A Gift Circle: Our Amazing Experience

bowen map

Gift circles (not to be confused with “gifting circles”, a pyramid scheme that involves giving someone a large sum of money) have been around for a few years. I am familiar with them from my visits to Eugene, Oregon, where Tree and her colleagues have organized them for some time.

I actually like the Eugene variant of the gift circle process, and when I described it to my Bowen in Transition colleagues they encouraged me to try leading one on our island. We did this a couple of weeks ago, and it was a remarkable success. Here’s the process we used:

1. Start with a potluck supper.

2. When supper is done, convene in a circle (10-20 people is best, and we had a perfect dozen for ours), and begin with a check-in going around the circle based on the question “What are you grateful for right now?” Ask participants to limit their responses to a sentence or two.

3. Hand out paper and pencils for each person to take notes. Invite everyone to think about and write down something they would like to offer to the group. You don’t have to be an expert or make a living doing something in order to offer it. Here is a list of some ideas that you can provide to people thinking about their offers:

  • your time
  • skills, demonstrations, training, crafts, know-how and information (“know-what” and “know-who”)
  • goods and tools, surplus to your needs or available to lend out
  • providing rides or running errands
  • space for a meeting, event or visitor
  • child care, pet care, house-sitting, mentoring
  • massages, food preparation, car/appliance/home repairs, sewing/mending, gardening and other services
  • organizing, facilitating or set-up help for events or activities
  • visits to people who are isolated

4. After about 5 minutes, go around the circle and have each person say their name and what they would like to offer. People are free to ‘pass’ if they are unsure what to offer. Offers should be sincere and joyful — if offers are conditional or reluctant this defeats the spirit of the circle. It helps if the circle convenor models the process by going first and making 2-3 specific and varied offers. There is no discussion as the offers are made, except to ask clarifying questions. If you hear an offer that you would like to take someone up on, you note it down for step 7 followup. After everyone has had a turn, ask if there are any other offers anyone would like to add.

5. Now, provide about 5 minutes for people to think about and write down what they would like to request, using the same list above to prompt ideas. If something has already been offered in the previous round, it is unnecessary to raise it again in the request round; i.e. your requests should be things that were not offered in the offering round.

6. After about 5 minutes, go around the circle and have each person repeat their name and say what they would like to request. People are free to ‘pass’ if they are unsure what to request. Again, it helps if the circle convenor models the process by going first and making 2-3 specific and varied requests — people unfamiliar with the process will likely be nervous about asking for something, and modelling with a request that is deep and heartfelt can help them overcome their hesitation. There is no discussion as the requests are made, except to ask clarifying questions. If you hear a request that you would like to take someone up on, you note it down for step 7 followup. After everyone has had a turn, ask if there are any other requests anyone would like to add.

7. Now provide a couple of minutes for people to highlight in their notes the offers they would like to take people up on, and the requests they would be willing to fill. Then provide 15-20 minutes for people to just circulate with others and make arrangements one-on-one for the offers and requests to be filled. Caution people about promising to do too much, and make sure people pause before concluding each arrangement to be absolutely sure they are willing and able to commit to doing it. Arrangements should be as specific as possible (e.g. specific date and time rather than ‘call me and we’ll set up a time’). If this is impractical, or if you want to think about it further, take the number or e-mail address of the person you want to arrange something with. Encourage everyone to follow up within a week to firm up arrangements — otherwise they are likely to be forgotten, and if people experience a lack of follow-through, the credibility of the whole gift circle process will be undermined.

The process took us nearly two hours. There was considerable initial reluctance from some attendees who thought the process intimidating and a little too intimate for them. In fact, a few people who were put off by the description of the activity chose not to come to the meeting at all. But the reluctant attendees participated enthusiastically and said afterwards they were absolutely sold on the value of the process.

Here’s a flavour for some of the remarkable offers and fulfilled (I think) requests that our circle came up with:

  • help setting up a permaculture garden, help setting up a business, and help with taxes, fundraising and specialized software
  • rooms and a cottage for visitors to crash for a few nights
  • self-publishing and e-publishing help, transcription services, social media help
  • furniture and artworks — long-term loan
  • editing help
  • cheese-making and clay modelling advice and assistance
  • house-painting, wood-splitting and window-cleaning supplies and assistance
  • a custom-written song written and sung for a loved one
  • massage, yoga, healing touch, martial arts and meditation sessions and partners
  • dog walking, hiking companions
  • fresh produce
  • compost construction
  • help fixing a walking trail and digging a garden
  • sailing and boat-building lessons
  • empathetic listening
  • ideas on good walking/hiking routes
  • solar power, nutritional, resume-writing, and interviewing advice
  • support for convalescents and people in hospice (visits, game-playing, singing, massage, movies, art, rides to events)
  • rides to/from, and place for overnight and short-term stay in the city
  • surplus furniture
  • organizing help

The possibilities are limited only by our courage and imagination. We’ve heard that people at gift circles have asked for and received help finding romantic partners, and help recovering a stolen vehicle, for example!

A note on money: Generally offers are always free; the exception would be if you’re offering something that has incidental “out of pocket” costs associated with it, such as material costs if you’re offering to sew or build something for someone.

All in all, everyone was amazed at how much they had to offer and how many of the others’ offers were valuable to them. It’s too early to say if the follow-up will be equally as successful, but we’re off to a great start.

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One Response to A Gift Circle: Our Amazing Experience

  1. Tree Bressen says:

    Lovely to hear of your group’s success at this! A dozen people does sound ideal; if i were running a group like this and 20 people showed up, i’d be inclined to split into two separate circles. We’ve also had success in much smaller meet-ups, it seems that even if only 5 people come, they still find things to do for each other. 8-15 feels like a good size range to me.

    In Eugene we’ve never limited people’s lists to only 2-3 items; participants commonly rattle off up to a dozen or more offerings. In order for that to work, we are fairly strict about succinctness–the facilitator jumps in if someone goes beyond a line or two of description about any specific item.

    Our Eugene explanation, similar to what Dave has written here, is posted at https://eugenegiftcircles.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/how-do-gift-circles-work/.

    Another option is http://kindista.org, which supports similar activity online. It has a different feel than joining together face-to-face, but also has a useful role to play in furthering gift economy. People can join from anywhere in the world.

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