In 2010, my 250cc motor scooter broke down on the road leading out of the small town in which I was living. I spent a frustrating half hour trying to get the scooter to restart. As there wasn’t a local auto repair shop, I ended up having the vehicle towed 30 kilometres to be fixed. Much to my embarrassment, the scooter had merely blown a spark plug. My neighbours laughed and said that a spark plug was something anyone in town could have replaced, especially the many ex-mechanics who had retired to the area.
That’s the irony of the modern market – it can deliver a spare vehicle part from across the world, but a neighbour might not know that the mechanic with the skills to fix the vehicle lives two doors down.
Why aren’t we more forthcoming in what we’re offering and what we need from each other? In part it’s because the commodification of our lives distances the heart from our exchanges. Capitalism thrives on us constantly feeling alone and deprived, and makes us feel that this is what we deserve. When we feel so unworthy of having our real needs met, we find it even harder to share with others what we already have. The economics of scarcity reinforces a culture of scarcity.
Imagine, then, if in just one hour you could match hundreds of detailed offers and needs within a group of people, even if the group were all strangers. What if such an opportunity not only stimulated meaningful connections but had the potential to re-localise your economy and reduce your ecological footprint, all through a fun activity?
Well, it certainly is possible! Below is a 10 step guide to running an ‘offers and needs market’. It’s a process I’ve successfully run with groups as small as three and as big as 100.
The offers and needs market method is far from unique; in fact it’s just a variation on the traditional marketplace! It draws on my experience with gift circles, abundance swaps, the Local Exchange Trading System, as well as asset-based thinking (and can be done as a follow-up to group asset-mapping). Where the offers and needs market is unorthodox is in its use of silence as an important means to encourage participation from people with introverted tendencies, its rapid-fire exchange process, and its use of a particular set of descriptors to classify each offer and need.
Locate a space with:
- the capacity for people to face each other in groups of up to 10 (preferably around circular or triangulated tables, so that people can write and speak to each other easily. As the Offers and Needs Market can get quite loud, make sure you’re able to easily move tables into closer configurations to accommodate for people with a hearing impairment); and
- a wall, board or space for a flipchart at the front of the room, visible to all, where you can post the sample ‘Offers and Needs Sheet’.
Lay out two blank sheets of A4 paper (or only one, if you have printed copies of the Offers and Needs Sheet) and a pen for each participant, unless you anticipate participants bringing their own.
Using a large piece of butcher’s paper, draw up the following spreadsheet (including the ‘descriptors’ under each heading) and pin in up at the front of the room:
You may wish to print and distribute to participants copies of this pre-prepared Offers and Needs Sheet.
Running the Process
- Introduce the activity (5-10 minutes)
Check that everyone has two sheets of paper, a pen and a surface on which they can write. Introduce yourself, the activity and its aims however you feel appropriate, and let participants know that you’ll be pausing to explain each step as the activity progresses. Explain that one of the sheets of paper is for them to write down their offers and needs, and the other is for them to jot down details about offers and needs they’d like to follow-up, given the exchange section of the activity is super-fast. Unless they are urgent, ask people to keep their questions until a later stage of the process.
Tips: In introducing yourself, you may wish to model the process. For example: “I’m Donnie and I’m offering to provide first aid, in an emergency, for free”. In this process I always suggest starting with offers ahead of needs, or if you only have time to do one of these two aspects to focus on offers. Starting with offers is a way to pace the process for participants who might feel uncomfortable sharing their needs in public. It also encourages the asset-based approach. Indeed, you may wish to introduce the offers and needs market process by briefly mentioning asset-based community development (pdf), and how it moves communities to thinking about what they have, rather than focusing on what they don’t. Consider reminding participants that, when we all work together, we often have access to all the resources we require to meet our communities’ deepest needs, and that making social offers such as ‘catching up for coffee’ builds community during the process, even if no one ever takes up the offer to meet up for coffee. If people arrive late, provide them with a brief summary of the process and the Offers and Needs Sheet and ask that the person next to whom they sit assist, as able.
- Explain and draw up the Offers and Needs Sheet (5-10 minutes)
Walk participants through the Sample Offers and Needs Sheet you put up at the front of the room, explaining what each heading and descriptor means. Tell participants that they will need to fill in their name, email and phone number if they want to share their offers and needs with the group via any online database that might emerge from the activity. Explain that the ‘availability’ column gives their fellow participants a sense of how willing they are to share an offer, e.g. ‘A’ (anytime) means they’re happy to be contacted about the offer anytime, during reasonable hours. ‘C’ (casually), means they’re offering something on a more casual basis. The ‘cost’ and ‘reimbursement’ columns give participants the ability to describe what kind of remuneration, if any, they are seeking or can provide.
Have participants draw up their Offers and Needs Sheet, but without the descriptor rows.
Tips: Adjust the descriptors to be culturally sensitive (e.g., appropriate currencies). If you are doing the process with people you suspect are from geographically diverse locations, you might want to add in a ‘location’ descriptor.
- Prompt thinking about the range of possible offers (3-5 minutes)
Encourage participants to think as broadly as possible about what they might offer others. Mention the following categories to prompt ideas:
- Services (e.g., picking up shopping)
- Languages (e.g., conversational Spanish)
- Engaging around an interest/passion (e.g., tennis buddy)
- A piece or body of knowledge (e.g., how to use Twitter)
- Physical resources (e.g., a used printer)
- Personal/professional introductions and leads (e.g., connections with graphic designers)
- Awareness around specific communities, cultures, religions, or spiritual/belief-systems (e.g., awareness of GLBTQ issues)
Encourage participants to include things that are both personal and professional. Mention that participants can also consider making offers on behalf of their organizations and businesses. If you are planning to run a second opportunity for people to list their offers (see step 7), tell people at this point that their lists don’t have to be exhaustive.
Tips: Consider modelling this process by giving an example of something you’re offering across each of the categories you mention. Remind people that every offer is welcome, and that what one person might think would be silly to offer, might be exactly what another person needs! Stress the personal over the professional, because if people are willing to provide more personal offerings I’ve found this leads well into a wider range of professional offerings. Encourage participants to write just a few words, rather than long sentences, about their offers, so that they can be shared quickly and people can connect to discuss the details at a later point. If your process has particular time constraints, consider capping the amount of offers participants can prepare for sharing. Ensure participants feel safe to make their offers by reminding the group that this is an exercise in building community trust and, as such, any individual’s generous offer is not to be exploited through overuse or inappropriate financial gain.
- Have participants fill in the offers section on their sheet (5 minutes)
Ask for five minutes of total silence in which participants fill in the offers, availability and cost sections of their sheet (i.e., just the top half). Ask that participants refrain from talking with the person next to them, and put their hand up if they have a question. Have participants whisper their questions to you and note that you will share answers with all participants, should they prove relevant.
Tips: Explain to participants that by writing things down they can better listen to others when offers and needs are being shared. This encourages participation from those in the group who are more introverted, ensuring participants are not put ‘on the spot’ and are able to read their offers and needs straight from their sheets. Stress that participants fill in ALL the columns, if able.
- Explain how the circles will operate (5 minutes)
Explain that the success of the offers and needs market relies on everyone following a particular presentation formula. To present an offer, a participant needs to always say: ‘I’m <name>. I’m offering <offer>, <availability>, for <cost>’ For example: “I’m Donnie. I’m offering to talk about improv theatre, anytime, for free.”
One participant will begin by presenting the first offer on their sheet. They have a maximum of 15 seconds to do this. The participant to their left will then present the first offer on their sheet, and so on, in a clockwise fashion. When a participant has shared all their offers, they say ‘pass’. The circle continues until everyone is saying ‘pass’.
Inform participants that during the offers circle they may ask each other for clarification about an offer, but remind them that deeper conversation and discussion (including letting other participants know they want to take up an offer) are for a later point. Remind participants that the second sheet of paper is for them to record notes, including the names of their fellow participants, in regards to information they may wish to follow-up.
Tell participants that you will be circulating during the sharing process, and if they put up their hand you will be able to come to them to address their questions without disturbing the circle’s process.
Tips: Model, in full, the behaviour for making an offer. Then consider having one circle model the behaviour by going around one full loop, with you troubleshooting any issues that arise. Reinforce that the 15 second presentation time limit is to encourage fairness, and, if you feel comfortable with it, suggest participants have the right to make a signal or noise if someone in their circle is speaking beyond the 15 seconds allowed per offer.
- Let the offers begin! (5-15 minutes)
Start the rounds by encouraging one person in each circle to begin. You can set a maximum time for the offers stage (in which case it’s worth providing a 1 minute warning before the time is up), or you can run until every last recorded offer has been shared.
Ask that participants put up their hand for any questions that arise during the process, so that you can come and hear their question without disrupting the wider group. Mention that you will share their question with all participants, should that be relevant.
If you have only one circle participating in this process, skip to step 8 once all offers have been shared.
Tips: Try to get around to each circle to listen in. It’s a chance for you to hear some great offers that you can then share with the group in the next phase, as a means to encourage wider thinking within the group. As you move around the room, assist groups, as needed, with the 15 second time limit for each sharing pitch. If you have participants who are familiar with the process and happy to help you facilitate by circulating to the various circles, rather than participating directly, this is a wonderful way to build internal leadership capacity within communities!
- OPTIONAL: Network, reflect on successes, revisit offers, rotate groups and repeat the process (20-25 minutes)
You may wish to allow participants time to get up and exchange details with others in their group. Once you feel the level of conversation beginning to settle, ask participants to resume their seats and go around the room (or the circle, if you are working with a small group) to hear some of the successful matches that have been happening. If you feel that participants’ understanding of the kind of things that can be offered is expanding rapidly, you may wish to return to step 4 and run through the process of listing additional offers. If you are working with a large number of participants in multiple groups, you can also have participants switch circles, so they get to share their offers with more people. The quickest method I’ve discovered for this rotating process is to get participants to self-ascribe numbers based on how many groups are in the room (e.g., if there are 6 groups, then ask each group to self-ascribe the numbers 1-6 for each participant) and then you give each group a number, and ask participants to move to the group that is the same as their number. Once people have moved, you can go straight back into step 6 (with them re-reading their offers to a new group of participants).
Tips: Playing music while participants move from one circle to another helps with the vibe, and you can also use it as a tool to refocus attention by choosing when it stops. If you have configured the layout of tables/chairs in a certain group to accommodate for someone with a hearing impairment, you may want to suggest that that person remains where they are when other participants shift places in the room.
- Prompt thinking about the range of possible needs (20-40 minutes)
When ready, return to steps 3, 4, 6 and 7 with the focus on ‘needs’. Encourage participants to think as broadly and boldly as possible about what they might need from others. The boldness is important because needs can be addressed in all shapes and forms! I’ve seen someone needing a bus for a community project matched with a person on the other side of the room who had a bus sitting in their back yard, in good condition, that they were happy to see put to use! I’ve had someone say they need a cheap holiday and I’ve been able to share information with them about Google Flights and Couchsurfing. In another example, a local business had a regular, incoming supply of pallets they did not need, and a participant in the same circle needed pallets to create furniture. Participants can also add to their sheets things they know their friends or family members need. In the needs sharing phase (Phase 6), encourage participants to steer others in their group to people and resources that could be of help, even if they can’t assist directly themselves.
Tips: Be aware that lots of participants will say they need funding, and that is o.k! You never know how many philanthropists might be in the room.
- Survey participants for ‘matching success’ (2 minutes)
Ask participants to show, by raising their hands, how many of them heard at least one offer or need that is a match for them. Ask them to keep their hands up if they heard two or more; then repeat the question for ‘more than five’, ‘more than ten’, ‘more than fifteen’, etc., as appropriate.
Tips: By starting your ‘matching success’ questions with a low number you likely create the most positively reinforcing experience. If you are quick with numbers, you might also want to work out roughly how many offers and needs matches the group generated, and remind participants of the short amount of time it took to complete this process.
- Encourage participant reflections and close the process (3-5 minutes)
Unless it has been pre-determined, ask how many people, if any, would like to have the data from their Offers and Needs Sheet assembled online, for private sharing. If a group emerges, see if someone is willing to set up the database (I suggest using Google Sheets for this), or you may wish to offer to do this yourself as it should only take five minutes. Have participants keep their sheets so that they can upload the information they want to share with the group directly to the spreadsheet. Ensure people know that any participation in an online database is optional, that the data will be shared only amongst participating members, and that participants can remove their data at any point. Make sure the person setting up the database has email addresses for all those who wish to participate.
If you have a pre-written survey seeking anonymous feedback on the process, now is the time to distribute this to participants, and ask them to complete it.
End with any reflections participants would like to share with the group, regarding the process.
Tips: Any time I get people to vote on their participation in an activity, I first ask everyone to close their eyes, so that no one is aware of each other’s choice. For the person offering to set up the database, make sure you record their contact information, so that you can direct people to them, should participants contact you after the event regarding the database. If you have access to a list of participant emails, you may wish to create an online survey, instead of a written one, using free software such as Google Forms or Survey Monkey. You can then email participants the link to the survey. I’d suggest asking three questions:
- What did you like about the process?
- What could be improved?
- Any other feedback you’d like to provide?
Offers and needs markets are a wonderfully efficient way to remind us that, by working together, we can realise a new economy that serves all our needs. Ensuring everyone has access to healthy food, transportation, housing, and the other means to a fulfilling life, are made easier when we share what we’re offering and what we need from each other. But doing so requires trust. By making participation in the sharing economy simple, offers and needs markets are a tool for building collective trust and shifting people from being passive consumers in a mercenary marketplace to engaged citizens in a thriving community.
The offers and needs market has no limit to its variation. How could you best use the process in your community? My colleague, Sharon Ede, had her group use coloured sticky notes, to post their offers and needs to a wall, allowing people to view things at a more leisurely pace. Joel Zaslovsky ran the process as a conference ‘icebreaker’, had participants think of their offers and needs in the weeks leading up to the event, and added a ‘duration’ descriptor to allow participants to place a date on when their offer or need expires (a particularly useful modification for any subsequent, online database). I’ve long thought about how the process could run as an online chat or group call, with people linking in from different locations – like a virtual equivalent of Streetbank or Hylo (if you’d like to match my need for a co-developer for this project, please drop me a line!). Whatever the variation, offers and needs markets can happen as often as you’d like, because what we’re willing to share, and what we require from each other is constantly changing.
The offers and needs market is also a method that can be truly inclusive. I’ve run processes involving participants with visual impairment and another who used a voice machine to communicate his offers and needs. It can be run with a group of strangers, colleagues at work, students within a school, or friends from a neighbourhood. Participants don’t even have to present any offers and needs to be an important part of a circle, as just listening for potential matches can lead to magical connections being made!
Having my motor scooter towed in 2010 was really frustrating. Yet that frustration prompted me to ask questions that led me to create a written directory of interests, knowledge, skills and resources people in my local river community were willing to share. More than 500 offers ended up being included – from a speedboat for emergency use, to people willing to teach first aid or how to make a patchwork quilt. While running regular offers and needs markets, rather than creating a printed directory, might have proven a more effective way to exchange this information, the project reinforced the same message: together, we have more than enough to create the flourishing world we collectively seek, it’s just a matter of how willing we are to jump in to the sharing process.