposits’ so that she could get this service she needed?

These examples are replicated hundreds of thousands of times across our societies, and our societies are carried on the backs of volunteers – life as we know it would not only be less pleasant, but would likely cease to function without them.

The importance of the voluntary sector is best illustrated by the fact that many larger non profits now have ‘volunteer managers’ – people who are paid to manage the unpaid. This is not to disparage people in these positions, which are necessary because there are people who want to volunteer and they do need to be managed so that their energy is channeled – but it’s still an ironic sign of the times.

In recent years, we’ve begun to see new forms of social enterprise and social entrepreneurship emerging, which is demonstrating new models and possibilities for the nonprofit/voluntary sector.

But for the vast majority of people out there who are volunteering, it’s about time we found ways of placing some kind of value – monetary or otherwise – on work that is donated into the community so that the individuals who donate it can use to meet their needs.

Time banks and local currencies are just two of the methods that can go some way to redressing this situation, but they are transacted from one person to another, either directly or indirectly, not between an individual and ‘the commons’.

However money, or any type of ‘receive’ in exchange for ‘give’, remains a contentious topic in the environment/social change/sustainability movements, and some folks within them seem to have an almost ideological opposition to money.

cartoon with dollar bill on psychiatrist's couch asking 'how would you feel if everyone said you were the root of all evil?'

The ‘Money Martyrdom’ Playlist

Here are the Top 5 reasons for ‘money martyrdom’ I’ve encountered in the sustainability movement – many of the reasons are closely related, or overlap:

#1 – perception that money is part of ‘the system’ they are working to change

Those working for social change sometimes have an aversion to money, as ‘lack of money’ and ‘resourcing’ are typically the cited (and constant) barriers to doing anything worthwhile that contributes to the integrity of living systems and the wellbeing of people.

Money is seen as the agent of ‘business as usual’, a necessary evil that one must use, but should not accept, invite or desire.

What about approaching money as a technology for facilitating exchange? Any technology can be used for good or ill. So use it mindfully, rather than hamstringing yourself from doing the work and living your life by trying to opt-out of the system.

#2 – belief that doing something for money somehow diminishes the value of the work

Oh, it’s so mercenary, isn’t it? How could one possibly expect, let alone accept, any kind of personal reward for work we do out of the goodness of our hearts? Doesn’t that make us no better than…them? 

This is the same mentality that gave rise to scathing criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement – those protesting the system, but using the products and the bathroom facilities of multinational corporations. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi ripped this one to bits in a recent article:

OWS (was accused of being) “Starbucks-sipping, Levi’s-clad, iPhone-clutching protesters denouncing corporate America even as they weep for Steve Jobs, corporate titan, billionaire eight times over.”

Apparently, because Goldman and Citibank are corporations, no protester can ever consume a corporate product – not jeans, not cellphones and definitely not coffee – if he also wants to complain about tax money going to pay off some billionaire banker’s bets against his own crappy mortgages.

Let’s not be too precious, people. That brain you apply to resolving the problems and injustices of the world? It needs fuel. Those hands need tools to give the work effect. The spirit and physical form that drives it all needs to be kept safe.

There’s a happy medium between hedonistic excess and money-grubbing, and self-imposed sacrifice.

#3 – fear of being seen as compromising one’s ‘noble selflessness’

You’ve developed knowledge of, or produced something incredibly useful for people, but you can’t possibly put a price on it because that would be undermining the ethos of what you’re saying – especially if what you’re saying is that money isn’t everything, and we need to change the world so that money doesn’t shape so much of what we do with our lives.

This is the same mindset that many artists and cultural creatives carry ie. it’s the work that matters, not money. Mark McGuiness of Lateral Action dismantled this one in his articles 7 Reasons Creative People Don’t Talk About Money and 4 Ways Money Can Support Your Creativity:

We live in a world obsessed with money, where human beings are treated according to their bank balance, not their intrinsic worth, and we instinctively revolt against this…(yet) from a creative perspective, the best thing about having money in the bank and your finances under control is not having to worry about money. It’s not a problem, and you are free to turn your mind to more inspiring subjects.

And if you’ve had the cheek to want to earn and spend money on not just necessities, but on fun? Tut, tut.

Choosing simplicity is wise. Choosing poverty is foolish.

Remembering you’re also on this earth to live and enjoy your life is vital.

#4 – reluctance to admit that money matters because of peer pressure to not care about money

The ‘peer pressure’ within these movements to ‘not care’ about money because ‘money should not be your motivation’ is misplaced, misguided and even dangerous.

You can sing the ‘money doesn’t matter’ tune for a while, but whether you like it or not, eventually it will. 

Circumstances change. Children come along. Health fails. Relationships break down. You get sick of existing on two minute noodles, and living in a cramped, crappy flat.

Define your goals, your purpose, live your meaning – use money to do this, where necessary. Make it your servant, not your master.

If you don’t want money to control you, be aware that a lack of money created by this mindset can also control you.

#5 – avoiding accusations of hypocrisy, and the guilt/trade off/justification game

Have you ever found yourself justifying something you’ve done, something you have, or something you’ve purchased? That’s you pre-empting the money (and subsequent carbon and consumption) guilt trips that we place on ourselves and others, so that we aren’t seen as conspicuous consumers.

‘I bought a new computer – but I’ve had my old one for years…’

‘I flew to x but it was for something I really had to be there for, and you know, I ride to work every day…’

The conversation dynamic becomes a moral high ground issue, and before you know it, some innocuous comment has you in danger of being cast as a hypocrite.

Conversely, if you pride yourself on being someone who ‘doesn’t need money’ and overly zealous about consumption, you become a caricature of self-denial and guilt, and that only reinforces to those who don’t identify as part of the sustainability movement that this is not something they want to be part of.

Yes, we need to be mindful about money (and consumption). No, money is not everything. But going from one extreme to the other, and especially invoking guilt or blame games (either implied or direct), is unlikely to create an example for others to aspire to either.

I understand where all of these come from, and I’ve felt the same way myself. I still struggle with it all.

I know that money has commodified what used to be exchanged as gifts, and broken the social bonds that came with those exchanges. I’m aware that the process by which money is created and controlled is a major part of our environmental and social dysfunction.

But I’m calling ‘bullshit’ on all of this ‘money martyrdom’.

The system that we live in, right now, requires us to do certain things to meet our needs for food, shelter and services, as well as our wants.

Right now, most (but not all) of those needs and wants are met through the need to exchange our labour to earn money to pay for it.

That’s just the way it is – right now.

Remember: we’re all working on changing what constitutes ‘right now’.

And even though we might vehemently disagree with aspects of ‘the system’, sustaining oneself is critical for being able to do that change work.

You cannot do your best work for the world when you are worrying about paying the rent and the mortgage, or putting food on the table.

Your dentist doesn’t have a problem charging you when you get your teeth checked up. Your mechanic is just fine with billing you for time and materials needed to make sure your car’s running well and the brakes are working.

A colleague who has worked in this area for many years put it eloquently:

…money is just a symbolic representation of the things we need such as food, shelter, clothing etc. Does anyone apologise for needing those things? I know our society has got very good at specialising, but it’s like some people have delegated the hard moral stuff to others, and part of that includes expecting them to somehow be above these basic requirements, like they can be nourished exclusively on some moral plane. Sorry folks, we do not accept the delegation!

She makes an important point here – why should the financial sacrifice of change work fall on the shoulders of a relatively small number of people in society?

And secondly, even if there is some value recognition attached to this work, true change is not going to come if the rest of society is not part of it:

The world will be saved when people realize we all have to pitch in. You can’t just pay your money and hope that someone else will do the job right.

Pete Seeger

Right now, there’s a huge imbalance of both money and energy out there.

So, change agents, don’t shy away from looking to monetise your work, or develop opportunities which can help you free up your time – or at least your brain – from financial concerns, so you can concentrate on what truly matters to you.

The most important thing change agents can do to ensure they are able to continue to do whatever it is they’re passionate about is to look after their own security and wellbeing, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – AND financial.

And don’t apologise for it.

Have you ever encountered ‘money martyrdom’, in the sustainability movement or elsewhere? What do you think motivated it?

Did you challenge it? If so, what happened?

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