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)