Ben Franklin Circles

July 28, 2018 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
June 14, 2018 Lucy J Parry, Participedia Team
February 2, 2017 hannokp
November 20, 2016 hannokp

Founded on the idea of mutual improvement, the Ben Franklin Circle (BFC) is a small group dialogue model designed to initiate community improvement through individual improvement.

Problems and Purpose

Founded on the idea of mutual improvement, the Ben Franklin Circle (BFC) is a small group dialogue model designed to initiate community improvement through individual improvement. This method is named after an Early American Renaissance man and Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin. Among many other pursuits, Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania and supported many local civic organizations.[1] Central to BFCs is a framework of thirteen virtues that Ben Franklin advocated for: temperance, silence, order, resolution, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.[2] With these virtues in mind, participants then pose and answer two fundamental questions:

1. How can I improve myself?

2. How can I improve the world?[3]

It is important to mention that “Ben Franklin Circle” is a copyrighted project name for a method inspired by, and largely based off from, Benjamin Franklin’s original weekly meeting. The official website can be found here.

BFCs are meant to provide a space for open dialogue that can promote civic participation. The NCDD frames BFCs as a response to a disconnected and digital world, as they emphasized face-to-face interaction.[4] Successful BFCs will guide participants toward actionable projects for community improvement. Furthermore, one of the virtues, industry, speaks to taking initiative and being productive with one’s time. BFCs could also be a way for industrious citizens to keep busy.[5] Each of the thirteen virtues can be interpreted to address some aspect of personal or social life that may be lacking. While Ben Franklin’s thirteen virtues act as a framework for guiding the discussions, essentially providing a ‘prompt’, the applicability of BFCs is quite general as a model for small-scale, face-to-face, deliberation.

Origins and Development

The first Ben Franklin circle started in Philadelphia, USA almost three centuries ago. Benjamin Franklin, an inventor and founding father of the United States, convened weekly meetings with his peers and local tradesmen. Some of the communal improvements that originated in these original BFCs were post offices, lending libraries and volunteer fire departments.[8]

The Ben Franklin Circle grew out of research done by the Virtues of a Free Society Task Force between 2008 and 2013 under the Hoover Institution . The Task Force examined the capacity of various social institutions to support the virtues on which citizen’s liberty depends. BFCs were a way to take that research and bring it into practice.[6] It is also possible that BFCs also are a response to a general decline in social capital, with membership and participation in traditional civic organizations declining in recent decades.[7]

Currently there are 16 different official circles running in different cities in the United States. While most appear to be in the early stages of forming and building regularity, several have gained some momentum and have held several meetings. One such circle in Philadelphia has 109 members and has had four meetings in the past year.

The NCDD describes BFCs as a collective project shared by 92nd Street Y , the Hoover Institution, and Citizen University .[9] 92nd Street Y is an organiza tion founded in 1874, with an emphasis on innovation in visual and performance arts, and a commitment to civil dialogue. The Hoover Institution was founded in in 1919 at Stanford University as a research center that focuses on public policy. BFC is part of a Hoover Institution program called Educating Americans in Public Policy, which works to enable citizens to better perform their civic duties by providing accurate information and teaching analytical skills. Citizen University is a Seattle-based nonprofit that works to empower citizens and cultivate the values of civic life. 

BFCs appear to be largely self-funded, although some are run out of public institutions and may be provided with a small budget.

Participant Recruitment and Selection

The official recommendation for the number of participants is eight to 12 people. It is recommended that the participants are diverse, mixing backgrounds, ages, and experiences.[10] Otherwise, the parameters for choosing participants are quite informal.

The official BFC website suggests monthly meetings that last about two hours. Participants should be contacted in advance of the meeting and a facilitator should be chosen. The facilitator ideally should have some experience with orchestrating group discussions, and it is suggested that they familiarize themselves with the BFC process outlined in the Toolkit. This facilitator will then choose one of the virtues as the theme for the first meeting and inform the other participants. Participants should also be told that their contributions would be kept confidential.

The actual setting for the circle is flexible, though ideally should be a “conversation-conducive space”.[11] The organizational guides on the BFC website present the meetings as informal meetings that could take place over brunch, dinner, or cocktails. The informality is intended to encourage participation from members who may not be inclined to participate in more formal settings, such as town halls or hearings.

How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making

It is recommended that the first meeting should begin with introductions, as it is ideal if the participants do not know each other. Participants should introduce themselves and mention what they do and things that they are passionate about. The facilitator should also introduce the 13 virtues and a brief history of Ben Franklin’s original circle.

Three ground rules should be established at the start of the meeting:

1. Everything shared is confidential

2. Don’t be judgmental, offer contrastive feedback

3. Attend the meetings

One suggested format for a meeting is to divide the time into three sections:

1. First 40 minutes: Discuss the first virtue

2. Second 40 minutes: Discuss next meeting’s virtue

3. Last 40 minutes: Ask “Ben Franklin inspired questions”

In this format, the last 40 minutes are based around identifying current or future projects or initiatives that the participants can contribute to. Participants can ask each other for help, advice, or guidance on current projects, or they can suggest another project that they all can get involved with.

It is also recommended that participants stay connected between meetings using email or some form of social media (Facebook, WhatsApp, text). Some circles also use

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Most of the official circles seem to be in the early stages of organization, with some having held a few meetings already. It is possible that once they start to meet on a regular basis that some tangible results could emerge. One circle run out of Boston, USA functions as a weekly communal dinner organized by Harvard University students. They often will invite “an esteemed guest” whose expertise will determine the topic for discussion. This circle seems to be more focused on community building through weekly dinners, which is somewhat in line with the two goals of BFCs, self-improvement firstly and then world improvement second. It is possible that groups such as these could mobilize and implement some tangible changes in their broader community.

Perhaps the most likely way for circles to implement tangible improvements in their community would be if participants already are involved with, or know of, existing projects. Participating in a circle also can simply provide participants an opportunity to socialize and meet new people. While the benefits gained here are harder to quantify, regular, inclusive meetings can improve quality of life for participants who are looking for greater social involvement. It is possible that BFCs could simply foster personal development that can shape and refine the behavior and worldviews of the participants for the better Depending on how the circles are facilitated, they could also function as spaces for political dialogue and depending on the composition of the group, could possibly reduce partisanship. Circles will be more beneficial to the extent that participants value face-face discussion, as well as whether tangible improvements are made in the community.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

BFCs are unique in the use of the 13 virtues as a framework for guiding the meetings. There are other small-scale, somewhat informal dialogue methods, such as Study Circles , which have similar procedures but differ in purpose. These kinds of methods have great potential to bring participants together in a casual setting, and when facilitated well, can be successful in fostering civic engagement and community-scale action. Similar methods include Socratic Cafés and Kitchen Table Conversations . Methods such as these have the advantages of being relatively easy to organize and having low operational costs. However, they are likely best for low-stakes issues and poorly suited for arriving at solutions for specific, divisive and pressing problems.

The challenge with BFCs and similar methods is to encourage consistent and significant participation and input from participants as well as organizers. In a sense, the circle lives or dies at the hand of the facilitator, but results will also depend on commitment from all participants. The lack of official facilitator training can also have a negative effect on the outcomes of this method. Poor or absent moderation can prevent any ‘stirring of the pot’ or alternatively the circle may devolve into mindless debate.Getting the same group of eight to 12 people to meet on a regular basis can be challenging under informal circumstances. Additionally, participants are self-selected, or chosen by the organizers. This can make forming a circle with diverse views challenging if not unlikely. A possible solution to this particular challenge would be running BFCs through a larger community organization that could organize circles and compose the groups randomly.

Centering the discussions around the 13 virtues can help direct the conversation, but also makes it difficult to measure the success of the meetings. At what point has the virtue in question been fully discussed or sufficiently realized? Furthermore, moving from an open discussion about the virtues to making concrete improvements in broader community can be difficult. There is a chance that in the absence of a participant with a specific project in mind, that the circle may not progress past the discussion stage. However, ideas must come from somewhere, and participants with some free time may find this method rewarding.

See Also

Study Circles 

Socratic Cafes 

Kitchen Table Conversations 


[1] “Benjamin Franklin”, last modified 2016,

[2] “Toolkit”, last modified 2016,

[3] “Ben Franklin Circles”, last modified 2016,

[4] “Ben Franklin Circles”, last modified 2016,

[5] “Industry”, last modified 2016,

[6] “About”, last modified 2016,

[7] “Bowling Alone”, last modified 2016,

[8] “Ben Franklin Circles”, last modified 2016,

[9] “Ben Franklin Circles”, last modified 2016,

[10] “Toolkit”, last modified 2016,

[11] “Toolkit”, last modified 2016, 

Secondary Sources

92Y, Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Citizen University launch Ben Franklin Circles. in Business Wire [database online]. 2016 [cited 11/19 2016]. Available from

Ben Franklin Circles Toolkit. in Ben Franklin Circles [database online]. 2015 [cited 11/19 2016]. Available from

Benjamin Franklin. 2016 [cited November 2016]. Available from

Bowling Alone. 2016 [cited November 2016]. Available from

NDCC Community. Ben franklin circles. in National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation [database online]. 2016 [cited October 2016]. Available from

Benjamin Franklin. 2016 [cited November 2016]. Available from

External Links


Lead image: Ben Franklin Circles | Facebook