Gift Circle

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1. Regina Gelfo:

"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." (

2. Charles Eistenstein:

"Given the cir­cu­lar na­ture of gift flow, I was ex­cited to learn that one of the most promis­ing so­cial in­ven­tions that I've come across for build­ing com­mu­nity is called the Gift Cir­cle. De­vel­oped by Alpha Lo, co-au­thor of The Open Col­lab­o­ra­tion En­cy­clo­pe­dia, and his friends in Marin County, Cal­i­for­nia, it ex­em­pli­fies the dy­nam­ics of gift sys­tems and il­lu­mi­nates the broad ram­i­fi­ca­tions that gift economies por­tend for our econ­omy, psy­chol­ogy, and civ­i­liza­tion.

The ideal num­ber of par­tic­i­pants in a gift cir­cle is 10-20. Every­one sits in a cir­cle, and takes turns say­ing one or two needs they have. In the last cir­cle I fa­cil­i­tated, some of the needs shared were: "a ride to the air­port next week," "some­one to help re­move a fence," "used lum­ber to build a gar­den," "a lad­der to clean my gut­ter," "a bike," and "of­fice fur­ni­ture for a com­mu­nity cen­ter." As each per­son shares, oth­ers in the cir­cle can break in to offer to meet the stated need, or with sug­ges­tions of how to meet it.

When every­one has had their turn, we go around the cir­cle again, each per­son stat­ing some­thing he or she would like to give. Some ex­am­ples last week were "Graphic de­sign skills," "the use of my power tools," "con­tacts in local gov­ern­ment to get things done," and "a bike," but it could be any­thing: time, skills, ma­te­r­ial things; the gift of some­thing out­right, or the gift of the use of some­thing (bor­row­ing). Again, as each per­son shares, any­one can speak up and say, "I'd like that," or "I know some­one who could use one of those.

Dur­ing both these rounds, it is use­ful to have some­one write every­thing down and send the notes out the next day to every­one via email, or on a web page, blog, etc. Oth­er­wise it is quite easy to for­get who needs and of­fers what. Also, I sug­gest writ­ing down, on the spot, the name and phone num­ber of some­one who wants to give or re­ceive some­thing to/from you. It is es­sen­tial to fol­low up, or the gift cir­cle will end up feed­ing cyn­i­cism rather than com­mu­nity.

Fi­nally, the cir­cle can do a third round in which peo­ple ex­press grat­i­tude for the things they re­ceived since the last meet­ing. This round is ex­tremely im­por­tant be­cause in com­mu­nity, the wit­ness­ing of oth­ers' gen­eros­ity in­spires gen­eros­ity in those who wit­ness it. It con­firms that this group is giv­ing to each other, that gifts are rec­og­nized, and that my own gifts will be rec­og­nized, ap­pre­ci­ated, and rec­i­p­ro­cated as well.

It is just that sim­ple: needs, gifts, and grat­i­tude. But the ef­fects can be pro­found.

First, gift cir­cles (and any gift econ­omy, in fact) can re­duce our de­pen­dence on the tra­di­tional mar­ket. If peo­ple give us things we need, then we needn't buy them. I won't need to take a taxi to the air­port to­mor­row, and Rachel won't have to buy lum­ber for her gar­den. The less we use money, the less time we need to spend earn­ing it, and the more time we have to con­tribute to the gift econ­omy, and then re­ceive from it. It is a vir­tu­ous cir­cle.

Sec­ondly, a gift cir­cle re­duces our pro­duc­tion of waste. It is ridicu­lous to pump oil, mine metal, man­u­fac­ture a table and ship it across the ocean when half the peo­ple in town have old ta­bles in their base­ments. It is ridicu­lous as well for each house­hold on my block to own a lawn­mower, which they use two hours a month, a leaf blower they use twice a year, power tools they use for an oc­ca­sional pro­ject, and so on. If we shared these things, we would suf­fer no loss of qual­ity of life. Our ma­te­r­ial lives would be just as rich, yet would re­quire less money and less waste.

In eco­nomic terms, a gift cir­cle re­duces gross do­mes­tic prod­uct, de­fined as the sum total of all goods and ser­vices ex­changed for money. By get­ting a gift ride from some­one in­stead of pay­ing a taxi, I am re­duc­ing GDP by $20. When my friend drops off her son at my house in­stead of pay­ing for day care, GDP falls by an­other $30. The same is true when some­one bor­rows a bike from an­other per­son's base­ment in­stead of buy­ing a new one. (Of course, GDP won't fall if the money saved is then spent on some­thing else. Stan­dard eco­nom­ics, draw­ing on a deep as­sump­tion about the in­fi­nite up­ward elas­tic­ity of human wants, as­sumes this is nearly al­ways the case. A cri­tique of this deeply flawed as­sump­tion is be­yond the scope of the pre­sent essay.)" (


"What is the purpose of a gift circle?

Its to allow for the people to help each other and to create a sense of community. And to further the gift economy.

What is a gift economy?

A gift economy as we define it is where people give something without the expectation of anything in return.

What are examples of gift economies?

Burning Man, Rainbow gatherings, Wikipedia, open source software

What is the format of a gift circle?

The format is still a work in progress. People are still experimenting with the best form." (


the Berkeley Model

By Regina Gelfo:

"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!" (


Common Challenges of Gift Circles

By Regina Gelfo:

"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." (

Does the Gift Economy undermine economic growth?

Charles Eisenstein:

"Why don't we need each other? It is be­cause all the gift re­la­tion­ships upon which we once de­pended are now paid ser­vices. They have been con­verted into ser­vice work which the mar­ket con­verts into cash. What is there left to con­vert? Whether fos­sil fuels, top­soil, aquifers, the at­mos­phere's ca­pac­ity to ab­sorb waste; whether it is food, cloth­ing, shel­ter, med­i­cine, music, or our col­lec­tive cul­tural be­quest of sto­ries and ideas, nearly all have be­come com­modi­ties. Un­less we can find yet new realms of na­ture to con­vert into good, un­less we can find even more func­tions of human life to com­modi­tize, our days of eco­nomic growth are num­bered. What room for growth re­mains—for ex­am­ple in today's ane­mic eco­nomic re­cov­ery— comes only at an in­creas­ing cost to na­ture and so­ci­ety.

From this per­spec­tive, a third con­se­quence of the gift cir­cle and other forms of gift econ­omy be­comes ap­par­ent. Not only does gift-based cir­cu­la­tion sub­tract from GDP, it also has­tens the demise of the pre­sent eco­nomic sys­tem. Any bit of na­ture or human re­la­tion­ship that we pre­serve or re­claim from the com­mod­ity world is one bit less that is avail­able to sell, or to use as the basis for new in­ter­est-bear­ing loans. With­out con­stant cre­ation of new debt, ex­ist­ing debt can­not be re­paid. Lend­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties only occur in a con­text of eco­nomic growth, in which the mar­ginal re­turn on cap­i­tal in­vest­ment ex­ceeds the in­ter­est rate. To sim­plify: no growth, less lend­ing; less lend­ing, more trans­fer of as­sets to cred­i­tors; more trans­fer of as­sets, more con­cen­tra­tion of wealth; more con­cen­tra­tion of wealth, less con­sumer spend­ing; less con­sumer spend­ing, less growth. This is the vi­cious cir­cle de­scribed by econ­o­mists going back to Karl Marx. It has been de­ferred for two cen­turies by the cease­less open­ing up, through tech­nol­ogy and col­o­niza­tion, of new realms of na­ture and re­la­tion­ship to the mar­ket. Today, not only are these realms nearly ex­hausted, but a shift of con­scious­ness mo­ti­vates grow­ing ef­forts to re­claim them for the com­mons and for the gift. Today, we di­rect huge ef­forts to­ward pro­tect­ing the forests, whereas the most bril­liant minds of two gen­er­a­tions ago de­voted them­selves to their more ef­fi­cient clearcut­ting. Sim­i­larly, so many of us today seek to limit pol­lu­tion not ex­pand pro­duc­tion, to pro­tect the wa­ters not in­crease the fish catch, to pre­serve the wet­lands—not build larger hous­ing de­vel­op­ments. These ef­forts, while not al­ways suc­cess­ful, put a brake on eco­nomic growth be­yond the nat­ural limit the en­vi­ron­ment poses. From the gift per­spec­tive, what is hap­pen­ing is that we no longer seek merely to take from the planet, but to give back as well. This cor­re­sponds to the com­ing of age of hu­man­ity, tran­si­tion­ing from a mother-child re­la­tion­ship to earth, to a co-cre­ative part­ner­ship in which giv­ing and re­ceiv­ing find bal­ance.

The same tran­si­tion to the gift is un­der­way in the so­cial realm. Many of us no longer as­pire to fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence, the state in which we have so much money we needn't de­pend on any­one for any­thing. Today, in­creas­ingly, we yearn in­stead for com­mu­nity. We don't want to live in a com­mod­ity world, where every­thing we have ex­ists for the pri­mary goal of profit. We want things cre­ated for love and beauty, things that con­nect us more deeply to the peo­ple around us. We de­sire to be in­ter­de­pen­dent, not in­de­pen­dent. The gift cir­cle, and the many new forms of gift econ­omy that are emerg­ing on the In­ter­net, are ways of re­claim­ing human re­la­tion­ships from the mar­ket.

Whether nat­ural or so­cial, the recla­ma­tion of the gift-based com­mon­wealth not only has­tens the col­lapse of a growth-de­pen­dent money sys­tem, it also mit­i­gates its sever­ity. At the pre­sent mo­ment, the mar­ket faces a cri­sis, merely one of a mul­ti­plic­ity of crises (eco­log­i­cal, so­cial) that are con­verg­ing upon us. Through the tur­bu­lent time that is upon us, the sur­vival of hu­man­ity, and our ca­pac­ity to build a new kind of civ­i­liza­tion em­body­ing a new re­la­tion­ship to earth and a new, more con­nected, human iden­tity, de­pends on these scraps of the com­mon­wealth that we are able to pre­serve or re­claim. Al­though we have done griev­ous dam­age to earth, vast wealth still re­mains. There is still rich­ness in the soil, water, cul­tures and bio­mes of this planet. The longer we per­sist under the sta­tus quo, the less of that rich­ness will re­main and the more calami­tous the tran­si­tion will be.

On a less tan­gi­ble level, any gifts we give con­tribute to an­other kind of com­mon wealth – a reser­voir of grat­i­tude that will see us through times of tur­moil, when the con­ven­tions and sto­ries that hold civic so­ci­ety to­gether fall apart. Gifts in­spire grat­i­tude, and gen­eros­ity is in­fec­tious. In­creas­ingly, I read and hear sto­ries of gen­eros­ity, self­less­ness, even mag­na­nim­ity that take my breath away. When I wit­ness gen­eros­ity, I want to be gen­er­ous too. In the com­ing times, we will need the gen­eros­ity, the self­less­ness, and the mag­na­nim­ity of many peo­ple. If every­one seeks merely their own sur­vival, then there is no hope for a new kind of civ­i­liza­tion. We need each oth­ers' gifts as we need each oth­ers' gen­eros­ity to in­vite us into the realm of the gift our­selves. In con­trast to the age of money where we can pay for any­thing and need no gifts, soon it will be abun­dantly clear: we need each other." (