World of Giving by Jeffrey Inaba and C-Lab

In place of the pursuit of personal wealth, World of Giving presents a mindset revolving around generosity. It paints a picture in which giving animates all levels of human interaction, acknowledging that each and every one of us gives. From helping out an acquaintance to donating to a valued cause, we all provide in acts big and small that benefit the immediate recipient and often others as well. In this important exploration of the sentiments of our time, the authors describe the basic motivations for why we give in reference to examples such as local volunteering, philanthropy and the flow of aid through foundations, governments, multinationals and NGOs. The book details the process of working toward a greater good and shows that a gift transforms at numerous junctures as it circulates from giver to receiver. Articulating these intricate relationships, World of Giving offers an understanding of the actions that build bridges between goodwill and need, intention and realization.

World of Giving is by Jeffrey Inaba and C-Lab in collaboration with Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation, New Museum and Lars Müller Publishers.

Copyright 2009, Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York

Jeffrey Inaba

Giving permeates human activity. It is present always and everywhere. All around there are acts of giving, some unintended, others premeditated. Some involve gifts to oneself and some to other people. Without giving there would be no communication. Nothing would be extended and nothing would be received. In its absence, nothing can survive. Giving is essential to our existence; yet, it is literally taken for granted. Its benign nature belies its omnipresence. It is even said that it is most virtuous when it goes unnoticed. It is embedded in so much of what we do, that if one were to stop and think about it, it would be difficult to discern when an action is not giving. While it is so ubiquitous that it goes unseen, on a social level it is easily triggered and multiplies. Little is required for it to take hold, build momentum and spread.

Giving is any act that improves the capacity of another person. A gift can be as little as a nod of encouragement, or as great as taking a bullet for a friend. Often giving assumes the form of money or time for the purposes of supporting a cause or organization, such as a cultural institution, social services program or humanitarian campaign. There are varying channels to send gifts to recipients including private philanthropies, governmental agencies, development banks and NGOs that operate locally, nationally and globally.

Everyone is a giver. Every person gives to themselves; many also give to others. When a recipient acknowledges a gift, the recipient becomes a giver by sending information back in return. Such information can range from an expression of acknowledgement to data about the health of a particular population. Even silence is a form of feedback. Receivers are givers too.

The motives behind giving are never singular, but further, can be comprised of an array of contrary vectors. Giving may be an altruistic gesture of helping another person without consciously expecting something concrete in return. On another level it may be prompted by self-interest, where help is extended to others in order to receive a benefit for oneself. But what is considered a benefit is as complex as each person. Giving may be motivated by a desire to simply receive the warm glow that results from acting generously. Or, one might believe that the greatest gift to oneself is to sacrifice one’s life for an important social cause. We suggest that to undermine acts of giving with accusations of self-interest is overly simplistic. The potential positive feedback that flows to the giver is just as integral a part of the dynamic of giving as the positive benefit that flows to the receiver.

Giving can be overshadowed by money. When it is granted public attention, the focus can be on the gift’s monetary value as an index of the giver’s affluence. The gesture can also appear to be less than altruistic and therefore dismissed as an act of self-advancement— neglecting the gift’s actual impact. Or it could be an act that requires relatively little sacrifice on the giver’s part, such as lending one’s name to a worthy cause. In these instances, the aura of individual success may divert attention from the actual need that called the gift into being or action. Though a gift’s economic magnitude can be quite significant, it is only one aspect of the influence aid exerts. Building new associations and cycles of giving is the goal of this book.

Aid Capital is our term for the power of giving. It is the sum of other resources like economic capital (money), political capital (governmental and institutional sway) and human capital (people’s time and energy) composed together with the specific desire to increase the capacity of others. Similar to these forms of capital, Aid Capital is accumulated and spent; however, the intention is not to create an advantageous imbalance for one side or the other. Since its purpose is to improve the capacity of others, in order for it to have value, Aid Capital must be transferred from a spender to a receiver. But when it is spent, it does not result in an accumulation of capital by the receiver and in a loss for the giver. Rather, it accumulates as an asset for both.

Aid Capital is plentiful. It is precious but not in scarce supply. Unlike a finite resource within a closed system, there is virtually no limit to its accumulation. In addition to financial and political resources, Aid Capital includes the sum of the willingness of individuals to offer their time. Relatively speaking, such willingness to volunteer is an abundant, renewable and increasable resource. People are inclined to expend their energy if it is clear that it is going toward a purpose they believe in and that no one profits from the value of their generosity.

When Aid Capital is spent, the giver provides the receiver with both aid and Aid Capital. Aid in the form of money, expert knowledge, food or supplies, for example, is delivered to address the recipient’s needs. As a result of the transfer, the recipient also gains Aid Capital in the capacity to share and give.

As feedback from the exchange, Aid Capital also flows to the giver. Most often this is by way of better knowledge of how to provide aid, an expanded political network or an elevation in reputation. The Aid Capital returned to the giver increases the giver’s ability to acquire more of the limited raw materials (money, intelligence, etc.) for future aid. In addition, this also helps to produce the relatively abundant asset of volunteers’ time and energy. New Aid Capital, in the form of a greater number of committed volunteers, is brought into the system, which in turn fuels the opportunity to seek resources like financing and materials, in effect expanding the capital of the system as a whole. In other words, ingredients such as human will—which are unbounded by the material limitations of other resources— contribute greatly to the sum of all assets, including those that are in scarce supply. And because aid flows in two directions, both from and to each giver, there is no terminal recipient; aid is given and taken without end points. Giving is continuous. The net supply grows and the system itself expands.

While it is somewhat possible to recognize, gauge and accept the varying degree of self-interest that motivates giving on an interpersonal level, it is difficult to do so at an institutional scale. When there are more parties (all of whom have different motives), as well as many more channels through which assistance passes, it’s not easy to know for sure that one’s gift is going toward a desired cause.

A common criticism is that institutional giving is ineffective. There is frequent mention of bureaucratic inefficiency, sub-standard levels of performance when compared to commercial ventures, redundancy of agencies working toward similar ends, exploitation of goodwill and simply, being slow. The examples are so widespread that some believe giving’s problem is not a dearth of money, but rather the mismanagement of aid. In certain contexts it is argued to be so broken that it would be best to dissolve large-scale aid altogether. Such a drastic measure is an overreaction. The increase in recent levels of aid would suggest that giving will continue to resist the barriers that jeopardize its delivery, just as it is certain that the obstacles themselves will multiply. While clearly important to address, these challenges will not go away, as they are largely the result of the particular dynamic of exchange—one of give and take.

Large-scale aid undergoes many transformations, or phase changes, between the giver and receiver. In the most basic circumstances, it changes from a promise, to a transfer of funds in one currency, to the holding and verification of the funds, to a distribution of funds in another currency, to the conversion of funds into procured raw materials and resources, to the integration and realization of those materials and resources into a synthesized form, and then, to the occupation of people and goods that provide aid services. From start to finish, the intention of the gift must be respected as each party literally takes and gives the gift: accepting receipt of it, transforming it and passing it along. As a result of this exchange, the implemented gift is necessarily an inexact manifestation of the original objective.

With each phase there is also a dynamic of give and take with the gift’s content. As its intended effect is converted, within the limits of the medium from its received to new phase, information is gained and lost, possibly diminishing or enriching the character of the gift. Every exchange is also a give and take negotiation. To secure a commitment that the gift will be transferred in the spirit of its stated purpose, the handling parties’ economic or social interest must be met. They determine what value is to be extracted from the gift and agree upon that to be added to contribute to the gift’s further exchangeability.

Architecture is a good example of the complex dynamic of giving. Architects translate the concurrent and typically competing desires of a given commission into a comprehensive action plan. The plan covers oversight, management and execution, and conveys an agreed upon intent and outcome. An essential part of the creative process is to design for and then respond to the give and take that occurs in all phases of translation of the plan into the final form. Detailed specifications for each phase are drafted into the plan, taking into account all the possible conditions that potentially diminish or enhance its execution. Like that of a gift, the path followed to carry out a project lies within a fluid matrix of limitations, resources and agreements whose fluctuations impact the favorability of the project’s outcome. Once the project is underway, the architect must then capitalize on the actual dynamic conditions that arise in global markets and in the field so as to enrich the plan’s intent. Like delivering a gift, realizing a building necessitates moving through this gauntlet of opening and closing opportunities—transforming the project’s original meaning by in some instances giving in and reducing the extent of some its attributes, while in others taking advantage of the circumstances to enrich its composition.

Finally, like architecture, the process of giving necessitates welcoming the opportunities that crop up at each step with a willingness to expose the gift’s intention to forces that can increase its capacity. At the same time, however, it requires safeguarding its integrity through the process and recognizing the point at which such enforcement needs to be relinquished. The gift’s function will inevitably transform after its delivery, departing from its original objective as the received gift is used and its potential fulfilled. In other words, managing aid involves generously removing oneself from the equation at some moments and exercising close control in others. Which one to apply and to what degree is the art of give and take that ultimately determines the effectiveness of delivery. Rather than the locus of its greatest challenges, management is potentially Aid Capital’s primary asset.

The practice of giving thus entails accepting its approximate and indeterminate nature as much as its omnipresence. Importantly, it involves understanding that one receives the most from it by embracing the art of its exchange. The aesthetics of giving, the give and take of every interaction that leads to a gift’s greatest realization, is a form of Aid Capital that bears gifts to those who enter into the World of Giving.
- Jeffrey Inaba


Jeffrey Inaba
Lars Müller