Join the Favors Economy This Year

Trade in the invisible currency of paying it forward

There’s a unit of trade that keeps places rich, thriving, dynamically networked.


A choice, invisible currency guaranteed found in the globe’s poor and lower income neighborhoods, immigrant communities everywhere, Earth’s largest cities, the highest echelons of power and money, and very possibly your workplace and profession. And really to some degree, many, if not most, other places.

The favor economy refers to the informal collection of practices around giving and receiving favors without the exchange of money. A special blend of the bartering and people-just-helping-each-other-out that originate with human civilization. Favors can be tangible or intangible, for self or others, work-related or personal. No one’s keeping track, but most understand it as a sort of karmic tab in which you shouldn’t be over-giving or over-taking.

The favors economy seems to thrive where people need it most and in vibrant, complex worlds. Places where folks may not have cash but do have other resources. Places where ambition teems. Big cities. Artistic and innovative subcultures. There is a hustle-and-bustle vibe to the favors economy, and those with emotional intelligence and social savvy can go far.

Author and business journalist Suzy Welch speaks of the favor economy as an invisible substrate of business: “Know it’s there and understand you’re a player in it.” It’s an underlying game whether or not you choose to participate.

Having grown up in a blue-collar and immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, I was seeped for the first four decades of my life in the whirl of the favors economy — and the ways it overlapped in these three separate and intertwined worlds. Favors were like breathing — you don’t overthink them and they are part and parcel of the daily landscape.

Caveats However, the practice and culture of favors is not universal. There are things about it that don’t resonate with some individuals, subcultures, or whole towns. Here are some negative responses I’ve observed or experienced when those not attuned to the world of favors are confronted with a genuine, no-strings-attached gesture.

  • Confusion. Why did you offer this?

  • Suspicion. What do you want from me?

  • Panic. I don’t want to owe you anything.

  • Passive aggression. Thank you, [to self] B*tch.

  • Idea theft. I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear your idea, then take it and pass it off as my own.

  • Backstabbing. I know how to deal with people like you.

  • Shunning. I shut people like you out.

It’s sort of tragically comic that some are unable to recognize the gift of a simple kindness that comes their way or receive a basic act of collegial generosity as a threat. Their antennae are raised, their hackles on alert. And that’s fair enough.

Even a gesture made with no expectation of reciprocity, no transactional intent, is not made for no reason at all or in a vacuum. It is a reaching out, a social extension, an effort at connection. And it’s cultural and learned.

Quid pro quo or no? One reason some shirk from an offer of help, a gesture from nowhere, is the unease of not knowing your angle. Will they owe you? What, when, and how? What implied tit for tat might you be roping them into?

An unspoken, transactional quid pro quo is a known subset of the favors economy but is often limited to very culturally-defined situations: Restaurants that let police officers eat for free as a thank you, because they support those in blue, and for the safety that may come with the presence of the law. Nightclubs that give celebrities free passage for the exposure, caché, and entourage that comes with their attendance. Hefty political donations from certain corners. Ginia Bellafante details how this element of the favors economy has reigned in New York City since its New Amsterdam days.

Pay it forward Quid pro quo notwithstanding, the general ethos of the favors economy is paying it forward. Doing favors — unsolicited or upon request — with no expectation of reciprocity. Contribute to the favors economy now and collect some other way down the line. Whether or not you expect eventual reimbursement from the favors ether, the research of Wharton professor Adam Grant indicates that net giving (vs. net taking or even-steven matching) over a career is equated with the most success. (Strategic giving with attention to your own boundaries, that is. Excessive people-pleasing giving can lead to burnout and the worst overall outcomes, with taking and matching tending to keep you in the middle of the pack.)

A currency of democratized wealth One thing I love about the favors economy is that in its most spirited form it transcends social boundaries. Anyone can do anyone a favor in such an environment. Favors can be horizontal, lateral, vertical on any given social scale, and better yet, favors can smash restrictions of social rankings. Consider the discretion shown by building door attendants and the valuable information dished out by cab drivers. Neighbors shoveling more than their patch of sidewalk and paying neighborhood kids for odd jobs. Letters of recommendation, key introductions, social media shout-outs. Favors are an entity of democratized wealth. It’s a currency open to all and its usage makes us all richer.

There’s enough to go around Anna Domanska in An Entrepreners Guide to the Economy of Favors suggests that trafficking in the world of favors assumes abundance — that we have enough time, space, and stuff to share with those around us. She quotes authors Martin Amor and Alex Pellew (The Idea in You*) who list encouragement, time, skills, and stories as favors we can offer our peers.

From applause to zucchini Almost anything can be a favor — something to keep in mind in considerations of extending yourself and the nice things that happen your way courtesy of others. When your neighbor shares extra produce from her garden, collects your mail when you go out of town, gets her cousin’s brother-in-law to fix your car at a discount? Favors. When you put in a good word for a former co-worker at your new job, bring the donuts plus a couple gluten-free muffins for the early morning meeting, volunteer in your child’s classroom to ease their teacher’s load? Favors.

Just ask Asking for help, difficult for many of us, is a critical part of the effervescence of the favors economy. If you’re already a skilled giver, consider learning the fine art of asking, taking, receiving. (Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help* is a very readable, autobiographical treatise on the subject.)

Psychological studies show that people will tend to like you more after they’ve done you a favor. Perhaps they think, I’ve done you a favor, you must be worth it! Some call this the Benjamin Franklin Effect because of his famously shrewd and effective diplomacy around once borrowing a rare book from one of his critics.

The karmic economy awaits, so just ask for what you need. Sheena Tahilramani in The Entrepreneur’s Secret Handbook of the Favor Economy advises to meet with everyone and anyone as you prime yourself for playing the favors game. As far as asking, she recommends “don’t ask too early…be strategic with your asks…be considerate…don’t be shy…be specific.” Debbie Mayne in A Proper Way to Ask a Favor, adds to those: Tell someone why you’re asking them, don’t use guilt, give someone an easy out, and express your thanks appropriately.

Just offer today You can get started in the favors economy today by offering help to others as situations present themselves. In your conversations at work, look for opportunities to encourage, share useful information, get someone’s back. Before deleting an email, take a few seconds to see if there’s a way you can add to the sender’s life in a positive way. Maybe that’s as simple as acknowledging you received it. Maybe there’s an implied need in the message you can address to some degree. Use your time on social media, to reach out to those you wish to acknowledge or know better. Liking. Commenting. Retweeting. Announcing. Raving.

To recap

  • Favors are a choice, invisible currency that keeps places rich, thriving, dynamically networked.

  • The favor economy refers to the informal collection of practices around giving and receiving favors without the exchange of money.

  • The favor economy is an invisible substrate of business, an underlying game whether or not you choose to participate.

  • The favor economy is cultural and learned, so be aware that not everyone may understand or receive simple gestures in the intended spirit.

  • Quid pro quo may be a small subset of the favor economy, but the general ethos is paying it forward, doing favors without expectation of reciprocity.

  • Available to everyone, favors are a unit of democratized wealth and using this currency makes everyone richer.

  • Trafficking in the world of favors assumes abundance — that we have enough time, space, and stuff to share with those around us.

  • Almost anything can be a favor — something to keep in mind in considerations of extending yourself and the nice things that happen your way courtesy of another.

  • Asking is part of the favors ether, so ask for what you need strategically and respectfully.

  • On the giving side of favors, honor others’ requests when you can but also look for opportunities to extend yourself and gestures of kindness and assistance to others.