September 11, 2022
As a collective that supports organizations transition to and develop new organizational forms, a defining characteristic of Greaterthan is the large amount of internal experimentation around new practices. Starting with our origins with the collaborative funding tool Cobudget, an significant part of our work has revolved around alternative approaches to budgeting, funding, pay and money flow in organizations. In this case study, we take a look at the evolution and insights from one of those practices, the ‘Happy Money Story’, a collaborative process for distributing budgets—a practice which has rapidly evolved into one of the most established ways for project teams in Greaterthan to make budget decisions.
This case study was written for the Blueprint: Funding Governance for Systemic Transformation. Read more.
It all started in December 2019, when my colleague Tom Nixon and I began working on a new project, to support a startup to transition to self-management. It was the first time we were working together as a team. When the time came around for us to split the first paycheck from the client between the two of us, Tom asked me whether I was open to experimenting with something new–a process called the ‘Happy Money Story Game’, which he had learned about from a fellow practitioner, Charlie Davies. I was very keen, and so after giving it a try and loving it, he and I continued to use this process for distributing the budget from that project.
At the same time, I began telling other colleagues in Greaterthan about this process, and testing it out in other team configurations I was working in. Greaterthan is a collective that supports organizations to transition to and develop new organizational forms, building on principles such as self-organizing and distributed leadership. As a globally distributed, self-organized collective of around 20, one of Greaterthan’s characteristics is that we do a large amount of internal experimentation around new practices, which we then bring to other organizations after having used them ourselves. Due to our origins in working on collaborative budgeting and its corresponding software Cobudget, Greaterthan members tend to have a high level of curiosity and expertise around alternative approaches to budgeting, funding, pay and money flow in organizations. Hence it is no surprise that the Happy Money Story Game caught people’s attention and began to spread very quickly throughout the collective. Not only did we use the process, we evolved and adapted it to better fit the context of Greaterthan’s work, which is why today in Greaterthan we talk about the Happy Money Story without the term game, and see it more as a practice than a fixed process. Without there being a collective decision or even an explicit intention, two years later the Happy Money Story had established itself as a foundational practice and approach to how budgets in projects are distributed within the collective.
“To me, Happy Money Story is a liberating practice. It breaks open the fallacy of money as “rational” and allows us to explicitly and playfully define what value means for us.”
- Elena Denaro, Greaterthan Partner
The swift adoption and continuous use of this practice within a period of two years within Greaterthan provides us with interesting insights about its impact and potential for fundamentally changing how we relate to money and value as a group.
The Happy Money Story can be described as a relational approach to how a group distributes a budget, based on a form of consensus decision. The desired outcome is for everyone who worked on the project to agree on a distribution of the money that makes all participants happy.
The team doing the Happy Money Story meets with spacious time. If it's their first time, it’s good to plan 60 to 90 min. The group chooses a facilitator before starting (this can be a member of the team or an external person).
The facilitator provides a brief overview of how much money is being distributed, and what the money is for, to ensure everyone has a shared and correct understanding of what the scope of this Happy Money Story is.
Then the team follows a version of these steps:
This is not a fixed process. Depending on the team, their experience with the practice and the context of the happy money story, there may be shorter or longer variations of the above steps. Once a group has had a lot of practice with it, they may even run the process asynchronously, in written or as voice messages.
How the participants individually and collectively come up with the numbers in their proposals in step 2 is up to them. There are people who like to do calculations or create formulas, while others prefer to “feel into” what the right numbers for them are. As long as everyone is happy at the end, it does not matter how the numbers in the proposal were generated.
An essential characteristic of this practice is that it invites us to be playful and creative with money, as well as bring intangible and intentionally non-objective sides of ourselves into the group process. We’re invited to share our bodily sensations and emotions the proposals bring up, to be able to work with these in a generative way. This is important, because in the final consensus round, the aim is to achieve a so-called “full body yes” from all participants. By “full body yes”, we mean a confident yes that the person saying it wholeheartedly stands behind.
The holistic and embodied way that the Happy Money Story invites participants into approaching the topic of money is a key reason why this is such a relevant case study to look at in this blueprint. There are currently many experiments being done around new approaches to money, compensation and value flow, especially in the crypto space, but the majority of these innovations tend to be focused on hyper-quantitative approaches, where value in all its complexity is attempted to be broken down into its elements and tokenized. While tokenization has a lot of potential and there are many interesting applications of it being implemented, it’s not always fit-for-purpose. The current obsessions with tokenization means that we may be overlooking the opportunities of radically different types of approaches, tha+t emphasize trust, relationship building and involve our (physical) bodies in decisions, rather than trustlessness, transactionality and detachment. The Happy Money Story is an example of a practice that sits in stark contrast to these current trends, almost on the opposite side of the spectrum, which makes it a very interesting time to be exploring its potential. At the same time, it points towards the need to find more ways to integrate quantitative and relational approaches with each other, so as to not create an ‘either-or’ dynamic, but instead benefit from how these approaches are complementary.
"With a bit of practice and good facilitation, the Happy Money Story can open up new unexplored possibilities of distributing money. It can take collaboration to new levels of trust and collaboration."
- Alicia Trepat Pont, Greaterthan Associate
Furthermore, in times when we are seeing growing division and polarization in many societies, building, strengthening and sustaining thriving communities seems more important than ever. Relational practices that allow us to share money in the way that the Happy Money Story does can be valuable tools in bringing us closer together - by deepening community bonds and embracing our interdependence.
Here are some of the main insights from observing the evolution of this practice in Greaterthan, within a set of three to six different teams, an average of three to four Happy Money Stories per month, over a span of two years (2020-2022).
One thing we can observe is that topics we were having difficulties resolving a few years ago in Greaterthan such as what hourly rates to set for different types of work (client delivery vs. internal work) and levels of seniority, skills and location, seem to have faded into the background since the introduction of the Happy Money Story practice. This practice seems to have made answering those questions obsolete, by addressing them from a completely different angle. While developing an ‘equitable’ compensation model that takes into account a multitude of factors felt very heavy and difficult to solve for, the Happy Money Story shed light on the fact that such complexity can be far more easily dealt with through a holistic, relational practice. Rather than creating a standard system for the whole, we choose to trust the ability of many small groups to make independent money distribution decisions from a position of high context.
The Happy Money Story process leaves it up to the group whether they want to use calculations (such as hours invested) to inform the distribution proposals they make or not. We can observe that newcomers to the process have been more likely to use calculations, and that over time, both individuals and the whole groups have tended to move away from that approach, towards a more intuitive assessment of what numbers ‘feel right’ during their Happy Money Story processes. This may have to do with the groups developing a shared set of references over time of what seems adequate, as well as participants developing an intuitive sense of the numbers. Getting more comfortable with the numbers. Increase in literacy. More people in each team are thinking deeply about the budget and become more comfortable with numbers.
Another surprising effect we have begun to see is that some of the teams have begun experimenting with more needs-based distributions, rather than focusing on who did how much work or contributed how much value. The practice has also offered an opportunity to take into account what the experience was like for the person who delivered the work; if the work was perceived to be more ‘heavy’ or emotionally taxing, there are cases where teams have decided to give higher compensation for that work for this reason.
The Happy Money Story has influenced how we work in Greaterthan beyond just the application of the practice itself. Since this practice invites us to listen to our bodies during the decision process, the Happy Money Story has also helped establish in the group that bodily responses are seen as a legitimate element to inform our decisions, both during and outside the practice. It has also embedded the idea that as a collective, we should be more mindful of how our money can flow with positive energy for all parties, by which we mean money changing hands “with happiness” – be it for paying a supplier, making a donation or deciding to invest in a new collective initiative.
While we see a lot of potential in this practice, there are some key limiting conditions we have experienced that can hinder this potential from being realized. Participating in this practice requires a very high trust environment, where people feel safe to share how they really feel with colleagues. In environments with high power differentials between group members or fears of consequences from what is shared, holding this process is not likely to deliver the described results. It also requires an openness from participants towards self-development and, ideally, an interest in exploring their personal relationship to money. If someone has not yet been exposed to such work beforehand, jumping into this practice can be a large leap. If we’re not ready to question these, it can also contribute to reinforcing biases.
In addition, it is important to note though that all the shifts in group dynamics shared are still considered to be quite recent, and that as a living practice, these dynamics may significantly change as the group keeps learning and evolving the practice.
Greaterthan is a limited liability company in the UK with a custom constitution, composed of a cooperative-inspired governance and a "Stewardship-Owned" structure, a model to legally anchor purpose over profit in organizations (made accessible thanks to the Purpose Foundation). As a distributed collective with people living all over the world, to date Greaterthan does not employ anyone, but works with its members as contractors, allowing each member to find the right legal vehicle for their work based on the country they live in. It is the responsibility of each member to know what net payments they will receive based on agreed project budgets, since they pay tax and social security out of the income they receive from their work in their respective countries. In a more traditional employment context, the Happy Money Story practice cannot be applied at a per project level in this way, but can instead be used for setting salaries and distributing bonuses.
In conclusion, the case of the Happy Money Story practice helps point us in various directions that are worth exploring for developing regenerative funding governance. What role could there be for approaches to decision-making that are not built solely on rational and logical thinking, but incorporate relational, embodied and emotional dimensions? What potential might we discover when we fully integrate these elements into funding governance? Hopefully this case study has awakened curiosity to explore these questions further, and continue experimenting with practices such as the Happy Money Story and beyond.
More voices from Greaterthan about this practice:
“How do we express the value of our contributions? Before practicing the Happy Money Story I did this in a very “business-like” manner: set up $$$ expectations at the beginning of a project. How? By negotiating and rationalizing value and money. I’m happy to say that I have practiced Happy Money Story for the past 2 years, and all my livelihood is determined using this approach. I believe that appreciative storytelling around mine and others’ contributions (and sometimes needs) has significantly healed my fraught relationship with money.”
- Stefan Morales, Greaterthan Associate
“Having experimented with other forms of value distribution that focused more on individuals asking for or stating what they need/expect/want up front, I always felt that this method didn’t actually represent the emergent realities of the work itself. I really appreciate how the Happy Money Story is one part financial distribution and one part collective reflection. The collective reflection gives voice to the dynamics of distributed leadership within projects, and brings to light what’s sometimes impossible to see in complex projects - especially in scenarios where the work is divided up. The practice has helped heal some of my money stories, and although very high levels of trust and context are necessary, if they are present, this practice is super life-giving and developmental.”
- Susan Basterfield, Greaterthan Partner
“As a group process facilitator and teamwork coach, with my social and economic permaculture lenses on, I find Happy Money Story in team collaboration contexts to be a simple and effective trust-evolving and culture-building experience. It creates intellectual and emotional dynamics that move willing participants well beyond “business as usual” dichotomies of industrial consumerism roles (producer, consumer, buyer, seller, supplier, customer, employer, employee, leader, follower, etc.). For me, it was a discovery of a method to tangibly practice People Care and Fair Shares of permaculture ethics in my professional collaborations. I find it to be a practise of developing holistic interpersonal ties where imaginary distinction between life and work stops being relevant.“
- Nenad Maljković, Greaterthan Associate
“The Happy Money Story is a process that, after a bit of practice and good facilitation can open up new unexplored possibilities of distributing money through different criteria. I think that this process - that aims at achieving a "happy" final distribution, in contexts of "power with", through a container that is broad enough to be adapted to one's own context, and some mature practice - can take collaboration to new levels of trust and collaboration.”
- Alicia Trepat Pont, Greaterthan Associate
by Manel Heredero
This is the story of in99, a small legaltech startup, that put in place a process to recruit high-quality professionals without a HR department and without one-on-one interviews. Doing this is part of their journey towards what they call a “Distributed Future”, which includes, amongst other things, becoming a Remote First company.
This is a case study that looks at the evolution and insights from one of Greaterthan's internal, the ‘Happy Money Story’, a collaborative process for distributing budgets.
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