Pay with a Kindness

Post by Alexis Yael for the Kindness in Business series.


I grew up in a family that fluctuated from single-mother-on-food-stamps poor to working class. When I was in middle school, we moved to one of the wealthiest parts of the United States: Marin county, California. Coming from Texas (and then two years in rural Sonoma county, which is just north of Marin but light years away, in socioeconomic status), the drop into wealthy suburbia was, for me, a complete shock.

Suddenly kids were making fun of the way I dressed. Suddenly, everyone was obsessed over stuff that I hadn’t even heard of (we didn’t have a TV).

Very suddenly, I became aware of the money we did not have.

We did not have money for fancy jeans. We did not have money for new cars. We did not always have a roof over our head (we spent a few months camping one summer, between rentals). We always had money for food, but my hippie mom and I had very different tastes (which was of course, exacerbated by my being a tween).

But what we did have was kindness. In spades.

My mom didn’t have money to help feed the homeless guys down at the bus stop where she picked me up from my commute to school (long story), but she always talked to them. Smiled. Made small talk. She was kind. And they were (for the most part) kind in return. If I had to wait because the bus was late, they made sure I was ok. They had problems all of their own, but they could repay kindness for kindness.

This was kind-of-sort-of embarrassing sometimes (remember, I was eleven) but even at that age I knew it was different. And I was inspired by it. Deeply. (The embarrassment came mostly from my mother’s choice of conversational topics. Another long story!)

And so I grew up knowing that even when we didn’t have a lot of money, kindness was more important and that I could be kind even when I had nothing.

Fast forward almost thirty years. I’m no longer working class. I’m no longer worried about buses running late and how much the last $5 in my pocket can stretch before my next paycheck.

(I am deeply, deeply blessed.)

When I started transitioning from a stay-at-home mom (deeply blessed) to a micro-business owner (deeply blessed), I came up against that common feeling artists often have: how can I charge other people for the gifts that I have been given?

(Creativity is a gift.)

Especially since so many of my friends – who I would like to take my classes and read my books – are not as financially lucky as my family.

But I believe in paying artists for their gifts. I believe in the exchange of money for inspiration.

If you haven’t yet already seen Amanda Palmer’s TED talk on “The art of asking” please take fourteen minutes to view it. Artists deserve to be paid for their work. For their time. For their inspiration.

I believe in paying artists. I believe I deserve to be paid for the gifts I have to offer. I believe I deserve to be paid for the time it takes me to craft my offerings.

But I also believe in kindness. And I know it isn’t kind to ask a struggling mom to choose between paying a phone bill and taking my class. It just isn’t. And that struggling mom is my friend. I want to read her poems. I want to see her photos. I want to be kind to her so that she can be kind to someone else.

I could “focus on a different customer base” (read: people with disposable income). And I believe that is a completely valid way of doing business as an artist. After all, I am a person with some disposable income and I take those classes! But my calling in business is to give back because I am able to do so. I am able to pay back the kindness that has been shown to me, so much in my own life (especially in my struggling-college-student days).

(I have a lot of kindness to pay back to the world. I have been deeply blessed by all the kindnesses that have been shown to me all my life.)

And so, last year when I launched my first e-course, I decided to give it an unusual pricing structure. I called it, “pay with a kindness.”

That meant my class (and all of my subsequent e-courses) was sliding scale. The buyer could either pay the suggested price (money), or pay with a kindness (either in part, or in full) instead of money. The only caveat that I had was that if someone wanted to pay entirely by kindness, I asked them to run their kindness project by me in advance.

And during that first class, the kindnesses that were paid blew me away. One friend ran a compliment thread on her FB page where she honestly and eloquently told everyone who responded what she appreciated about them. It was truly, deeply, inspiring. I saved her compliment to me in my “words of appreciation” folder and I reread those words (and others) when I am feeling down.

Another friend traded me her skills as an artist and drew me a class logo. Someone else made cookies for her upstairs neighbors (our kindnesses are uniquely ours to give).

My mom traded me a necklace that she made just for me. (Yes, my mom takes my classes and I love having her there!)

And some people didn’t pay with kindness, they paid with money. But a neat thing happened: the people that paid full price also started telling me about the kindness projects that they had started!

Kindness didn’t have to be an “instead of” payment, it could also be a “in addition” payment. My mind was a little blown when that happened, although in retrospect maybe it wasn’t so unusual. People want to be kind. It’s part of our deepest longing, to be given and to give comfort.

Now, I am not advocating that every micro-business owner needs to immediately start accepting pay-with-a-kindness! If you are supporting yourself and your family with your business (I am deeply blessed), I know kindness doesn’t pay the bills. You have to be kind to yourself!

And accepting kindness in lieu of money isn’t entirely practical for physical goods. Prints and jewelry and printed zines have extra costs that need to be recouped. I understand. I grok. I can’t offer everything on a kindness scale, if I want to start offering prints and zines, going forward in my own business. I’m still working that out. Mine is still a fledgling business and I am not a successful business person by most people’s standards.

(I am not deeply concerned with success.)

And if your micro-business is already on a larger scale than mine is, it might be harder to implement a pay with a kindness policy. I am not a financial advisor. That’s not one of my gifts!

But maybe, just maybe, there is a kindness project waiting to be inspired by your request for an “in addition” kindness payment. Maybe there is a struggling mom or a struggling student who would really love to take your class (or read your book) who can’t afford it. Maybe your own kindness project could be to expand your circle – just a wee, tiny bit – to include those who are struggling. You could reach out to that struggling mom and ask her to do transcription or get you back to email zero in return for her spot in your upcoming class.

And maybe you are already doing that. Your being here, reading this, tells me there’s a huge likelihood that you are.

Because one thing I know is this: kindness attracts kindness. And those of you reading Kind Over Matter are already practicing kindness. What I am offering (I hope) is one more way to think about offering kindness in your business.

One more way to repay the kindness the world has shown me; one more way to offer kindness in return.

A thank you to all of us living in this beautiful, fragile world.

Alexis Yael is an artist (poet, photographer, belly dancer) living in northern New Jersey with her soul mate and their incredible, nerd to the second power (neurodiverse) kid. Her super power is empathy and her kryptonite is depression and yes, they are intrinsically entwined. She has been teaching a variety of art forms since 2000, when she was a poet-in-the-schools as the recipient of a grant during her final year as an undergrad at the University of California at Riverside. Since then she has taught tribal belly dancing, photography and of course, more poeming. Her next poeming into the now session will be in April and she has several new offerings up her sleeves for the upcoming year, including a newly reopened Etsy store!

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