While the basic practice of exchanging offers and requests is no doubt as old as humanity, there is a specific form that was developed by Alpha Lo in 2009, and popularized by Charles Eisenstein (who has also written extensively about the concept of "living in the Gift"). Here are some links for information, and some excerpts...
What is the format of a gift circle? The format we use is a work in progress, and an open source adventure. We are still experimenting. The form we have been using is with everyone sitting in a circle, and then the order goes:
Community is woven from gifts. Unlike today's market system, whose built-in scarcity compels competition in which more for me is less for you, in a gift economy the opposite holds. Because people in gift culture pass on their surplus rather than accumulating it, your good fortune is my good fortune: more for you is more for me. Wealth circulates, gravitating toward the greatest need. In a gift community, people know that their gifts will eventually come back to them, albeit often in a new form. Such a community might be called a "circle of the gift."
[A]ny 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.
This piece, provides both a basic description, a history of a Berkeley-based group, a critique, and suggestions for new variations on the form. An excerpt:
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!