A manifesto for Gift Based Coaching

Many of you will know of Simon Sinek’s book and TED talk, Start with Why? Sinek invites us to begin any new piece of thinking by setting out our intention, defining our purpose, explaining why we get up in the morning. Only when you know why you’re doing something, Sinek argues, should you work out how to go about fulfilling that intention – and, last of all, what it is you’re going to do or make.

Gift Based Coaching starts with a why, with an intention. We want to offer an alternative to the dominant commercial model of coaching that sends a signal that only wealthy people deserve access to it. We want to test the idea that it’s possible to create a relationship of trust with a total stranger, and that reciprocity can provide a fairer basis for coaching than a price list.

There is a view in the coaching community that coaches should be completely impartial, that we should not bring our own values into the coaching dialogue. We disagree. Our commitment is that we won’t offer judgement if your values are different from ours, but we enter the coaching relationship as entire human beings with all of our faults and strengths, and with our values.

We are up-front about our belief that many of the assumptions that underpin the way the world works just now need to be challenged – including the assumption that perpetual economic growth is required to enable progress, and that the level of inequality we see in the world today is a necessary by-product of well-functioning markets.

The Gift Economy

Gift economies have existed for thousands of years in different times and places. They rely on charitable giving, or more often an exchange of gifts, rather than market-based pricing. The word "dāna" in Sanskritt and Pali, meaning the virtue of generosity, has denoted a central philosophical and religious idea in south and south-east Asia from the earliest spiritual writings in India.

There is no single version of a gift economy, and they certainly don't offer a panacea for the failings of modern financial markets. Gifting can create social debt that’s similar in some ways to how our current market system creates financial debt – there is an expectation of reciprocity, that my gift will be repaid in time by your response, and that the value of that response will somehow be the equivalent of my gift.

With Gift Based Coaching, we want to loosen the bonds of reciprocity. We will offer our coaching as a gift and then invite our clients to express their generosity in return. However, we’ve set the system up so that the coaches don’t know how much each client has paid. This means that the act of reciprocity is in the full control of the client – there is no oversight of their return gift.

Why does this initiative matter to me?

Gift Based Coaching started with a conversation with Heather where we shared some of the disconnects we feel in our coaching work, and with the coaching community. I shared a conflict that I’ve felt ever since I started coaching, which is that the commercial business model under which nearly all business coaching is provided is strongly aligned to the same economic system that has proved so far incapable of addressing the long-term, large-scale, structural challenges the world faces – such as the climate crisis, growing global inequality and racial injustice.

I have always found it hard to reconcile my belief that coaching provides a wonderful enabling container for people to discover how they might do great things, with the reality that only the wealthy in our society can afford it.

Median household income in the UK stands at a little under £30k/year. A typical 90 minute coaching session costs £150. Some coaches specialising in working with high-level executives might be charging £1500 a session.

I can’t reconcile my sense of justice to these realities. One of the ills of our current society is the increase in the pay ratio – the gap between the pay of the CEO and the average worker. This has grown in recent years to over x100 – a FTSE 100 CEO earns more than 100 times the average salary of their employees.

As voices of dissent around the world evolve and become more diverse – for example through the Black Lives Matter movement and the school climate strikes – coaching has to become more accessible and more ethically focused if it is to be an enabler of the kind of systemic change needed. Coaching has to find ways to support the development of new types of leaders and leadership, and the transformation of outdated leadership models. It has to find a way to become economically sustainable for coaches, while offering a service that is more universal and a little less cosy.

An experiment in trust and value

This website is not, of course, an attempt to fix any of the challenges outlined above. But it is an attempt to step deliberately outside of the tramlines within which coaching has walked so far. And to see what happens. It’s an experiment.

And of course we realise that there are many others within the coaching world who see a need for change, such as the Climate Coaching Alliance and the Agile Alliance’s Growing Racial Equity in the Agile Community for Black Lives initiative.

If you support what we’re doing…

If you know people who might benefit from coaching, but have never thought it’s “for them”, or assumed it’s unaffordable… people taking a lead in community-led or social change initiatives, please suggest they check out our website.

Of course, it would be ironic if we were so successful in finding people for whom coaching could help them make a bigger impact on the world, but for whom money is a barrier, that we can’t make this work as a business – so if you like the sound of what we do and would like us to succeed, please consider making a donation, or sending some folk to us who can afford a little more, so that they can help support those who can’t.

And it would be lovely to have you share this article, or our website, here on LinkedIn or elsewhere on social media. Or to write a comment or ask a question below.

Geof Ellingham