Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Time is Money for Timebank Participants

Potrero View
May 2011
By Mary Purpura

People are losing their homes to foreclosures and short sales; unemployment rates are high. The Bay Area Community Exchange (BACE) is trying to help hard-pressed families through current difficult times. BACE, a network of individuals and grassroots organizations that support the development of alternative means of exchange in the San Francisco Bay Area, introduced the BACE Timebank as its first project a little more than a year ago. “We were discussing various alternative currency projects, and many of us thought Timebank was a good one to start with, particularly since it didn’t require issuing alternative currency,” explained Visitacion Valley resident Tara Hui, a BACE Timebank founder and board member.

Anyone can join the Timebank by going to and opening an account. Participants identify the skills – grouped into one of 19 categories, such as food, mechanical, transportation, and legal – they’re willing to offer, and post a short biography and photograph. “We encourage people to use real photos of themselves,” said Hui, “since one of our goals is to build community and trust. It helps to see images of the real people you’re trading with.”

Timebank exchanges are prompted by member requests. A participant may need a ride to and from the grocery store. The post requests to tag along with someone doing a shopping trip. Another Timebank member responds, and an amount of time to complete the task is agreed upon. That time is debited from the recipient’s account, and credited to the individual providing the car share. “The Timebank itself always maintains a neutral balance,” said Hui. “We are just a recording mechanism, essentially keeping a ledger.” The only currency exchanged is time; everyone’s time is valued equally.

“When everyone is compensated equally, it changes the way you feel about the work you do,” said Amber Yada, a freelance videographer who created a video about the Timebank and other local economic alternatives. “You don’t feel like you always have to grab your share, or like you’re being exploited. When I trade through the Timebank, I feel like my work is being valued fairly.”

“I’m a big fan of barter too, but I think the Timebank opens up more possibilities,” said Yada. “If I’m going to barter with someone, we’re limited to our specific skill sets,” but because Timebank uses time as the currency exchanged, members aren’t bound to direct trades. Likewise, the Internal Revenue Service taxes barter exchanges in dollars and cents, even though no money changes hands. Timebanking is tax-free. One member can offer an hour of garden work to another member, and receive two hours of instruction in French from a third. The time values credited and debited to an individual member don’t have to be equivalent; running a negative – or positive – balance is allowed.

“Often people will wait for an opportunity to earn before they spend,” said Hui. “With money, that’s a responsible thing to do. But with the Timebank, we don’t discourage negative balances. Negative balances mean that trading is happening in the community, and that’s our goal,” she added. While negative balances are acceptable, and even encouraged, Timebank, which is run entirely by volunteers, will contact members who have a negative or positive balance of 25 hours, said Hui. “We want to discourage both hoarding and taking advantage of others,” she explained. “We don’t cut somebody off from Timebank if they hit that 25-hour limit, but we do communicate with them to see what’s going on. For example, someone with a big negative balance might have a big project underway that they’re using a lot of Timebank help to complete. Once the project is done, they’ll be able to give back to the Timebank community.”

“While everyone needs to exercise any precautions that they would also use in a transaction that involves money, I think the Timebank allows you to gather a lot of information about someone you might be trading with,” said Hui. “Once you’re a member, you can see the transaction history of any other member. You can see who they’ve transacted with in the past, and you can contact those people for recommendations.” Individual email addresses are never made public through Timebank – even to other members – but an email address is used for verification purposes when someone first sets up an account. All email communication happens through the Timebank webmail system.

The BACE Timebank has roughly 300 members, about 100 of whom are active. “We have members as far away as Eureka and Big Sur,” said Hui. “That’s because lots of skills – like editing and writing – can be shared virtually.” Still, Timebank’s heart is face-to-face interaction. “We’re really trying to encourage transactions between people,” said Hui. “People get to know each other; it’s very local and we’re really building community at a basic level.”

“Timebank provides an economic alternative, but it’s also a social tool,” said Hui. “We want everyone to feel valued,” including the elderly and disabled, who are often marginalized in terms of economic exchange. “We want to encourage people to see their intrinsic value, not seeing their marketability as employees as their only source of worth. There’s always something you can offer and share and do with others. You can read to people, tell stories, share knowledge.” Current requests for services on Timebank include a graphic design for a book layout; a sketch of a jackal for a shirt design; surplus veggies from local gardeners; and help building shelves in a chicken coop. Offers range from yard work and housecleaning to therapeutic body work to conversational German to worms for composting.

“It takes people a while to get away from a scarcity mentality and from viewing everything through the lens of money,” said Hui. “We can have a very rich, interconnected community if we can think about wealth as more than just money,” said Yada. “There’s a motivation behind our starting the Timebank at a moment of economic crisis, trying to help people to not feel helpless and hopeless,” said Hui. “We can’t change the system, but we can offer an alternative to people to get some basic needs met and to strengthen their communities.”

You can view Amber Yada’s video about Timebank and other local economic alternatives at Tara Hui and her Timebank colleagues invite programmers familiar with Ruby on Rails or Ajax to help with the project. Programmers will be credited on Timebank for the hours they invest.

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