TimeBanking: Cashing in on Cooperation in Your Community

by Aaron Handelsman

If you’ve never heard of TimeBanking, you’re in good company, but maybe not for long. News from the recent National TimeBanks Conference, which took place in Rhode Island in August, suggests that TimeBanks—and the movements they are inspiring—are growing.

So what is a TimeBank, exactly? A TimeBank is many things, but at its core it is an alternative economic system used to promote community togetherness by facilitating the exchange of services between neighbors—without money. In a nutshell, a TimeBank is an honor-based system of credit where the unit of currency is the sixty-minute hour.

These institutions are worth talking about because they address many of the problems and inequalities created by contemporary market economies built on gains, losses, and limited resources. TimeBanks are redefining what is valuable in very humanistic terms: they recognize that we are social creatures and that as social creatures, we crave a sense of belonging and human connection and we could use some help creating communities that value and provide those things.

TimeBanks work by recognizing that every individual, no matter their economic status, level of education, age, ethnicity, religion, or physical ability, is dignified and has something to offer that will add value—of the real but non-monetary variety—to their community. Every “something” that a person offers through a TimeBank—is given equal weight and measured in hours of work/service provided. In a TimeBank, each individual’s contribution is valued equally, so for every hour of help I give you, I get an hour to use for any other service offered by any member of the TimeBank.

Let’s make this more concrete: Maybe I’m unemployed thirty-something without insurance who starches and irons a shirt like nobody’s business and you’re a licensed dentist with a local family practice who’s so busy cleaning molars that when you get home, your arms are so heavy you can hardly turn the key to unlock your front door, let alone heft an iron. I know it’s important to have a nice smile when I go to my job interviews, but I don’t have the funds to pay for a dental visit out of pocket. Fortunately, you’ve posted an ad explaining your need for someone to iron your clothes twice a week and have listed tooth cleaning in your office as one of the services you’d be willing to provide. The coordinator of the TimeBank knows both of us, so when they see your ad go up, we both get contacted and the coordinator suggests we message one another via the TimeBank website, where we both have accounts. Or, maybe they know I don’t have Internet access but that I’m okay with people calling me, so the coordinator gives you my cell phone number. You call, and we settle on a date and time for you to come by.

The above exchange is not atypical but it amplifies the true power of TimeBanking because it looks like an old-fashion barter. The difference between TimeBanking and simple bartering is that TimeBanking does not require an immediate or reciprocal exchange. In bartering, an indhandelsmanvidual trades with one person, giving X for Y. In TimeBank land, a person may receive X from anybody as long as they already have hours in their bank to pay for it. Then, each time that individual does something for someone else, they bank additional hours to be used however they choose, whenever they choose. All hours, services offered, and services seeked are listed on a single website and can easily be updated and tracked. If you don’t have internet access, you work with someone else in the TimeBank who does or work more closely with the TimeBank coordinator.

Additionally, unlike any other bank or treasury, there is never a risk of inflation with a TimeBank: the bank can create opportunities for individuals to accumulate hours as much as they want. An hour will always be an hour. The purpose is to encourage engagement, an equitable provisioning of services, relationship building, and the development of community. For a real-world example of a community using TimeBanks to rework broken institutions and improve their host communities, check out the Dane County, Wisconsin’s TimeBank Youth Court program.

Dane County’s use of this system is TimeBanking at its best. Unfortunately, they aren’t simple or easy to maintain. Several major obstacles present themselves, both on an individual level and organizationally. Chief among the problems is getting individuals to realize their own value. I’ve come across numerous, talented individuals who work in professional fields and who have of master’s degrees but who, when asked, couldn’t come up with a single thing they thought they could contribute to a TimeBank. This is a failure of creativity and awareness: our mainstream system of values fails to reward us for—or even recognize—the talents we possess. We, in turn, fail to see the full extent of our own capabilities and our capacity to be productive, actively contributing members of our communities. Members of a TimeBank are encouraged to think creatively about their strengths and the talents they possess. If you can drive, or read, or speak, or cook, or color, or paint, or carry groceries, or walk dogs, or train cats, or play banjo, or darn socks, or speak Spanish, or do gymnastics, or teach anything at all, you will be a successful and welcomed member of your local TimeBank. And you will learn that these abilities you possess are, indeed, valuable.

Another obstacle is that people tend to feel as though they don’t have time for a TimeBank when, in fact, there is no stipulations on hours contributed. People have a difficult time asking and receiving too. To request help is to be vulnerable. It is to open oneself to the possibility that help is not available, will not come in time, or will be insufficient when it does come.

A TimeBank doesn’t remove these problems altogether. What it can do is create a venue where needs can be openly expressed without fear of judgment, where the community recognizes and benefits directly from resources already possessed by its members, where those who have been left to fend for themselves on the margins—older adults, people with disabilities, children, economically disenfranchised—may find both empowerment and community. TimeBanking is where the dignity of every individual is not only recognized, but celebrated and rewarded. Isn’t that something we could all benefit from?

Currently, there are several TimeBanks operating in Detroit and the metro area, including Southwest Detroit, Chadsey/Condon, the Eastside/Villages, Ann Arbor, Plymouth/Canton, Royal Oak, Ferndale, Lathrup Village, and Southfield.

To learn more about TimeBanks, how to start a TimeBank, or to find an existing TimeBank near you, visit the online home of the MI Alliance of TimeBanks at http://www.mitimebanks.org/ or TimeBanks USA at http://timebanks.org/.

Aaron Handelsman earned TimeBank hours for writing this article.

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