Give and Take at Magic

What do you think are the consequences of an exponentially growing human population crowding onto a planet increasingly polluted and depleted of resource? Are disappointment and deprivation becoming more persistent and widespread? Are people evidencing mounting fear as we watch our own and our neighbors' dreams, or even life itself, be snatched away?

At Magic we perceive that humans are more and more preoccupied with getting what we want, and with protecting against loss, and that we are becoming less and less concerned about giving. We see this shift in attitudes evidenced in diverse phenomena. Much that people once did as family and friends we now undertake as parties to business and governmental transactions. In one aspect of life after another we seek to pay or work as little as we can, and to take away as much as possible; we deliver only what is required, and maneuver to shape law and contract in our favor. With our organized charitable activities we are satisfying a dwindling proportion of need. Even in the shrinking sphere of familial and friendly relationships, many of us are turning added attention to who is getting what.

Gift Economy

Giving without expectation of reciprocity or third-party compensation may be essential to a decent society and to a satisfying life. By giving we care for those, including the unborn, who lack sufficient power to protect themselves. By giving we sustain 'the commons.' By giving we generate the myriad kindnesses too small to warrant the transaction costs of accounting. By giving we teach that which is yet to be commercially valued. By giving we affirm our connectedness to each other, to the rest of the living world, and to the cosmos. Giving is key to transcending the pain of mortality, to dying gracefully. Without giving we shrink into isolation.

A primary purpose of Magic is to be a vehicle for giving. By exploring ways to recreate a more robust gift economy, the people making Magic are seeking to improve individual well-being, to shape a more cooperative society, and to sustain the integrity of the environment upon which all of us depend. Making Magic also entails participation in the commercial economy, and interaction with government. In these realms we aim to counter the trends towards commercialization and command by delivering more than is required, by asking less than is customary, and by increasing consensual, and lessening coercive behavior.

Income and Expense

During the five years from 1998 through 2002 Magic's annual average operating income was: ~$80,000 cash, ~$60,000 in-kind gifts of material, and ~11,000 hours of volunteer labor. With these resources we demonstrated how ecology can be applied to identify and to further common interests of humankind.

More than half of Magic's cash income flows from donations made by recipients of program services. We ask that clients contribute at a rate equivalent to what they earn. A typical suggested hourly rate for Magic services is about one-tenth of one percent of a client's annual earnings. When Magic serves an institution or group, we request that they estimate a mean, and when a team of Magic personnel serve, we ask that clients take this into account. Magic personnel may arrange for clients to give work- or other in-kind support where that is mutually agreeable.

From 1998 through 2002 Magic's annual cash and in-kind expenditures, exclusive of labor, were ~$32,000. In-kind expenditures for operations were ~$23,000. The remainder of in-kind gift we passed through either to program participants, or in exchange for salvaging and processing materials we used in renovating a building acquired in 2001. We rely almost entirely upon volunteers, and have paid less than one percent of Magic's income since inception for salaries, benefits, and contract labor. Key residential program personnel are required to live on-site, and are provided room and board. From 1998-2000 our labor budget averaged ~11,000 person-hours per year. About two-thirds of this was contributed by a handful of volunteers who gave ten or more hours per week. Thanks to the generosity and dedication of such people, the cost for Magic to deliver a person-year of public service has been ~$6,000 cash and about ~$4,000 in-kind.

We are currently investigating how we may restructure Magic to enable full-time volunteers to enjoy a material standard of living comparable to that of a typical U.S. resident. We contemplate compensation based on the U.S. median wage, or support for staff and their dependents based upon U.S. per capita income. With these or similar strategies we imagine making Magic a viable career option, while continuing to attract people who are strongly motivated to public service.

Assets and Liabilities

Over the past fifteen years Magic has accumulated an endowment of a little more than $1 million. Currently this is entirely invested in three adjacent Palo Alto properties which house Magic's programs.

Magic owes ~$400,000 to supporters who loaned funds to make possible the purchase of its third property in 2003.


Magic has expended less than one percent of its resources on fundraising, grant-writing, and marketing. In part as a result of this, grants from government and foundations have comprised less than five percent of our income. We have relied almost entirely upon word-of-mouth to engage clients and contributors, and have eschewed special events and other common non-profit promotional activities which are aimed primarily at generating income. Most of our in-kind or money gifts have come at the initiative of firms and individuals familiar with our work, although we have sometimes actively solicited to fill a specific need.

Magic is a very personal enterprise, which has brought clients, donors, and others together in a community of service. While we realize that greater emphasis upon securing resources might enable the organization to grow more rapidly, we have preferred to devote our attention to improving service quality, and have relied upon publicly acknowledged achievements to elicit additional support. (updated 10/22/03)