Here is a description of our gift circle network project we wrote as part of an application to the Buckminister Fuller social design competition
Summarize your proposal in 50 words or less:
To create a self-organizing, decentralized network that re-localizes communities, fosters resilience, builds social capital, and creates economic self-sufficiency by activating latent resources through sharing needs and gifts in gift Circles.
Describe the critical need your solution addresses:
There is a need for an easy to implement, scalable way to build community in multiple localities. And there is a need for an economic process that allows for a community to tap into its own resources to help itself and build solutions to social, environmental problems.
Explain your initiative in more depth and its stage of development. :
The germinal structure is the community gift circle: a group of people that meets regularly to meet one others’ economic needs without money or barter. The basic structure is that each person takes a turn describing something she needs and others can chime in with offers. The second time around, folks describe something they would like to give: unused materials, labor, time, expertise, etc. Some example of things given – babysitting, massage, organizing, mechanical help. There is a third round for the expression of gratitude. The circle also encourages facilitators to play around with different format structures each meeting. A circle works well with a size range from 5 to 50, and over a year can have 50-500 people pass through it.
In just over 1 year, we have founded 9 Gift Circles around the country as well as begun applying the Gift Circle format within non-profit organizations and community groups. We have refined the process, and confirmed it as a powerful and scalable community-generating social invention. Now we want to replicate it on a mass scale in mainstream society, create Gift Circles for non-profit community groups and business organizations, and spread the core idea wider through partnership with GiftFlow.org, an online network for gift exchange (to complement, not replace, face-to-face interaction).
Our inspiration is the idea that communities already posses most of the resources they need, combined with open-source ethos of a system refining its intelligence through agile development, in which solutions naturally emerge. We are not designing a solution, but a system via which solutions can emerge. The Gift Circle technology (direct expression of Needs & Gifts) is an effective way to not only to solve problems within a social group but to identify the problems.
Our vision is a fractal structure of circles of circles of circles, pervading all aspects of life.
How does your strategy and approach respond creatively and comprehensively to key issues?
We are in our time facing a systemic failure of the traditional social, economic, and political model of top-down command. The future belongs to bottom-up, self-organizing, peer-to-peer systems modeled on ecological principles. While capitalism is, in theory, a bottom-up system, in practice it has always involved substantial centralized control.
As the old systems unravel, we face a need to replace them. The Gift Circle is a powerful social technology that ameliorates both the causes and the symptoms of the current socioeconomic breakdown. It is a trim tab solution that works to solve many problems in an integrated way, catalyzing a community to self-organize. Unlike top-down government welfare programs, which are dependence inducing, Gift Circles empower people to help one another.
A network of gift circles which brings in different demographics allows different groups to help each other and bridge social divides; the design solution is the circle which allows people who are being helped to also help. For instance, homeless people have found housing in our circles, while also offering many services. Financially abundant people help financially challenged people, and financially challenged people help financially abundant people. Efforts such as bike collectives and community gardens can plug into the larger network of gifts, and request the supplies and volunteers they need. Gift Circles have significantly aided in the formation of a community center (Fairfax, CA) and a holistic health center (Ashland, OR).
The Gift Circle network is a paradigm shift in understanding how a society can work. It is not capitalism with its emphasis on ownership, not communism with its emphasis on top-down hierarchy, not libertarianism with its emphasis on property, not socialism with its emphasis on government sponsored help. Unlike idealistic theories of anarcho-communism, it offers a facilitated process to induce self-organizing non-hierarchical gift economies, which scale, via the internet, to an interconnected set of networks.
Compare and contrast your initiative.
The gift circle structure works well in integration with other initiatives to form an ecology of new economics. It also has certain attributes that contrast these other initiatives.
Time banks and local currencies are similar to Gift Circles in that they offer alternative means of economic circulation. However, because they are still systems of quantification, they still exert the anonymizing effects of money. Moreover, they do not explicitly invoke the power of gratitude, relying instead on quantified transactions.
Craigslist and Freecycle do not offer the social witnessing of a gift circle. Lacking personal connection, they are more anonymous and less potent as builders of community, and do not extract latent resources from the community.
Non-profits/volunteer groups are non-reciprocated gift forms. You help others, but receive nothing tangible in return, inviting the possibility of resentful attitudes and dependency. Church congregations offer opportunities for mutual aid among their members, but this is conditional upon a religious orientation. Gift circles bridge many different religious, political, and philosophical orientations.
There are a number of neighborhood building initiatives, but they often require significant funding and large teams to get off the ground. The Gift Circle’s strength is that it does not require a lot of effort or resources to begin. Once begun, it has the seeds within its own structure to birth larger community organizing efforts.
Describe your implementation plan.
We just finished year 1.
The growth of non-hierarchical, emergent, non-owned projects like ours cannot really be planned. The growth depends on what new people coming into the project. Certain factors can happen to make a project like ours go viral.
Below is just one possible way our project could evolve.
Year 2 –
* grow the number of local gift circles from 9 to 300, doing focused outreach to spread the circle format to as many locations as possible
* seed new forms such as: neighborhood gift circle (members of your block), community council gift circle (leaders from local non-profits meeting in a gift circle monthly), integrating the format into the Evolver network’s monthly meetings in over 40 cities
* create and launch online platform with template for how to run a gift circle and a way to connect with other gift circle participants to share more widely
* distribute and grow open-sourced Gift Circles book
* network the gift circles so that they learn from each other, evolving its format
* network the gift circles so they are passing services and things between them
Year 3 –
* to have 10 or more gift circles running in some towns, beginning to understand how a tribe of tribes works
* to have 3000 gift circles happening
* bringing gift circles to under-served communities such as prisons and homeless shelters
* partnering with Transition Town
* continue refining and creating new formats and launching new circles
After the fourth year we may be able to see what it means for a town to transition to being run on a gift economy and in a bottomup emergent manner to a significant percentage. There would be also a global network of gift circles of multiple size scales that begins to coordinate things on a global level.