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May 7, 2009

Building a Bank that Prizes Something Beyond Money

Time dollars creates a system of economic exchange based on community wants and needs

We are the ones we have been waiting for! Ursula LeGuin

Each of us has unique skills and experiences to offer others. Each of us needs services from others that we can’t provide for ourselves.

How can we organize a broad-based system of exchange that doesn’t depend on money? Better yet, how can we use the exchange system to strengthen social networks by building trust, reciprocity, and a sense of ownership? SHiFT is an all-volunteer social network based in the Twin Cities that has taken on this challenge.

The SHiFT Time Bank

SHiFT was created two years ago to support people in midlife transition who are seeking greater meaning in life and work. The network offers weekly forums in coffeehouses, small group sessions with career counselors for lifework planning, a biweekly e-newsletter and links to partners and resources through its website, www.shiftonline.org. SHiFT members ($60 annual fee; scholarships available) include those who have been laid off and are unemployed, those who are currently employed but seeking a more meaningful vocation, and those who have retired and now seek “encore” careers. SHiFT emphasizes the importance of peer-to-peer networking as a complement to what is offered by the workforce system.

!/sites/default/files/imagecache/large/IMG_0378.jpg!_Yin and Scott Simpson swapped their skills in drumming and event planning for help in installing their new kitchen sink. _

SHiFT members exchange services through a Time Bank. Members earn hour-for-hour Time Bank credit for services rendered to SHiFT and to one another. The banked hours can then be exchanged for useful services offered by other members. On the SHiFT website, members develop profiles similar to those in Facebook. They show information about themselves that they want others to know, such as: vocational background, skills, talents, interests/passions, and contact information. Then they post the services they would like to “Request” from others, and the services they are willing to “Offer” to other members. If they are working on a SHiFT committee or other activity, they can charge the Time Bank for those hours. They can use those credits to receive services posted by others, or they may give their Time Bank hours to others who need help. The IRS has given a letter to Time Banks agreeing that these reciprocal exchanges will not be taxed… so no money is involved.

Coordinating a Time Bank

Joann Nelson, SHiFT’s Time Bank Coordinator, has described her reasons for getting involved: “My involvement with the Time Bank stems from my core value of helping people achieve their goals and lead happy, productive lives that contribute to the common good. “I used some time credits for career counseling from a member who was motivating and supportive at a time when I really needed it for a job interview,” ,” she says of her own experiences using the Time Bank. “And I purchased a jacket that is a designer original and beautiful, made by a SHiFT member who is developing a clothing design business. Now I’m learning more about facilitating group discussion from another SHiFT member. These are services I wanted and have obtained because of giving time as the Time Bank Coordinator.

“Being involved with SHiFT has also helped me achieve my goal of working in higher education. Because I put myself out there and was willing to use my skills to help, I was told about a wonderful leadership certificate program that gave me a scholarship and put me in the place where I wanted to be – a community college. As my field project for the program, I’m using my skills in developing education programs by piloting a SHiFT satellite that will draw potential students to the college and offer much needed services for dislocated workers in a geographic area outside of SHiFT’s current area. I’m documenting the process to lay the groundwork for “SHiFT-in-a-Box” – a step-by-step process for developing a network of networks. I’m hoping that somewhere in this entrepreneurial activity there will be a paid job for me. In the meantime, I’m piling up Time Bank credits.

“It’s a great feeling to be involved in what I am doing now: helping myself, helping the community college, helping SHiFT, and helping many others through the Time Bank.”

Time Dollars

Scott Simpson has been the lead booster for the SHiFT Time Bank since he attended a 2007 national conference on Time Banking held in Madison, Wisconsin as SHiFT’s board representative. Madison and Ithaca, New York, are probably the best known communities in the U.S. with broad use of Time Dollars. (The term “Time Dollars was invented in the United Kingdom.) Developed by Cornell University students, Ithaca Dollars earned through community service can now be used to purchase consumer goods in numerous local stores.

At the Madison conference, Scott met Edgar Cahn, the leading booster for “co-production” — the conceptual framework for time banking. Cahn, along with OnTheCommons Fellow Jonathan Rowe, wrote a definitive guide on time banking, Time Dollars (1992, Rodale Press).

Cahn’s book, No More Throw-Away People (2000, Essential Books), describes the four basic principles of co-production:
• Each person can contribute to building the well-being of the community;
• The concept of work must be redefined to include any action that contributes to the well-being of the community;
• Reciprocity lies at the base of almost all human relationships and so it is necessary to value interdependence within social relationships;
• Social networks need to invest in social capital, based on trust, reciprocity and social involvement.
Cahn has developed a Time Bank in his Washington, DC neighborhood where diverse participants are focusing their service on raising healthy children, rendering the community safer and more active, and offering opportunities to protect the weak and vulnerable. As Cahn says, “The real wealth of this society is its people. Every human being can be a builder and contributor. But beyond inventorying assets, we’ve got to deploy them in exchanges based on mutuality.”

When Scott Simpson returned from the Madison conference, he joined with Joann Nelson to recruit a steady stream of new participants. They both know that the success of the Time Bank depends on attracting a critical mass of people making offers. Prospective participants need to find something they want in the list of services offered. Over half of the 200 members now participate in the Time Bank. The goal is to go beyond that to involve every member.

One step for expansion may be to recruit participants who have the skills to provide services specifically requested by new Time Bank members but not currently in the list of “Offers.” One example is “how to publish a book – where to start with desktop publishing.”

Trail of Service

It’s interesting to follow the trail of time credits from one member to another. The chair, Scott Simpson, a professional drummer as well as a financial planner, has received time credits for drumming lessons. His wife, Yin Simpson , who is an events planner, has piled up time credits for preparing fabulous buffet suppers preceding the bimonthly SHiFT board meetings.

When Scott and Yin wanted a new sink installed in their kitchen, Yin checked the SHiFT Time Bank list for a plumber and contacted Russell Kerr. Computer animation is Russell’s profession, but he is a jack-of-all-trades, including plumbing.

Russell banked several hours for installing the new sink. He used a few of them to learn the techniques of neural feedback for stress reduction from Anna Vasquez, a professional cellist who has studied mental exercise and biofeedback.

And the trail goes on… Members have offered training in various software packages, reviewed resumes, provided business coaching, developed garden and landscape plans, taught sewing….and on…

Collective Efficacy

As Edgar Cahn says, “Counting what people do makes people count.” Most of the SHiFT members are between jobs. They need to downsize their lives to fit declining income.

As you can imagine, the exchange process has generated both friendships and business relationships as well as service. The fact that the process is open only to SHiFT members creates a sense of security that supports open communication and trust. The collaborative effort produces a sense of collective efficacy and a shared vision for a commons-based society.

Join the Collective!

If this story sounds like good news to you, there are tools to help you find out if there is a Time Bank nearby that you might join. Or use the Time Bank Start-up Kit at www.timebanks.org for you and/or your organization to get your own version started. If you want to talk with leaders from a variety of Time Banks, a national conference will be convened in June. Look at the possibilities of connecting with this social movement by going to www.timebanks.org.