by Stephanie Powell
Olivia X was shopping at a Mill Valley clothing store to escape the late-June heat when she ran into an acquaintance she hadn’t seen in a long time.
Her old friend gushed over her appearance and was eager to catch up. After commenting on how well “put together” Olivia seemed, her friend—we’ll call her Madam Z—soon steered the conversation in a perplexing direction. In hushed tones Madam Z told Olivia, “There’s this thing I’d like to invite you to; it’s like an elite group of women.”
High off the abundance of streaming compliments, Olivia was flattered and intrigued. She and Madam Z traveled in similar circles—a community of creative, “feather-leather” Burning Man-type folk. She decided to give her friend the benefit of the doubt and meet up a few days later for a chat.
Initially there was no mention of money. The chat focused on sisterhood, abundance and the empowerment of women. But this was no informal “chat.” Olivia and Madam Z were joined on a conference call with a woman in Australia who appeared to hold a venerated position in the “elite group”or “Women’s Wisdom Circle,” as it was called. The woman on the other end of the line was known in Circle as “the Dessert.” After carefully listening and choosing her words wisely, Olivia X thanked the Dessert for her time and her friend for the invitation, and went home to read the documents she was given following the meeting—Women’s Wisdom Circle “guidelines” that outlined Circle in its entirety.
“Don’t invite anyone else [to join the group] right nowyou’ll probably be excited, but just wait,” Olivia was told as she and Madam Z parted ways.
After diving into research on the Internet, phoning friends and re-reading Circle’s guidelines, Olivia’s suspicions grew and eventually she reached out to the Pacific Sun with her concerns that the Circle may not be shaping up as it purports to be—in fact, Olivia wondered if a more descriptive form was that of a pyramid.
Women’s “gifting” circles have surfaced recently throughout Marin and beyond. They consist of women who have “gifted” $5,000 to gain entrance into what members describe as a rewarding world of sisterhood and abundance. There is a hierarchy of members in each circle, with each level named for a serving in a four-course meal. At the top is the Dessert, below her are two Entrees, below them are four Salads and at the bottom are the eight newest members—the Appetizers. It is the Appetizers who are expected to bring $5,000 to the gifting circle dinner party. Once all eight Appetizers pony up, the Dessert receives the $40,000—she has, in theory, worked her way up from being herself an Appetizer, full of patience, and is ready to receive her gift.
Once a circle is complete, meaning the Dessert has received her gift, the group splits and the two Entrees elevate to become the Dessert of their respective groupsand to await the bounty of eight new Appetizers.
The term “circle” shies away from the striking visual associated with pyramid schemes, but whether its shape is similar or not, critics of gifting circles say they share more in common with pyramids than simply meets the eye.
Gifting circles like the one Olivia encountered are shrouded in secrecy and target a very Marin-type demographic—the young New Age community. Circle “meetings” are often conducted with a 21st century slant: All gatherings are held via a weekly conference call. While a majority of initial “invitations” occur through personal meetings, other members of the circle may be located across continents—and conference calls allow for much-desired anonymity within the groups. While such concepts as “sisterhood” are promoted to new members, the weekly conference calls can be more businesslike—focusing on members’ progress in finding new members. Conference calls may also focus on how the circle is “moving forward” and when the dessert will receive her gifts of abundance—all 40,000 of them. Sometimes a tarot card is drawn and the woman who draws the card will discuss her feelings around it and how it relates to other members.
The first rule of Circle is: you do not talk about Circle. The second rule of Circle is: you DO NOT talk about Circle. Many variations of Circle guidelines exist. One particular set of guidelines—which was forwarded last month to the Pacific Sun—stresses that prospective members honor its privacy: “We ask that they not talk about the circles to anyone, until they have come into the circle and received training about how to invite people to the circle. This is because there is a general misunderstanding about the legality of the circles, and we want to avoid people’s judgments and projections. It is also because there are certain words we can use in talking about the circles that keep them legal, and most people without training will use words that might make the circles illegal.”
The exclusivity of a circle fuels its foundation and its female-only structure attracts eager women hungry for spiritual growth, abundance, sisterhood and, well, money. Circle’s shaky legality is handled by calling it a “gifting circle,” where each member “gifts” $5,000 to the top dog in order to enter and participate.
But any situation in which large sums of money are being funneled up an increasingly narrow social hierarchy is going to have to deal with questions of legality.
Defenders of Circle’s pyramid of prosperity say there’s nothing shady about it. They say the sisterhood the women gain through the process is priceless and considered the real reward; the $40,000 at the end—if you make it to Dessert—is just an added “gift.”
But Circle can be a tight-knit community. More than ready to protect the money they’ve already invested, very few Salads, Entrees and Desserts have come forward to discuss the secrecy around Circle.
What Olivia X found most disturbing is that Circle comes couched in New Age terminology.
“I had a woman tell me that the reason I didn’t want to be involved [in Circle] is because I wasn’t ready to receive that much abundance in my life and that I had issues and I had trust issues,” says Olivia. “It’s just sucking in a lot of people who are more naive than I am for one reason or another.” Olivia says she came forward to warn women—especially Marin women—who may be particularly susceptible to Circle’s promises of money, friendship and New Age fulfillment.
According to the Women’s Wisdom Circle guidelines that Olivia was given, the gifting process is legal due to a gifting statement each “participant” must fill out and sign in order to join. The gifting statement clarifies intentions and protects the Dessert from the possibility of a quick change of heart “I waive any and all rights to civil or criminal remedies against the recipient of my gift,” the statement declares. In addition to the required gifting statement, other subjects outlined in Circle’s documentation include: privacy guidelines, who to invite, who not to invite, responding to standard questions (i.e.: legality) and “magic words.”
Some of the specific “words” that the guidelines say put Circle on shaky legal ground when members use them include: investment, payment, recruit, signup, profits, dividends, return, assured, guarantee and payout.
The guidelines instead encourage more proactive-sounding words such as: receive, financial empowerment, participation, opportunity, support and sponsor.
Also, Appetizers must never send their “gift” through the U.S. mail.
The guidelines provide Appetizers with recommendations for fundraising the initial $5,000 gift: Have a garage sale and part with heirlooms, sell your car (“remember, in a relatively short period of time it can be replaced by a new one!”), ask your parents for an advance on your inheritance, apply for a credit card, find an “angel” to gift you the money, ask five friends to lend you $1,000, get a second job, paint your neighbor’s house, tutor your neighbors’ kids and lastly—meditate and pray.
Oh, and if you run into any troubles along the way—Circle sisters don’t want to hear about it. “During this living workshop we will all experience our blocks, issues, fears, patterns, etc.,” say the guidelines. “When you discover that you have a fear or issue, it is your responsibility to work on that outside of the circle. You can share about your process, as long as it is in a positive light.”
Alexis Neely is a Colorado lawyer who counts herself among the New Age community and is very familiar with gifting circles, though she herself is not a member. She expresses skepticism about the outlining diction of this particular Marin circle’s guidelines.
“That does not sound right,” Neely says about the guidelines Olivia was given. “My understanding is that you work on it in the Circle with the women. The women I have talked to who have benefited from it have worked through some clear issues. I can see shifts in them. These are women who had massive abundance issues, massive scarcity issues. And its not because they’d received any money, they had not yet received any money. But they had tapped into and opened a portal, which I talk about [in my blog] happening when you make the gift, but beyond that they had received the emotional support necessary.”
Circle frames women as being part of a western culture that leaves them disenfranchised. “Giving, supporting and nurturing are all qualities expressed through feminine nature,” say the guidelines. “In the history of our culture, women often find themselves giving far more than they receive in every day life.”
The “gifting” structure’s odds of sustainability are slim. The math boils down to this: Eighty-eight percent of women who participate by gifting the $5,000 will never receive anything as a Dessert. The odds look even more dismal when one considers that the difficulties of finding eight new women grows exponentially with each new circle. After the 10th generation, the model’s number of supposed “participants” soars past Earth’s population.
A well-known member in the Bay Area New Age community, who desires to remain anonymous and who we’ll call “Orion,” describes Circle as a “social virus” and says its sustainability is already at a tipping point.
“Soon enough it’s going to collapse, it’s already collapsing,” says Orion. “Were already reaching a critical mass of the community. People are being asked [to join] three to four times a week. As a result, these circles are going to stagnate or infect other communities. But what’s going to happen next? There are groups of people who’ve started to think about that and how to help the community heal from this drain and epidemic and the social impact it’s had.”
Orion elaborates on what he sees as Circle’s target audience: “These Circles target neo-pagan tribal-hippies. The spiritual revival, the burner culture. What I’ve heard, they are generally much younger.”
He seems to recall a similar “epidemic” going around Marin about eight years ago.
“There is a resurgence every eight to 10 years because every eight to 10 years there is a whole new crop of women with more disposable income and they are going to these [Burning Man style] festivals.”
He says the circles attract women who are transient.
“They are very gypsy-like; they don’t stay [in one place], they can make a fair amount of money by trimming [marijuana] in the fall and doing odd jobs and they don’t spend a lot. They are staying at this place or that place. All they need to do is eat, essentially.”
Orion says the largest “gift” he’s heard of someone walking away with is $80,000. But the Circle doesn’t end with the gift, Orion explains, hierarchies within the Circle and community are apparent. “There are definitely cliques, absolutely. When people tell stories [about Circle] that’s one of the main recurring themes.”
He describes New Age gatherings where the attendees congregate on different sides of the room-based on who’s in a Circle and who isn’t. He says his criticism doesn’t stem from a personal vendetta, but from concerns about the New Age community as a whole.
“Mainly my stake in [gifting circles] is wanting the [New Age] community to survive and what I’m seeing is that the very structure of the Circle—well, they’re not really like circles they are more like pyramids—the very structure of these pyramids is causing a great deal of harm, mostly it’s a social impact. It’s the kind of impact you don’t really see when you’re in the Circle. In the Circle you see that you’re with all these wonderful women and you’re creating abundance with each other, but no one is asking the question: At what cost?”
The fate of women’s gifting circles in Marin remains uncertain. In the meantime, how does it continue? Orion explains:
“The women who speak highly of the Circle—slash pyramid—they find that they get really good coaching, a lot about money. As soon as she has any kind of issue around losing her gift, she’s right to be coached about it. It provides for a perfect reason to give money and not want it back—and if anyone wants it back, she is coached around her attachment toward money.”
Orion describes it as the perfect plan—or, rather, “the perfect scam.”
“Here give $5,000, it’s a gift and if you start complaining that you won’t get the $5,000 back then you obviously need to grow a little bit so you’re no longer attached to this money,” he says, about the circular logic of the groups.
Facebook debates about gifting circles have been anything but placid. Olivia X recalls a conversation streaming on Orion’s wall for weeks in which a man who wanted to alert the authorities about gifting circles was bombarded by circle defenders with all sorts of threats—including going to the police and falsely accusing him of child abuse.
“That is so heartbreaking, I started crying when I saw that,” says Olivia. “That’s when I decided to be anonymous. And, that’s when I decided to go to a newspaper, this is ridiculous—this is out of control.”
Margo Rohrbacher, public information officer for the San Rafael Police Department, says she hasn’t heard any reports of women’s gifting circles going on in Marin and said she couldn’t comment on where one might stand legally without specifics to a case. Last week a U.S. district judge had another kind of “gift” for two women from Guilford, Conn., who were convicted for leading their own Appetizer-through-Dessert “gifting table.” Donna Bello, 57, was sentenced to six years in prison and her accomplice, Jill Platt, 65, to four years on felonies of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the IRS and filing false tax returns.
The questions around gifting circles’ legality, however, are almost secondary among criticisms levied within New Age groups, where the concern has more to do with the effect the circles are having on the community itself.
One former Entrée to speak out about her experience in a circle is blogger Lindsey Vona, who wrote:
“This article is in no way meant to create separation or cause harm to any groups or individuals. I am not in any way against acts of true giving or circles of sisterhood. The purpose of this post is to provide education to the public on the currently unsustainable structure of this particular ‘Gifting Culture,’ so that people can feel supported in making informed decisions.
“Because much of the language around this is either shrouded in secrecy or New Age thought, this post may come off as one-sided; however it is intended to cut through the conditioning and get right to the heart of what is happening.” (Vona declined an interview with the Sun, but you can read more of Vona’s firsthand experience at www.realitysandwich.com/womens_circle_pyramid.)
According to the Marin Women’s Circle guidelines, Circle first saw the light of day nearly three decades ago, launched by a small group of women in Canada in the early 1980s. As for Circle hitting Marin’s scene, it appears it made its debut about a year to a year and half ago. In addition to Marin, gifting circles have been reported in Colorado, Arizona, Santa Cruz and other parts of northern California.
Alexis Neely is no stranger to Circle etiquette. Despite her roots in law, Neely is a vibrant part of the Colorado New Age community and has herself been invited multiple times to join Circle. Many have sought her help and advice due to her legal background and she decided to offer her viewpoints though a blog post. Neely says her goal is to provide an outline of information that allows women to make an informed choice if Circle is right for them.
After interviewing members of Circle for her blog post she noted, “What I’m experiencing when I speak to them is that there is a real opportunity for them to find a gift in the decision they make. And to shift from the victim perspective to a place of real empowered choice. And when they do, whether or not they receive back their investment—it’s worth it.
“Some of the circles are pure money plays and they’re Ponzi schemes and they’re pyramids—they’re nothing more than what people say about them.”
After seeing both sides of Circle’s outcome, however, Neely offers her blog as a place for women to consult “a balanced view and to help women identify if it is right for them.” Despite multiple invitations Alexis has declined all invitations into Circle as she does not feel it’s the right fit for her.
With the concept of abundance at its core, Neely defined her take on it: “I don’t know what abundance means to everybody, but to me it means knowing without a shadow of a doubt that there is enough for everyone. There is no lack or limitation. The underlying feeling that there is enough.”
Whether the New Age community has seen enough Circle, however, isn’t yet abundantly clear.