Gift circle, photo credit: Jill Ettinger
Community: the Missing Ingredient to Happiness
I first learned of Gift Economy in a geodesic dome in the gorgeous middle of nowhere, Utah at a Reality Sandwich retreat in 2009. Charles Eisenstein was there speaking, and the sparkle in his eye was infectious. I remember scribbling madly in my notebook as he sat cross-legged with his spine perfectly straight, like a modern day messiah, sharing the good news: We get to do what we love! We NEED to do what we love! The WORLD needs us to do what we love! And there’s enough room for everybody! At the time I didn’t know it mentally, but I felt it in my body: those words were the beginning of the next era of my life.
Just 8 months earlier, I had been laid off from my job as a web designer for Current TV, a hip independent media startup. I was making more money than I had ever made in my life, sitting around ideating and designing all day with brilliant, attractive people, and enjoying yacht parties with karaoke and free booze, late nights at the office with my adopted family, and – most importantly – a feeling of being part of something. I was on a trajectory.
And one chilly day in November, myself, along with about 50 other employees, found ourselves not so gently ejected from that trajectory. I still remember walking to the pier next to AT&T Park in San Francisco near my office, my body pumped full of adrenaline, not knowing whether I was more terrified, exhilarated, pissed off, or euphoric. Now I could really do anything. I could travel, teach yoga, go back to school, or start my own dang startup. Anything! How exciting!
I quickly slipped into a depression. I got another great job so it wasn’t money that was my concern. But I was working freelance from my apartment. I missed the coffeemaker banter, my teammates, who had become like brothers to me, and our silly lunchtime and post-work adventures. In the months and years after Current, I quickly realized that the creative fulfillment and fair compensation were actually secondary benefits of that job, which still ranks as the Best Job I’ve Ever Had. The biggest benefit was the sense of community, something I had been hungering for since finishing college.
It was wonderful to access such a sense of belonging and ‘tribe’ in the workplace. Yet there are serious problems with attaching that baseline sense of security to a community based on commerce, performance, and business decisions. The role of community is to provide a stable and consistent container. This is simply impossible when profit is at the core, driving all decisions. The feeling was right but the expression was wrong. We need ways to weave this glue of community more widely into contemporary society. So what if there was a way to create more community, instill a deeper sense of belonging, and begin bringing healing to the vast sense of isolation experienced in modern Western culture?
What is a Gift Circle?
The Gift Circle, as founded by Alpha Lo and spread by Charles Eisenstein, is a group facilitation format that holds great possibility as a way to match resources with needs, create community and inspire gratitude and generosity. The goals of a Gift Circle are simply to provide a warm, free, and welcoming space for community to gather and share Gifts and Needs, most often while literally sitting in a circle. Perhaps most importantly, I believe that variations of the Gift Circle format also hold the potential to cultivate healthy interdependence in communities, providing a sense of psycho-spiritual belonging and connection to ameliorate the vast sense of alienation and scarcity experienced by so many. (To be clear, I’m not talking about the thing where a group of women get together and ‘gift’ a large sum of money to one another. This hotly debated phenomenon just happens to share the same name as the type of Gift Circles I am talking about.)
How to Organize a Gift Circle: the Berkeley Model
Myself and a small group of folks were inspired to co-found the Berkeley Gift Circle in 2010 after another retreat with Charles where Alpha was also present. Alpha mentored us as we got it started. We met regularly, taking turns bringing main dishes for the potluck and facilitating the circle. We would eat and socialize a bit, then gather sitting in a circle, and go around the circle with each person speaking what gift they’d enjoy sharing with the community. For instance someone might offer giving a massage, making a custom mix CD, giving a life coaching session, dance class, or a home-cooked meal – the gifts were generally more service-oriented, though there was an occasional item gifted as well, like a futon or pair of headphones.
People who were potentially interested in receiving the named gift would raise their hand, and a notetaker would sometimes notate who wanted what. Other times, the gifter and potential receiver/s would just take note of one another and connect at the end of the meeting. There was a great sense of glee in the room as we watched the hands go up to accept various gifts – the giver always looked happy that someone wanted what they were inspired to offer. The receivers were often thrilled too.
After the first round where we shared gifts, we would then do a round where anyone with a need could speak their need, and likewise, people who were interested in helping meet that need would raise their hands. Needs ranged from things like help moving, assistance with home repairs, website design, reviewing someone’s resume, a bike, a ride to the airport on Tuesday morning, to some courageously shared personal needs like more friends, sex, and cuddles.
Most importantly, there would be a time at the end where we’d leave 20-30 min for givers and receivers to connect with one another directly and coordinate a time to meet up later to give or receive whatever it was. It was highly encouraged to schedule the gift or need session during that meeting, while the energy was still fresh.
One thing to note is that this was explicitly NOT a barter system! Charles and Alpha talk about this format instead as “circular giving,” where you give with no request for compensation or exchange, knowing simply that it will come back to you in some way (kinda like the concept of karma). And, sometimes even more challenging as you receive without necessarily giving anything back to the person you received from. The lack of direct exchange added a magical and more spiritual feeling to the experience. I found that it generated feelings of pure satisfaction in giving, and deep gratitude in receiving.
The first few months were sweet. We were so inspired and falling in love with one another! Turns out that generosity and vulnerability are both very heart opening. Many members of the group already knew one another through a local meditation community, but there were plenty of opportunities for new connection and deepening those existing connections. People would report happily for gift circle, sharing their magical gifting encounters of the week prior with warm smiles: “Bill gave me a coaching session,” “Yes, and Tiffany gave me the best massage!” Witnessing the gifts was a key piece of how the circle keeps good feelings flowing.
‘Star givers’ started emerging- those folks who were always happy to support the person most in need, or do that odious task. The guy I considered my ‘star giver’ stepped up to help me move, fix a cabinet in my kitchen, and bring me a truckload of compost for my garden – all things I had no immediate capacity of doing on my own. He felt like an angel sent from heaven, making me feel so supported as a not-so-handy woman living alone. And he was the humblest, sweetest guy, who truly did not seek anything in return. Sometimes I worried about whether he was getting enough back. So my whole being filled with joy when I learned several months later that he had started dating a woman from the gift circle. They wound up getting happily married!
The Traditional Gift Circle Format
This is taken from the Open Collaboration website.
1. Check in – People say their names and a little bit about their recent or current experience(s).This helps everyone get to know each other better and get comfortable.
2. Sharing of needs – People share what their needs are. This could be a ride to the city, finding a housemate, someone to walk the dog, editing services, etc.
3. Service offering – People offer something to the group, just “putting it out there” for whoever might need that service or object. Alternatively an offering can be made to the group as a whole. One way this can be done is to write on a slip of paper the services you have to offer and then put that in the middle of the circle. Then anyone who wants can pick up that slip of paper up.
4. Giving thanks – People express gratitude for services and things they have received from previous circles.
5. Scheduling – People get together and share when they can get together to give/receive their services. Scheduled services as well as unscheduled offers and requests can be emailed to a group listserv.
Common Challenges of Gift Circles
As much as the good vibes were flowing, some challenges began to emerge after several months of circling. The same people were showing up week after week, and generally had the same gifts to offer, and sometimes even the same needs. There was a fatal lack of diversity. Another challenge was the format itself. It was lengthy and took an entire evening. After the novelty wore off, sometimes it felt a bit boring listening to the same people say their gifts and needs around the circle, one at a time. I found myself starting to feel drained when imagining going to the gathering. I had moved and was now living half an hour across town from the house where we gathered. It didn’t feel convenient anymore. And I was hesitant to set up follow up meetings that would involve a commute, as well.
Another factor is that living in the Bay Area, there’s always a lot going on – the blessing and curse of the abundance of pretty much anything you could want to do being available most of the time. I call it the ‘Bay Area Blight,’ which produces low commitment levels and scattered attention spans. After the honeymoon phase of the Gift Circle wore off, it started feeling like a less appealing option than any of the 5 other things that were on my radar to do on that same night. And as the novelty and my commitment levels faded, it became harder to create space in my life for the circle and its offshoot activities and meetups. If I had an urgent need, it was easy to prioritize attending the circle, but the energy of only going if you needed something rather than going consistently to give and receive felt contradictory to the intentions of the circle.
Adaptions to Integrate Gift Circles into Existing Community
It's helpful for the format to be either incredibly convenient and efficient (eg, not time consuming) or engaging, interesting, and deeply socially or spiritually fulfilling in order for a Gift Circle to be lasting. While involved with the gift circle I was also serving as the Director of the Bay Area Evolver Spore, organizing and facilitating monthly events focusing on transformative culture. I started bringing some aspects of gift circling to the Evolver events, which led to some interesting and more efficient formats.
One of my favorite formats was “Gifts and Needs Name Tags,” which we used as an ice-breaker at a few Evolver Spores. When people entered the event, they would grab a name tag and write their name, one Gift they wanted to share, and one Need they had. The events generally began with about 30 min of mingling time, and the name tags were great conversation starter that led to some successful transactions, with much greater efficiency than a full gift circle. Then the bulk of the evening was spent listening to speakers and curated content, providing a more compelling ‘feature’ event than sitting an entire evening in a circle listening to everyone say what they wanted to give or receive, one at a time.
The efficiency of the name tags showed that it is possible to find out what gifts and needs are in the room quite quickly. However, without some interpersonal connection as glue, I question how motivated folks would be to give to or receive from one another. So an efficient way of mining gifts and needs would be to tap into an existing community of people who have some baseline level of connection. Some applications of this would be to incorporate a physical or virtual bulletin board into an existing community like an office, college campus, or church or synagogue where people gather regularly – they key piece is that it is somewhere folks are going to go anyways, filled with people they kind of know or at least share an identity affinity with or are inspired to build community more deeply with.
I’d love to see a Gifts and Needs bulletin board by the bathroom in a small to medium sized workplace, or in the café at a university. The benefits to placing the gifts and needs in physical space rather than virtual space are that many people are struggling with email overwhelm and information overload in their online life, so catching their eye in moments of real-world down time rather than creating another “thing to check” may work better for many people. That being said, websites like Craigslist and email lists like Freecycle are immensely popular, so there is certainly a place for Gift and Need sharing in the virtual space as well.
In my recent years as a grad student, I would fantasize about having a “Gifts and Needs On Campus” Twitter feed where I could send something out like “I am in the cafe and desperately need a neck massage!” or “Anyone want a 20 minute sound healing session? Meet me in the meditation room.” This would be an easy way of creating community across students, staff and faculty if it were open to everyone in the campus community. The challenge would simply be bringing awareness to the program and getting folks engaged, which I think could be as simple as some well-designed fliers.
Another application of Gift Circles I always wanted to see was a hyper-local neighborhood-based Gift Circle. With the degrees of isolation and busy, walled-off lives in many middle-class American neighborhoods, this could be more challenging to get buy in. But the convenience factor would rule and it would be a great way to create stronger neighborhood networks. Apartment buildings could easily have a bulletin board. Larger, more spread out neighborhoods like the one I live in could potentially start with a Gift Circle potluck meeting to discuss the best vision for application in the local community, perhaps deciding on a central spot for a bulletin board, or utilizing an existing neighborhood email list.
If you’re interested in bringing Gifting into your world, I’d recommend starting by thinking about what communities you’re already a part of, the physical or virtual spaces you share, and if there are certain types of gifts or needs you commonly perceive in these communities. I believe that this format will be most resilient if it spreads and adapts new forms based on each unique environment it enters. Not everyone is a Berkeley meditator hippie who wants to spend 3 hours on a Tuesday night sitting politely in circle nodding and smiling after each person shares their gifts and needs. Even we Berkeley hippies got a little tired of it! Maybe bring a modified gift circle to your group of friends while watching sports or having weekend barbeques or set up a sticky note gift exchange board at work.
At present time, I’m all jazzed up to be a part of the new Hub Oakland co-working space, and bursting at the seams to bring a Gifts & Needs bulletin board into the Hub office in downtown Oakland, imagining all the ways that could bring deeper connection and efficient sharing to that burgeoning community.
So if this lights you up, try it out. Start small and see what works. Consider geography. You may find that it lights up some part of you that is totally fed by giving. You may find that it brings out whatever resistance you have to receiving, so you can do your personal growth work on that and bring more love and abundance into your life.
Caution: Gift Circles May Change Your Life
For me, Gift Circles were a gateway into a larger trajectory of supporting the sharing of gifts in community. Five years after being laid off, I am now integrating my life’s work as I build my own company, Sacred Work, which outshines the ‘Best Job I’ve Ever Had’ as the ‘Best Job I’ve Ever Created.’ My business helps agents of personal and planetary healing bring their unique gifts into the world and turn them into profitable endeavors, using my skill set as a coach & consultant, sacred space facilitator, and visual designer. I feel fulfilled seeing the joy in my clients as they come into greater resonance with their personal path of right livelihood. I frequently find myself secretly thinking “OMG, I can’t believe I am getting paid to do this!”
I don’t know if I would have landed here without the transmission I got from Charles, or my participation in the Gift Circle, solidifying this framework and way of viewing the world. Like my friend, the “Star Giver’s” marriage, I couldn’t see it coming at the time, but in hindsight, it all makes perfect sense. As I do my work, I know the fundamental tenet of gift circles to be true: the gift truly is in the act of joyfully giving. I get to do what I love because I never stop sharing my gifts. Keep giving your gifts and it will flow back to you full circle.
Here are some links about gift circles. Feel free to add other resources in the comments section of this article!
Gift Circle Philosophy https://www.shareable.net/blog/charles-eisenstein-gift-economy-gift-circles
Gift Circle FAQs https://opencollaboration.wordpress.com/2009/11/28/gift-circle-faq/
Gift Circle Guiding Principles https://opencollaboration.wordpress.com/2010/04/15/gift-circle-principles/