116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
You might have heard of a gig economy. What about a gift economy?
The Buy Nothing Project, described as the world’s largest gift economy, allows neighbors in communities around the world to share things they no longer need or have in surplus. Items are given freely with no money, no bartering and no strings attached.
While Buy Nothing is international, it’s also hyper local with Facebook pages for individual cities or even parts of town.
Cedar Rapids got its first Buy Nothing group in 2017 and now has split into several communities along geographic borders. Iowa City has three groups — one for the east side (1,000 members), west side (482 members) and central (492 members).
You can only join one group, which makes it more likely members truly are neighbors sharing with one another rather than robots or creepers.
Neighbors helping out
Katya Boltanova, 42, of Iowa City, credits the Buy Nothing Facebook page with helping her family survive the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, her husband caught the virus and the symptoms hung on for months. Boltanova’s job requiring international travel was put on hold, so their family of five had no income.
“We were living off of our savings,” she said.
Boltanova, who joined the Buy Nothing group in 2014, noticed people had started to post canned goods, beans, grains and other non-perishables. With three elementary-age kids, Boltanova jumped at any offers.
“Anytime anyone posted any food, I would write that I want it,” Boltanova said. “That really helped as far as groceries. We could concentrate on keeping the roof over our head and paying for health insurance.”
Another group member noticed Boltanova was always putting dibs on food gifts and reached out to her on Facebook. That person dropped off a big box of food and an $100 Walmart gift card, Boltanova said.
“That was really a big deal,” she said. “Really, it was just someone paying attention.”
Boltanova’s 9-year-old daughter, Milana, recently got a rabbit cage through Buy Nothing. She’s using it to hold a pet starling. The family also found a secondhand vacuum that had the exact part they needed to fix their vacuum.
How Buy Nothing Works
If you’ve got something to share, you post it as a gift, describing the item and usually taking a photo. Common items are household goods, clothes, pet items or small pieces of furniture, but it’s not rare to see non-expired food items the giver doesn’t like or overbought.
Some items go fast with multiple people asking in the comments to be considered. Other items — say the container of ice cream with one scoop eaten — might not get any takers.
But as they say, one person’s trash often is another’s treasure and most gifts are happily accepted.
“I’m a home day care provider, so before I go buy something new, I try to find it second hand,” said Cynthia Rivera, 37, of Iowa City, who joined the Buy Nothing Facebook group several years ago.
Earlier this month, Instacart fulfilled Rivera’s online grocery order with the wrong kind of shortening spray, so she posted two cans of Carlini canola oil spray on Buy Nothing. Two people posted they were interested and Rivera gave the spray to the first person.
When Rivera’s children give away toys or books through Buy Nothing, she lets them read the responses and decide who should get the gift. While most exchanges are contact-free porch pickups, recipients often will send a photo of the item in use or a message of gratitude.
Asking for what you need
Buy Nothing also works in the reverse. If you need something, you can post an ask. Say your 6-year-old outgrew his snow pants. You might ask whether anyone in the community has the next size up. People search their closets, find a pair their child outgrew and make a note in the comments.
This is what Sarah Furnish, 48, of Iowa City, did in March 2020. The Head Start program where she works was looking for gently-used books to give to preschool kids who couldn’t attend the program in person because of COVID-19.
“Since libraries were closed and I was working with toddlers I asked people for board books,” Furnish said.
Board books are easy to clean and kids outgrow them quickly, so many families often have a lot to pass on. But to a child who’s never had a book of his or her own, this cardboard storybook can mean the world, as Furnish learned from one parent to whom she’d delivered a donated book.
“She said that her son became so attached to the ‘Very Hungry Caterpillar’ book that they had to buy him a second one because he always had to have one with him. He even needed to sleep with it in his bed,” Furnish said. “I told the (Buy Nothing) group it's working, we are inspiring an early love for books.”
The Buy Nothing Project started in 2013 by Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark, two women in the Pacific Northwest who lamented the amount of plastic washing up on the beaches. They started the group to encourage people to buy less and share more, according to the group’s website.
Buy Nothing now has grown to more than 5 million members in 7,000 Buy Nothing communities in 44 countries.
Give, receive, lend, share, and show gratitude in hyperlocal gift economies, where the true wealth is the connections between real neighbors.
Each group is open to all adults living within that group’s boundaries, and each member may only join one group in the network. Members use their personal Facebook profiles (no business accounts).
Anything legal is allowed as a gift/ask. Follow all national and local laws, as well as Facebook’s Community Guidelines.
Incivility, cruelty, insults, slurs or hate speech will not be tolerated.
The Buy Nothing Project, Founders and Administrators accept no responsibility or legal liability for any loss, damage, illness, or injury arising out of group activities.
Integrity, honesty and trust are a must for this gift economy to flourish. Do not take anything without specific permission. Only send a private message when specifically requested.
All gifts must be given without any strings attached and without any expectation of reward other than the joy of giving. No buying, selling, bartering or trading.
Resist the urge to post referrals/recommendations to outside organizations (even charitable ones), local businesses or service providers, or suggestions of where a neighbor can buy or find something.
Market economy related posts e.g. offers/asks for items for sale/rent/barter/trade or job/real estate posts may be deleted. Ask your local group Admin for the voucher/coupon/gift card policy.
The focus is on freely gifted goods and services. This precludes requests or offers for funding or cash donations, monetary assistance or loans. We believe in abundance, simply ask for what you need.
Comments: (319) 339-3157; firstname.lastname@example.org