Saturday, October 20, 2012

How to Start a Community Currency

By Mira Luna From 10.16.12 “Banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies...The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs." - Thomas Jefferson “Let me issue and control a nation’s money and I care not who writes the laws.” - Banker Mayer Amschel Rothschild The centralized creation of money and credit has a profoundly negative effect on local economies, sovereignty, and cohesiveness. Bankers value profit at all costs, while locally-controlled institutions tend to hold other values - like community, justice and sustainability - more highly. Communities can regain control of the flow of money and credit by issuing their own currency as a complement to conventional money, as electronic barter networks, debit cards, mobile phone payments, Timebanks, LETS, or old-fashioned cash. By altering the flow of resources, community currencies take power away from multinationals and put it in the hands of more accountable local entities. While community currencies can't be too similar to or compete with national money, most countries allow it and some, like Venezuela and the E.U., support their development. Mediating underemployment and poverty are often prime motivators, or specific purposes like small-business incubation, caregiving for seniors, community gardens, or providing healthcare for the uninsured, according to CNN. Starting a community currency is not for the faint of heart. It takes a dedicated team years of effort. Learning from others' experiences is essential. Here are some tips I gleaned from the experts and through my own experience. Find a group of people with common ground that are easy to get along with. It's important to share goals and values with your core group, otherwise your project will be pulled in many directions. You may split into separate projects at some point; that's often better than trying to duke it out with people who want to do their own thing. Focus on quality volunteer recruitment. Don't get discouraged when people come and go. Define your goals and prioritize them. Do you want to support local business or low income folks? Do you want encourage ridesharing or reward senior care? You may have many goals - currencies can have an effect on many problems - but be clear about your priorities and target audience as this will shape all of your decisions, including what kind of currency you use. “A currency is never an end in itself, but has to be seen as a facilitator of flows within the system of a whole community and economy," said John Rogers, who teaches how to start currencies at Value for People in the U.K. "Its essential systemic role is to match underused assets and unmet needs.” The community meetings I held attracted all kinds of personal agendas and wingnut plans that had no practical application. Your goals will be your compass. Pick your tool appropriately and make it easy to use. Currencies are not one-size-fits-all. It is crucial that you pick the right tool, with the option to expand into multiple tools later. It should be as easy to use as the other kind of money. REAL Dollars of Lawrence, KS ended because businesses didn't have an easy way to spend them. Vermont Businesses for Social Responsiblity switched to open source software for their business to business exchange to customize their interface and make it as simple to use - a very smart investment. The books at the end of this article can help you decide what type of currency might work best. Know your community. If your tool is online, but your community is mostly offline, it won't get used. Bernal Bucks of San Francisco chose a swipe debit card with loyalty points. A more rural area like Corvallis, Oregon is more of an off-line community, so a paper currency isn't too slow for this small town. How does your community use money, what are its assets and what does it need? Design a plan based on the reality of your community, not just on your own ideals. Whether you are working with businesses, nonprofits or community members, survey them or conduct focus groups to test the new currency before you finish your design. Do your homework and get a mentor. Choose a group that's done a project similar to yours. Look up case studies that have worked (there are many mirages of success). Community Currency Magazine is a good resource for case studies and interviews and the Complementary Currency Database can help you search for mentors in your area. Many people sail out on a currency expedition without a map. Learn from others mistakes. Your membership and partners will trust you more if you've done your homework. Define your governance and organization structure. Like any project you need good governance. John Rogers harps on this point: “Some people tell me off for going on about the importance of governance in getting community currencies to fly. They say a well-designed CC ‘should run itself’. That’s a nice theory, but I don’t know any CC that has stood the test of time without some form of governance at work, i.e. someone making decisions.” People will expect responsible and transparent governance for a resource as valuable as a currency - that trust determines its value. Encourage diverse community participation and representation in your governance, especially from your members. If you want to operate as a volunteer or worker cooperative, see my article on worker coops. Bay Area Community Exchange is a hybrid of a member and a worker coop, though many currencies are either run as traditional nonprofits or business bartering exchanges. Your decision to be a business or nonprofit will be determined by your goals, and currency type. Only entities that have charitable or educational aims can be nonprofits. That's not to say your business can't operate like a nonprofit, but you won't be eligible for grants and donations, though you may be able to get small investments, like Sonoma Go Local did from its community and business members. Define your geographic area. It may be helpful to incubate your currency in a smaller community, like Bernal Bucks did in a small neighborhood of San Francisco. However, a wider geographic area may provide the diversity of services and goods that makes a currency useful. Too wide an area though, like the Southwest, may be meaningless and not effective in building trust and solidarity. Ideally, it would be an area diverse enough to provide most of the necessities of life, and small enough to allow direct exchange, community-building and accountability. Regional currencies, like the Cheimgauer in Germany and Berkshares in Massachusetts have done well partly for this reason. If you don't grow food in your community, you may want to expand your reach to farming areas. If you haven't lived in your area for long, ask for advice from long time locals who may have sense of the resources and their flows. Outreach through events. Hosting events to promote your currency and attending other groups' events raises consciousness, develops alliances, recruits members/users and volunteers, and builds community. Think about your target user audience and meet them where they are at. Swapmeets and skillshares are useful demos of the currency that give a more concrete feel. Offer to speak, host a booth, or organize trading at relevant conferences, festivals, markets and other events to promote your currency to potential members that are allied in values. Bay Area Community Exchange organized a large sustainable living festival with over 40 workshops and 300 attendees using member skills and hours. The event increased trading and registrations by a factor of 10 or more for the month before the event and a couple weeks after. A similar boost happened around its Timebank Holiday Fair. Corvallis Hours, a bastion of homesteading, hosts an annual Harvest Festival where members have a market for “selling” their homemade goods for Hours. Develop partnerships and take them seriously. Find allied organizations to help recruit members/users, develop programmatic partnerships and raise your status in the community. An ally may serve also as a fiscal sponsor to bear the burden of organizational tasks while you focus on organizing. Choosing partnerships should depend both on your goals (e.g. pick an environmental organization to support gardening or a social justice organization to reach low income groups) and their ability to provide support, such as event space, outreach, trainings or programmatic development. A good way to begin a partnership is to do a presentation to their staff and then ask them if there is one small thing they'd like to achieve by using the currency, like a website upgrade, and help them do that. Partnerships work best as a two-way street. Read more here.

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