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Bartering with your time: time banks in Britain
This series of articles by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice magazine, 2008
If you're feeling rich in time but not quite so well off in actual money, there's an idea being tried out in some communities which just might appeal. It's a modern take on the old concept of barter and it involves converting the hours you spend helping others, and the hours they spend helping you, into a sort of unofficial currency.
The idea is called Time Banking, and according to the main national organisation Time Banking UK there are around ninety active ‘time banks' functioning in different parts of the country. In turn, these UK groups are part of a wider international movement which began when a prominent US law professor Edgar Cahn came up with the concept of ‘time dollars'. His idea has now spread to twenty or so other countries around the world.
The principle is a simple one: get people to list the skills and experience which they can offer, and those that they may need. Then, each time they give or receive help – perhaps to neighbours or to others living in their community – treat this as a transaction where they earn or spend time credits. Everyone's skills are valued equally, so that one hour of time always equals one time credit. Finally, arrange for the totals of everybody's time credit balances to be kept on a central record, just in the same way that a conventional bank keeps tabs on all its customers' bank balances.
As with the real-world money economy, it helps if people are acting as consumers as well as producers, so participants in a time bank are encouraged to spend the time credits they earn. And because the foundation to the whole idea is trust, it doesn't really matter if for part of the time some people have negative balances on their time accounts.
Of course, in one sense time banking simply formalises what has always been an informal part of every well-functioning community: offering a hand, say, with an elderly neighbour who needs their lawn mowing or asking a friend to feed the cats when you're away for a few days. Some people might wonder why it's necessary to bother with all the rigmarole of a time bank. Can't we just encourage a return to good neighbourliness?
But the experience of people who have got involved suggests that the time bank can be a useful device to recreate exactly that feeling of shared community which has begun to be lost. Time banking has been tried out in many different contexts: in economically deprived estates where money is tight, in prisons (prisoners earn time credits, for example, for offering informal counselling to other inmates) and in schools, where school children receive a tangible reward for helping their peers. It's also been tried out for other interest groups: Age Concern, for example, has experimented with the idea of setting up time banks specifically targeted at older people.
The very formality of a time bank can help, it seems. People who normally wouldn't dream of asking a complete stranger if they need help are happy to assist when it's through the auspices of the time bank. And advocates say that time banking not only helps a community economically, it helps socially as well. Neighbours get to know each other, and new friendships are made.
Just as with conventional banks, somebody has to keep the whole system working, keeping note of all the time debits and credits on each member's account. Some time banks are small and informal, but others tend to have been established using an existing community or voluntary group as the godparent of the scheme. These have the benefit of an established infrastructure already in place, and may also be well placed to seek initial grants to get the time bank going: for example, several schemes have a paid coordinator, usually paid from project funding. There can be a danger, however, that schemes can become totally dependent on the paid worker and vulnerable to collapse when project funding disappears. Time banks may benefit from the expertise of a professional worker but they also need to keep their roots deep in the communities they are serving.
Time Banking UK is the charity which works to assist the development of time banks in Britain . Both its own website and a companion site have a range of resources designed for fledgling groups in the process of developing the idea. Time Banking UK helps in other ways, too: for example, it offers two software programs which can handle the mechanics of processing members' time credit and debit transactions, and it also provides useful background information for groups planning to apply for funding or to employ a coordinator.
There are also occasional conferences and meetings when individual time banks get together to share their experiences and to get publicity for their cause. In London , for example, local time banks organised two festivals in June, designed to communicate to a wider audience their key message.
Though the time banking idea is delightfully simple, there are inevitably some practicalities which have to be got right. Unfortunately, relying on trust alone may not be enough to ensure the scheme runs safely for all participants, and time banks are normally expected to have health and safety policies in place. Except perhaps in small schemes, it's generally considered a necessary precaution to ensure that time bank contributors are vetted against police records, a straightforward process which is undertaken using the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) system. Whilst not everyone may welcome this apparent bureaucratic intrusion into the process of community self-help, most people understand why it is appropriate.
LETS barter: another route to a similar end
Before the concept of time banks arrived in Britain from the US, another way of creating informal community ‘currencies' had begun to develop widely in many towns and villages. This was the idea of LETS (Local exchange trading systems or schemes).
Whilst time banks are based on the straightforward idea that everyone's time is of equal worth when it comes to the barter economy, LETS add an extra refinement. They recognise that some skills are worth more than others, so that - let's say – a skilled watchmaker offering to repair a clock would ‘charge' more for the work they undertook than a teenager undertaking a few hours of babysitting.
Advocates say that this enables a local LET scheme to cover a broader range of activities than the time bank option. The principle otherwise is similar: you earn credits in the local LETS currency when you perform tasks or services to other members of the scheme, and spend them when you ‘buy' services from others. As with time banks, the more activities which are undertaken the better, so that there is an understanding that at any one time some LETS members will have a healthy credit balance whilst others will have a LETS ‘overdraft'.
Schemes have often been imaginative in the names they give to their own local barter currencies. Reading , for example, came up with the idea of trading in ‘readies'. In Shetland, the currency was baptised the ‘tern', on the basis (so it was said) that one good tern deserves another.
As with time banks, specialist software is available for LETS groups which want to keep track of the credit and debit transactions on their members' accounts.
It's fair to say that the LETS movement today is less active than it was some years ago, and some schemes have either folded or become much less active. Nevertheless, LETSlink UK continues to offer a national coordination role and informal help for new groups. Mary Fee, the organisation's secretary, can be contacted through their website.
Singular and plural
Time Banking UK was first established as Timebanks UK , and it still uses its original name in some contexts. A separate charitable organisation TimeBank, established with BBC support, works more generally to encourage volunteering of all kinds.
If you are attracted to the idea of either time banking or Local Exchange Trading Systems, you may find that a scheme is already running in your own area. Your local Council for Voluntary Service (CVS) or equivalent body should know, or you can also enquire at a local Citizens Advice Bureau. Noticeboards in doctors' surgeries are also frequently used by schemes to advertise for new members.
Information is also available online. Time Banking UK has a full list of local time banks, including contact details, on its website. LETSlink UK has a somewhat less comprehensive directory on its own website.
If you find that you're in a part of the country without an existing group, the option remains, of course, of working to set up your own group. Both Time Banking UK and LETSlink UK will offer informal help and advice to newly establishing groups. Time Banking UK, for example, offers the following useful tips:
Start small and build on the success. Better to have a few quality exchanges than lots of people registered by not actively involved.
Keep in touch on a regular basis. Doing a ring round to all the members can help people feel involved even if they have not done an exchange recently
Hold regular meetings and social events where people can get together as a group. This is useful to find out how the exchanges are going, try out new offers and to discuss how things might be improved.
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