How to start a gift circle and rebuild community

Reading Time: 4 minutes
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Give and you shall receive

The gift economy represents a shift from consumption to contribution, transaction to trust, scarcity to abundance and isolation to community.

       – Charles Eisenstein

It’s not Christmas, so why am I sitting in a circle with eight people as we shower each other with gifts?

It’s because I belong to a gift circle.

I’ve read that a gift circle is a modern adaption of an ancient practice.

Whether it really is an ancient practice I have no idea, but who cares?

In my experience, it’s a fine and noble  way to build relationships and to restore community in our increasingly fragmented society.

I love gift circles because they help build an alternative economy based on sharing, where people give of their possessions, time and talents with no expectation of return.

I got the idea to start my own circle after reading the book Sacred Economics by writer and self-described “de-growth activist” Charles Eisenstein. He believes we need to encourage more compassionate and trusting relationships and the key to this is to become givers rather than consumers.

Sacred Economics offers creative ways to reduce our dependence on the money economy, which in turn helps rebuild community and restore our connection to the natural world.

Gift circles are a perfect way to build community because our needs are met by each other rather than by corporations and shopping malls.

This means we spend less money and waste fewer resources. For example, in my gift circle even old olive oil tins, glass jars and polystyrene boxes are re-used for gardening and storage projects.

The beauty of it all is that we share our surplus and this inspires generosity, discourages hoarding and keeps our wealth moving.

Since our circle began, we’ve noticed a tendency towards greater trust and goodwill – a natural outcome, perhaps, given how freely people give of their gifts and how gratefully people receive them.

I once thought the adage ‘Those who ask shall receive’ was really corny but I don’t think it’s corny anymore because I’ve seen it in action.

But before we receive, it’s nice to give first.

Here’s how a gift circle works

You need between ten and twenty people. It’s important everyone is clear from the start that it’s not a bartering system — although people are welcome to barter on the side.

The crucial point of a gift circle is that people share their goods and services as a gift without expectation of anything in return.   

A gift circle comprises three rounds

Round One: Everyone sits in a circle and takes turns expressing one or two needs they have. For example, a lift to the airport, a ladder, a bag of lemons, a massage, someone to walk their dog, etc. As each person expresses a need, others in the circle can interject with suggestions and offers on how to meet the need.

When everyone’s had their turn, it’s time for round two.

Round Two: We go around the circle again. This time, each person offers an item or a service (or maybe an idea or a suggestion) that he or she would like to give. For example, babysitting, baking, clothes, or the use of something such as a wheelbarrow or a chainsaw. 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.”

As each round unfurls, a scribe records everything and sends an email to group members that evening or the next day. This way it’s easy to remember everyone’s needs and offerings.

It’s essential that offers are followed-up or the gift circle will breed resentment and cynicism rather than community.

Someone in the group, therefore, must take on the role of follow-upper and be prepared to keep it all together. Consider it as a service to the world.

Actually, it’s not very hard to keep it all together. I don’t think I’ve had to follow up anything.

People naturally and easily commit to their offers – it seems to be the way a gift circle operates. But at least initially, it needs to be watched and nurtured until there comes a point when it all flows seamlessly.

Round Three: This round is where each person takes it in turn to thank others in the group or the group as a whole. For example, I might thank a member for the bag of lemons they gave me last circle. Someone else might thank another member for a suggestion they made which helped solve a problem.

Whatever the nature of the thanks, this round is very important because it inspires generosity in those who witness it.

It also confirms this group is giving to each other, that gifts are recognised and acknowledged and that my own gifts will be recognised and appreciated as well.

Although a gift circle is easy to start, it’s a challenge to keep it alive. This is because people are busy and also because alternative economies still face huge resistance from the money juggernaut.

It takes time, energy and commitment from all members to build a structure strong enough to withstand the cult of productivity and money’s hypnotic allure.

Other impediments to maintaining a circle include anxiety about appearing vulnerable or acquisitive when expressing our needs and our discomfort about receiving gifts when there’s no obligation to reciprocate.

I no longer think these impediments are all that serious because what I can say from my gift circle experience is, yes, there is anxiety and discomfort at first — and it soon passes.

Definitely there were moments our circle struggled – especially during the winter months and numbers dropped and I fretted that it was all falling in a heap and we’d be lured back to consumerism.

Instead, we’re still here, giving and receiving with ever more trust and confidence.

Gift circles, wonderful as they are, still struggle in a money-centred culture and yet they’re more essential than ever.

They foster community, encourage generosity and help us all live more simply and thoughtfully.

Claire Bell

Claire Bell is the health and wellbeing editor of Midlifexpress. She is the author of Stone Age Secrets for Mind and Body and Comma Magic. Print and ebooks available on Amazon.

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