Friday, December 5, 2014

Gift Horse Dynamics

Recently I was working with a community where, one evening, a group was sitting around at Happy Hour in the common house enjoying each others' company. At one point the conversation drifted into the advent of winter and chilly outdoor temperatures, which led one reveler to suggest, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a fireplace where folks could cozy up to in bad weather?"

As that was met with general approbation, one listener was so bathed in the warm glow of inspiration and conviviality, that she promptly went home and purchased an electric fireplace—that she intended to donate to the community to enhance the winter ambiance in the common house. Acting from a spirit (or perhaps spirits, in this case) of generosity and good intention, she was blindsided when her email announcement was met with consternation and push back. What happened?

There's actually quite a lot at play in this dynamic, making it well worth the time to unpack.

1. The donor was fully aware of the community's tight budget and the potential awkwardness of suggesting that the community buy a fireplace. There were probably other things in line ahead of it as priority improvements, and she thought she was saving the group all kinds of process by making it a gift. She had the money, and by proceeding this way she'd get to enjoy the warmth of the fireplace that much sooner and not add pressure to the budget, which was a known concern for those living closer to the edge of their means. She was not expecting to get a heated discussion; just a heated room.

2. Because the fireplace would live in common space, the donor misstepped by bypassing the team that oversees furnishing the common house. Even though it was a gift, it would take up space in a room that didn't have a lot to give, and the point of having that committee was that it was their role to oversee how the space was used. I can't recall if I've ever heard of a team that enjoyed being surprised by unilateral initiatives taken by outsiders in their sphere of influence—however divinely inspired.

3. Because the group has a core commitment to being conscientious about ecological impact, the donor might have anticipated the possibility of objections to operating an appliance that spins the electric meter faster. While the annual cost of such a device—even if used quite a bit—would probably in the range of $50-80 at today's electric rates, there are two concerns: 

a) Any increase in common expenses is borne more or less equally by all members, not just those who are comfortably off, and it never lands well to have a financial burden laid upon you about which you had no say. Even if it's only $2 a year.

b) Beyond dollars, what message does it send to visitors? If the group is trying to be a model of energy efficiency, it may well raise eyebrows that it has a prominently displayed appliance that converts high quality energy (line electricity) into low quality energy (radiant heat). People tend to be more impressed by what you do than what you say, and you didn't need to consult Nostradamus to predict that there would be some soul searching on this one.

To be fair, there is a real issue here: how to balance: i) creature comfort on cold evenings in a way that encourages social interactions; with ii) the desire to contain costs and be a model of wise energy use. I'm not saying how this conversation should go; only that it should happen, and before the fireplace is purchased.

4. There is also the matter of how the appliance will be cleaned, maintained, and repaired. All of those mundane matters invariably add up to an additional cost of a "free" gift, unless the donor agrees to underwrite them as well.

5. While I didn't sense that what I'm about say next was a factor in the instance above, sometimes donors expect to accrue social capital by virtue of their largesse, which amounts to, "Since I donated x, I expect to have a greater say in y." Not that it's generally stated that baldly, but that's how it comes across—and when it does, it's a guaranteed shit storm.

6. In the story above, the donor meant well, and it will be a poor outcome if the lesson she "learns" is to make no generous offers in the future. The trick is how to allow room for reactions and problem solving, while at the same time honoring the good intentions of the would-be donor.

Part of what's imbedded in this is the disparity of assets and income among residents. If the group finds it awkward sharing information about personal finances (at least with a broad brush stroke) then it's hard to hold the benefactor accountable for not taking it into account. It's a good thing that those with more financial ease in their life are willing and able to share some of their good fortune with others—so long as it doesn't come with hidden strings. There are times when free gifts are just too expensive.

Thus, it behooves groups to get savvy about members bearing gifts to the community. When you open the door in the morning and there's a gift horse sitting on your front stoop, I suggest taking a good look in the horse's mouth (despite traditional admonitions to the contrary) before accepting it into the herd:
A. How will cleaning, maintenance, and repair be handled? (Hint: it's not free.) Is the community expected to pick up the tab for upkeep? Is that agreeable?
B. Is it on loan, or a gift that the community can do with it as it pleases? If a loan, what say does the community have in its placement and use; how much advance warning does the community want before it can be recalled by the owner?

C. Are their strings attached (does it need to be available in common space until the donor dies; does the donor expect something in return; are there restrictions on its use)? If so, are the conditions acceptable?

D. Are we being diligent about whether to accept this offer in the same way we would if the community were buying it? If not, why not? 

When presented with a gift horse, remember it's permissible to respond to "neigh" with "nay."

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