Beyond the Sliding Scale: A Next-Generation Model

In an attempt to create greater access to goods and services, the sliding scale was born. Variously referred to as “pay what you can,” “tiered pricing,” and simply, “sliding scale,” the concept relies on the phenomenon of relative ability, and it requires that those with greater economic ability pay more, while allowing for those with lesser economic ability to pay less for the same goods and services. On the surface, this concept courts diversity and inclusion by facilitating participation across a broader socio-economic spectrum than abstract market forces generally can and do. But, there’s a catch. This system fundamentally performs, and thereby reifies, the very inequity it seeks to redress.

The time has come for solutions beyond the sliding scale. A next-generation financial model for catalyzing and sustaining mutual and reciprocal community is urgently needed to achieve equity. Once we enter this territory, the potential and promise for transforming economic and cultural systems holistically by deploying a neighborhood-responsive, gift-exchange economy becomes obvious. Exquisite Knowing™ has developed and piloted this next-generation model. We call it EKonomy™.

The Problem with “Pay What You Can”

Ability, especially economic ability, is created and sustained by a complex web of social and historical forces. They include race, class, gender, and history itself, for starters. We might term these forces, axes of power and domination, and because they fuel privilege, they also govern relative ability. Additionally, they collaborate to create and sustain the systems, institutions, and myths that shape our everyday lives, including our opportunities.

In the United States, class is perhaps the stickiest axis of power and domination because our dominant cultural myth tells us that it doesn’t exist. Our dominant cultural myth tells us that we can work hard and be successful. Our myth tells us that anyone, no matter how humble their beginnings, can strive for success, defined as economic success, and achieve it. The myth tells us that hard work buys money. Money buys power and success. Money buys class. But, class isn’t just money. It’s a combination of privileges, and it’s not easy to succeed if you speak with a strong accent, have little education, and grew up or live in relative poverty now. In fact, it’s far easier to make money if you already have some, if you have a powerful network, if your education is high, if you speak unaccented English. With all these factors in play, it’s pretty easy to make money, especially if you’re a white man. But, even a white man has trouble pulling himself up by his bootstraps when he lacks the privilege afforded by all the other axes that comprise class.

To a substantial degree, and relative to other parts of the world, our economic system supports our myth. We can find myriad success stories, exceptions that prove the rule. However, the systems and institutions created and sustained by the historical and contemporary axes of power and domination alternately boost or limit potential success, according to where each of us is situated on the various axes. With a lot of privilege in your corner, success is largely yours for the taking. Without it, the deck is stacked against you. For a white man, who is well educated, born into economic advantage, and otherwise on the dominant end of the axes, the potential for success is great. The systems and institutions are designed to support success as determined, and enjoyed, by the dominant end of each axis. When on this dominant end, people are privileged by the systems that structure all our lives. Conversely, whenever one is located on the other end of an axis by virtue of, for example, economic background, education, sexual orientation, or immigration status, the potential for success is often challenged and thwarted.

On the non-dominant end of each axis, we lack privilege relative to the systems that structure our lives. In place of the privilege at the other end, which supports success, we find oppression that thwarts it. On this end of the axis, a chasm opens up, one we can’t control, between what we are told by the dominant myth that we should be able to achieve and what we are actually able to achieve, no matter how hard we try. Because the dominant myth tells us that we, alone, control our success, when we aren’t successful, we tend to take it personally, or worse, we are blamed and denigrated for our relative lack of success. This phenomenon is both practically and psychologically damaging, and it works better than hush money ever could to support the status quo. Because few are brave enough to admit they can’t succeed in a system that tells us everyone can, we collaborate collectively to perpetuate the myth and fail to name the obstacles that thwart many of us. We blame the victims of systemic oppression rather than the oppressive system, and we create work-arounds, like the sliding scale, to compensate for its failings.

A closer look at this double-edged sword of a myth points directly to the problem with the sliding scale. “Pay what you can” is no match for a dominant myth that tells us we can succeed if we just try hard enough. However unwittingly, the sliding scale supports the misconception that some people failed because they were less able, and some succeeded because they were more able, by asking all participants to perform the difference. By asking some people—the successful ones—to pay more to compensate for others’ relative lack of ability—a failing according to the myth—this model casts those who can pay as people who serve, benefactor-style, and those who can’t pay as those who are served, charity-style. In the process, it maintains and contributes to an imbalance of power, and it elevates the benefactors as righteous and the beneficiaries as the poor souls (who can’t succeed because they are lazy and didn’t try hard enough).

As such, it paints a false picture of reality. Those who can pay more may kid themselves into believing they earned the rights and the ability they enjoy, but if they look more closely, they’ll be able to identify myriad ways that their relative ability has been fueled, over time and circumstance, by the sweat and suffering of others. This closer look can only lead to feelings of guilt. In parallel, those who have relatively little to contribute economically, are by the myth’s definition, personal failures because they didn’t try hard enough. Even while they may be acutely aware that the deck was stacked against them, and that their relative financial instability was well beyond their control, they are cast as failures, in order to support the myth that, effort equals success. This side of the picture is rife with feelings of shame. Both sides are full of fear because no one wants to fall from grace, or be accused of it. These parallel trajectories generate all kinds of negative feelings for all participants, whether we acknowledge those feelings or not.

In a “pay what you can” system, no one ultimately wins, because in order to participate, we must stifle or push through—rather than redress—the reality that we are performing inequity in the name of equity. Whether we are fully conscious of the dynamic, or not, we are attempting to do good by recreating and perpetuating the very system that has created the need for the sliding scale. In a nutshell, the model relies fundamentally on maintaining false senses of security and insecurity, of belonging and exclusion, and it is shaped, as a result, by feelings of blame, shame, guilt, and fear. This tangle of negative feelings is stifling and locks us into relationships of debt and obligation. With this oppositional dynamic in play, mutual and reciprocal community is impossible to catalyze and sustain. We can’t be on the same team if the very game relies for its existence on oppositional teams comprised of benefactors and beneficiaries, of haves and have-nots.

Uruguayan thinker-writer, Eduardo Galeano, talks about this dynamic in terms of a vertical vector of charity versus a horizontal vector of solidarity. Sliding scales feed the vertical vector. The “haves” pay more so that the “have-nots” may be served. A sliding scale requires a spectrum of relative privilege, by definition, and each time we participate, we perform the spectrum and make it real. Conversely, a horizontal vector of solidarity repositions all players along the same, non-hierarchical axis. Solidarity, and this horizontal vector, represent and reflect the promise of equity, and they illuminate the socio-economic challenge and cultural shift that sliding scale systems attempt, but fail, to catalyze. They fail because their very structure precludes equity.

To be sure, “pay what you can,” may seem like a good idea on the surface of things. We might argue, “it enables more people to participate.” Or, “the math and accounting work.” “People have choices.” For these reasons, and other equally well meaning ones, many organizations and programs have employed it. In fact, it’s not hard to find many sliding scale “success” stories, and I want to be clear that my critique here is not meant to diminish ground well covered. Instead, I want to point out some crucial limitations of the sliding scale, assert the need for a next-generation model, and offer that model to you. Whatever good ground the sliding scale has helped cover, it is ultimately flawed, and it misses a big opportunity to catalyze and support equity more fundamentally by a shift in how we do commerce.

To illuminate this opportunity for greater good, let’s take a closer look at the missed opportunity.

The Missed Opportunity

What if, instead of performing difference, we performed mutual and reciprocal community via our commercial exchanges? What if, instead of fueling shame, guilt, and self-righteousness, we catalyzed empowerment and connection? What if, instead of burying a conversation about class deep within a myth that no longer serves us, we created a shared vocabulary and a story of experience and exchange that empowers us—all of us—to traverse difference and create common ground? What if our system of exchange performed equity?

These aspirations are behind so much work that the sliding scale attempts. Unfortunately, the sliding scale isn’t the right tool to achieve them. Instead, we need a tool that redefines the process and scope of exchange so that “tiered pricing” isn’t the focus but is instead an expedient factor, one of many, that supports participants to contribute to a holistic system that binds us in mutual, reciprocal, and empowered community-making as we exchange goods and services. We need a next-generation model, one that responds to local demographics, contributes to empowering exchange, and facilitates dynamic equity-achieving social and cultural change. We need a financial model for goods and services that makes dollars and sense because it makes people sense.

A Next-Gen Model

With EKonomy™, Exquisite Knowing has created this next-generation model. The model is Neighborhood-Responsive™, and it achieves what the sliding scale can only begin to attempt. It does so holistically by leveraging all the power of the Exquisite Knowing™ system to activate participants to empower themselves and collectively shift culture and experience, one empowered exchange at time. Derived from gift-exchange economy precedents across the globe, and fully adaptable to specific demographic and cultural contexts, EKonomy™—the Exquisite Knowing Economy—creates a system of exchange in which everyone can participate, the math works, and people have choices, just like with a sliding scale, but with a vital equity-achieving difference. EKonomy™ transforms commerce into mutually empowered and empowering community-making.

With the sliding scale, revenue metrics drive participation options, and we are tied, first and foremost, to market forces like supply and demand. This system privileges the math and economic forces over the people it seeks to serve. By contrast, EKonomy™ puts community first, without sacrificing fiscal priorities. In doing so, it achieves a surprising result: better community results and better financial results.

Yes, believe it or not, EKonomy™ has proven to yield not only mutual and reciprocal community, but also a stronger financial picture than the sliding scale can. Precisely because it solves for the problem of the sliding scale and acknowledges that people are more complex than “the numbers” and economic capacity, EKonomy™ yields more sustainable and bountiful systems of exchange. It defines exchange holistically in terms of personally meaningful priorities and multivalent contribution, not just financial priorities. Profitability is both a fiscal and a socio-cultural determination. EKonomy™ transforms the vertical axis of charity into a horizontal axis of solidarity, and it empowers all who participate, equally and equitably.

When empowered, we make different kinds of choices, and we are capable of bounty—of imagination, creativity, innovation, and yes, financial success. To give you a couple of examples of how EKonomy™ catalyzes this bounty for both organization and participants, let’s take a look at Second Ward Space, the world’s first ground-up Exquisite Knowing for-profit venture.

Case-Study: Second Ward Space

This Neighborhood-Responsive™ concept sprouted in Houston’s Second Ward in early 2020, and its mission includes three pillars: Community | Yoga | Provisions. For everything from its financial model to its offerings, Second Ward Space is informed by the Exquisite Knowing system including EKonomy™. For the sake of easy conversations, we refer to the latter colloquially as, “a gift-exchange economy that is neighborhood-responsive,” and because of the global pandemic, we rolled it out in some ways that surprised us, with more success than we could have hoped for.

Despite grand plans of building a dynamic event and community gathering space containing two yoga studios and a garden, Second Ward Space, along with the rest of the world, collided in March with a pandemic, just as we were ready to sign the lease and secure start-up capital. As an Exquisite Knowing organization, we were defined and structured to pivot according to circumstance, and so, we shelved our initial plan and responded to new neighborhood needs and unforeseen limitations as fast as we were able to identify them.

In the name of Community and Provisions, we created a veggie project to support the need for safely accessible produce. To do this, we partnered with Plant It Forward Farms, a nonprofit that helps Congolese refugees secure and sustain their livelihood through urban farming and CSA programs. In the name of Community and Yoga, we tailored our yoga and micromobility plans to create a parks-based, socially distanced health and wellness offering. To brand the effort, we launched a line of Second Ward Space tees. Much to our delight, and with no small measure of surprise, the Second Ward Space pandemic response proved that the theories the organization is founded upon, work and are adaptable. Especially EKonomy™. Even in the worst and most challenging of circumstances, it works.

With the Veggie Project, we were essentially distributors of someone else’s product, and we couldn’t control for all the variables that are theoretically ideal for deploying EKonomy™. So, we adapted the model to Plant It Forward Farms’ CSA offering by adding two (of the customary five) price points in the model to Plant It Forward’s pricing structure. We tied these additional points as closely as we could to economic indicators from the Second Ward. Thus, to Plant It Forward’s government-subsidized and market-value price points, we added a less than market-value price point and a greater than market-value price point, for a total of four options, with the hypothesis that subscriptions to these two additional points would even out at market value. They did. Our tiered pricing structure achieved market value return while also enabling more variety of participation, much like a sliding scale would. But, this is only one small part of EKnonomy™ and what our adaptation entailed and achieved. To stop here would be to miss the point.

On its own, Neighborhood-Responsive™ tiered-pricing is no more than a variant of the sliding scale, and EKonomy™ asks more of us. It requires us to remove the mechanism of direct exchange—money for goods or services—in favor of adding a mechanism for community-making. It achieves this, in part, by transforming exchange from a one-to-one proposition to a chain of exchange. This key maneuver disrupts the performance of inequity by turning the vertical axis of charity into a horizontal axis of solidarity. We receive our goods and services as a gift from a prior participant. Then, with our own contribution, another gift, we sponsor the next participant’s participation. No one pays directly for goods and services received.

Colloquially, we refer to this maneuver as “pay it forward.” With the veggie project, each participant received a CSA share that had been paid forward by someone before them. All shares distributed each week had been sponsored, at a level that reflected not only ability but also priorities and spending choices, by someone other than the person picking them up. On the flip-side, every time a participant paid for a share, they sponsored the next participant. Moreover, they chose the form this sponsorship would take by choosing a payment bracket that “felt right” to them. We offered messaging to help everyone navigate this emotional and practical decision-tree. As a result, participants created an empowered and empowering chain of exchange rather than a direct one-to-one exchange.

In the process, Second Ward Space and Plant It Forward Farms shifted from strictly acting as merchants to functioning as mediators of the exchange chain, and, along with everyone else, beneficiaries of it. We all had a role to play, but the play was no longer about commerce and consumption. Instead, it became about community health, wellbeing, and collaboration. As a result, the exchange chain yielded feelings of inclusion and belonging in the place of consumption. It also elicited lots of laughter and smiles, especially the first time we explained the concept. “What?!? You mean someone else gave me these vegetables? And, I don’t even know who I’m giving the ones I paid for to? That’s so cool!”

EKonomy™ obscures who pays for what and thereby shifts emphasis from the monetary transaction itself to the community-making exchange and engenders feelings of belonging, accountability, and stewardship. “We’re in this together, and your vegetables are a gift from the farmers who grew them and another CSA participant who sponsored them.” No matter one’s relative financial ability or how they prioritized food purchases, each purchase was made on behalf of someone else, as a gift. This gift mentality catalyzed feelings of generosity and bounty, and encouraged a different relationship than the one we expect from a simple financial transaction. It expanded the transaction instance into a community-making and equity-catalyzing process. Fore-grounding participation and community-building over transaction, and demoting financial transaction to a background activity, makes this transformation possible.

The success of the veggie project only begins to hint, however, at the potential of EKonomy™. Because we partnered with another organization and did not control the whole transactional system, we could only deploy EKonomy™ partially. To illustrate the full potential, and the generosity EKonomy™ engenders, let’s take a look at two programs that are straight-up Second Ward Space offerings: YogaRoll™ and 2WS tees.

As programs that we fully control, we are able to leverage all that EKonomy™ has to offer. Of special note, we include all five price points of the model in these applications. The fifth price point at the top of the tiered-system, and the one lacking from the Plant It Forward Farms application, is especially generative. It’s designed for those who prioritize “all-access” and are also willing to contribute to this holistic vision. Because the other price points essentially support the market-system of supply and demand, this fifth point is the one that contributes to financial sustainability and broader social impact. It’s the icing on the cake, so to speak. When participants choose this bracket, they are making a clear and unequivocal statement that they want everyone to be able to participate. It’s the price point of fundamental inclusion, and the organization can use this extra bounty to facilitate more inclusion.

This extra bounty is mediated by the organization, and not privileged over other gifts. As a result, it maintains, rather than disrupts, the horizontal axis of solidarity, as we discovered when we deployed the complete model for YogaRoll™ and the 2WS tees.

With these programs, it became very clear that personal and cultural priorities govern people’s payment choices as much, and sometimes more, than their economic capacity. People with relatively low financial ability sometimes chose to participate at the top bracket so that more people could participate. Likewise, people with relatively high financial ability sometimes chose to participate at a lower bracket because they weren’t feeling flush. Feelings of generosity, generated by participating in the exchange chain, often prompted these same people to make up the difference later as their emotional state shifted.

In short, people generally spend whatever they have, the way the want to, and often without regard to objective reason. When we create systems of exchange that generate positive feelings and yield mutual and reciprocal community, people want to contribute. It feels good.

EKonomy™ for the Big Win

With our Second Ward Space programs, we have witnessed a kind of generosity emerge, across the board, that is not characteristic of sliding scale systems. EKonomy™ catalyzes generosity in community and for it. This generosity propelled our fiscal and socio-cultural bottom lines to heights we had not anticipated as we rolled out programs on-the-fly, in order to respond to the pandemic, months before to our initial targeted launch dates.

In fact, with both YogaRoll™ classes and 2WS tees, we were able to average revenue that rivaled pre-pandemic New York City and San Francisco studio prices. Our per person average payment—even with some participants paying nothing at all—was more than double the Houston average for similar goods and services, and it rivaled the top of the U.S. scale. We achieved these numbers during a global pandemic, in a difficult political and economic moment, and within a neighborhood where 30% of families live at, or below, the poverty line.

Even more to the EKonomy™ point, and the Second Ward Space mission, each participant felt empowered to sponsor the next person’s participation, according to their individual priorities, abilities, and feelings in the moment and not because they felt a sense of obligation or guilt. By leveraging diverse and inclusive participation across the socio-economic spectrum, as a community-making and sustaining endeavor, we created a win for everyone–participants, producers, organizations, and neighborhood.

Gift-giving, done freely, feels good, and EKonomy™ honors all gifts, including participation, making them easy to give. Gifts are also fun to receive, and participants loved participating because someone else had sponsored them. In the end, our financial balance sheet worked out beyond our projections, but even more importantly, we side-stepped those awful feelings of sizing-up and calculating relative ability. We turned the vertical axis of charity into a horizontal axis of solidarity. We redefined the balance sheet in terms of mutual and reciprocal community-making, and welcomed financial success as by-product of equity and empowered community-making rather than as the main attraction.

With EKonomy™, Second Ward Space ditched performing inequity in favor of performing mutual and reciprocal community-making. By deploying this next-generation model, we blew past the sliding scale, and the fiscal participation it offers, to land in the territory of fully empowered and empowering participation well beyond a fiscal relationship. With these programs, Second Ward Space clearly demonstrates how Exquisite Knowing’s EKonomy™ can catalyze participation, cultivate personally meaningful accountability, and encourage holistic community stewardship that yields mutually empowered community exchange. This exchange, in turn, drives feelings of generosity that yield successful, and sustainable, revenue streams.

EKonomy™ catalyzes and supports a dynamic culture shift that changes how we think about, and experience, commerce. With it, organizations can leverage the process of exchange to create empowering and empowered communities. With a neighborhood-responsive gift-exchange economy, an EKonomy™, the bottom line shifts to include, represent, and reflect all participants. Together, we create mutual and reciprocal community, and that makes dollars and sense because it makes people sense first.

Yeah, but will EKonomy™ work for us?

To learn more about how EKonomy™ works—and can work for you and your organization—please get in touch. We can’t wait to help you thrive—financially, socially, and culturally—as you work to move the needle toward equity in your programs, offerings, and organization. EKonomy™ is a game-changer.

Photo credit: Doogie Roux