Sustainability Patterns

Passing On The Gift

Passing on the Gift


Photo courtesy Heifer International / Darcy Kiefel

Fourteen women who'd earned income from their goats would now pass on the offspring to newer members. The donors wore red saris; the new initiates wore lavender. The whole village had turned out. I felt hope rise, and soon was crying like a child, because Dhana Bishow-Karma, whose old untouchable hand I'd wanted to hold, was now standing, throwing her shadow over everyone, holding her gift: a lop-eared goat wearing a necklace of marigolds. She walked toward her chosen recipient, another poor widow belonging to the highest caste in the village. Last year Bishow-Karma couldn't have entered the woman's home. Today she gave her good fortune. In the embrace of two old women holding each other, I saw the architecture of human grace. How astonishingly simple: mental poverty ends this way. A person's status can change, not by receiving but by giving. (Barbara Kingsolver, World Ark, May/June 2009)

To ensure that development efforts live on after the donor organization departs, set up a system whereby recipients of a gift make a commitment to give a similar gift to others.

Someone needs help and is a member of a community of others with similar problems, or perhaps there are near-by communities with similar problems. The problems are not so desperate that people need immediate relief. The people want development support not a hand-out. You are focusing on helping individuals who might be part of a Small Support Group, but want to make sure that more will receive assistance over time Evolving Change.

Our well-intentioned actions for development can die a short time after we depart. How can we ensure that the local community continues the effort?

We often view the problems of others as a puzzle that requires our best efforts to resolve. We want to get our hands on it and straighten out the crooked parts and make everything right. Then we can feel satisfied and go on to the next problem. It’s hard for us as outsiders to accept that we might not know what’s best for the local community. We are reluctant to listen and slow to learn that the locals know more about their problems better than we do.

Receiving an outright donation of training or food or cash or technology leads to expecting more aid. When organizations leave, their good works can die because nothing has been learned except that there are outsiders who are willing to help. What this teaches the recipient is that waiting for aid may lead to more assistance and so a vicious feedback cycle of dependency results.

In the face of all the problems in the world, you know that your bank account is limited and is always inadequate to address the problems you see. You can raise all the money you can possibly raise and it will never be enough. The need is boundless.


Ensure that each recipient of a gift agrees to give gifts to others, where the gift is not a simple hand-out but a means to enable the recipient to help himself.

As the old saying goes: Give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime. The gift is a help-up not a hand-out.

The gift is also not just a job or some isolated course of training, although these can be part of the gift, in fact, the gift must include any training that will result in the recipient’s being able to effectively use the actual gift.

The goal of a sustainable development is to empower the people to solve their own problems. We often believe that what we can do is to solve the problems that we see as outsiders. This is often the goal of training programs. Yes, you want to improve the knowledge of animal husbandry and other topics of interest, but you also want to increase sustainability, the largest part of which is passing on the gift.

The responsibility for determining the gift and the next recipient is not determined by outsiders but by the members of the local community. They know the local needs and who needs help better than the outside organization.

Many cultures and religions have a deep notion of sharing and caring, although in some cultures this may only be practiced within the family.

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Using this pattern makes it more likely that the well-intended actions live on. Recipients will own the process and can begin to take control of their lives. This practice is larger than the simple handing off of an equivalent animal or amount of money. This is an operational directive that people who live well follow in their own lives. We are continually giving to others in response to what we feel we have received. Those who practice this say that the more they give the more they are enriched. Passing on the Gift is a metaphor for a rewarding life.

By having individuals pass on the gift, the changes that result from the assistance are at first small, but grow to involve more and more recipients as the gifts are passed on. The cultural change that is a consequence of the assistance occurs gradually and so is less likely to meet resistance than an influx of large sums of money for aid.

However, there can be a tendency to be heavy-handed in this process and play the role of overseer. The people must themselves be responsible and take ownership of the ritual and their lives.

Care must be taken to make sure that the original gifts are appropriate for the environment and culture of the recipient The Right Gift.

In the 1930s, Dan West, an Indiana farmer doing relief work in Spain began to ask why he was handing out powdered milk to refugees. With the observation that it would be more effective to give “a cow, not a cup,” Heifer International started more than 60 years of work providing livestock to impoverished people. The cornerstone of Heifer’s work is “Passing on the Gift,” which means that recipients agree to share the offspring of animals they received from Heifer by giving to others in need. The impact of this ritual is the heartbeat, the lifeblood of the organization today.

Habitat for Humanity is an international non-profit organization devoted to building "simple, decent, and affordable" housing. Homes are built using volunteer labor and are sold at no profit. This policy has been in place since 1986. Homeowners are usually expected to put in “sweat equity” into their own and other project homes. When the homeowner helps to build another home, he not only helps out another individual, but increases his own sense of worth and a feeling of community belonging.

Each participant, within the NFU New Farm Project, who receives a gift of livestock, seed, orchard tree seedlings, hand tools, or training, signs a contract to pass on a similar gift to another farmer. This encourages community members to support each other in an ever-expanding circle of giving. Sharing best practices, individual successes and research with others benefits all. This is the basis of community: sharing and caring.

The ability of each member of A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous) to identify himself with and bring recovery to the newcomer is a gift. Passing on this gift to others is our one aim. (Alcoholics Anonymous – Tradition Five from Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions)

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