A few days ago, an email from Sinead Quinn, in Belfast, Ireland landed in my inbox. Sinead is pioneering TimeBanking in Northern Ireland.

She had just returned from a gathering of TimeBank leaders from Northern and Southern Ireland. Sinead was excited because the group had decided to hold an “all Ireland” conference this fall (2014). She said there was much enthusiasm and excitement. She is fired up with hope that TimeBanking has gained a solid foothold in Ireland. Her email sang with the joy and the enthusiasm of a person moving forward on her dream.

I wanted to learn more, and wrote her to find out. She wrote me back, attaching a long report. But before going to that report, and to put all this in context, I need to go back two years to when I met Sinead. Like so many TimeBanking pioneers, she was diving into the unknown, learning about TimeBanking even as she was bringing it to her home city of Belfast and to other communities in the north.

It was a good moment to introduce TimeBanking. Long caught up in deep-seated conflict between Protestants and Catholics, Belfast was now at peace. The bombings, murders, imprisonment, hunger strikes, and angry mass confrontations that were part of the struggles had ended. The barriers and barbed wire had come down. The soldiers were gone. But conflict leaves its legacies: the city had made enormous progress, but was striving still to bridge past divides and open up new opportunities for all.

In this time of building, a nonprofit – Volunteer Now – had received a grant from Atlantic Philanthropies to introduce TimeBanking at several sites. The goal: 15 new TimeBanks up and running in Northern Ireland over the next three years. Edgar Cahn had been invited to visit this fledgling initiative. I was lucky enough be a part of the trip.

TimeBank Beginnings in Northern Ireland

Sinead was our guide. In the upstairs gathering room of a new community center we joined a circle of 25 local residents, and learned of the hopes and dreams for a neighbor to neighbor exchange. At a public housing estate we gathered with ten people (or was it twelve or thirteen), squashed cheerfully around the table in a room meant maybe for eight. We met at a center for assisted living, where residents shared the challenges they faced just getting by, day to day. We went across town to a community center where, in a huge, high-ceilinged, blue-painted room, teens had been working together to create a community fair.

Wherever we went we encountered excitement and hope around the possibilities that TimeBanking could bring, especially the idea that everyone has something to give.

So what has happened since? Were the goals being reached? The dreams being fulfilled? I wrote Sinead to find out more.

Sinead sent me back her long report that she had written for Volunteer Now. After two years, TimeBanking has gained traction – that’s all to the good; and in one of the original sites, the Redburn Loughview Estate, TimeBankng has caught fire.

That’s exciting news. But the report also showed that despite Sinead’s best efforts, progress has overall been slower than originally expected. So here’s the question: why have initial expectations and hopes not been met in the majority of those early sites?TimeBank Start-Ups

Neighbor-to-Neighbor

Perhaps the success story at the Redburn Loughview Estate can provide some clues.

Sinead reports that residents have helped each other in many different ways. They have done painting and decorating, sewing, gardening, cookery, transport and help with shopping. Over the course of a year, 74 residents have joined the Timebank. In that year, they exchanged 1,199 hours on 417 exchanges.

But the most exciting news is that these low-income residents are stepping forward to pick up the leadership roles of the TimeBank. A paid community development worker still works with the TimeBank, but more and more, the day to day running of the Timebank is managed by members of the Timebank. This is where the community’s capacity begins really to expand.

The Housing Executive which manages this public housing estate evaluated the impacts that the TimeBank has been having for the residents. Here are eight advantages that the study showed. (I have taken the liberty of taking just the main point for each of the eight.)

  1. Saving money.
  2. Gaining new skills that can be a step towards paying jobs.
  3. Social connections for excluded individuals.
  4. The opportunity for community members to become problem-solvers, which in turn is energizing for them.
  5. A sense of belonging and more respect, tolerance and diversity
  6. Opportunities for young people to contribute in the community, so they experience greater self-worth, and anti-social behaviour goes down
  7. The growth of supportive networks of friends and neighbours, the skills to manage and maintain a home and improved (mental and physical) health and wellbeing
  8. Greater participation in the community.

Good stuff.

But still, there is the question that has bedeviled so many TimeBank start-ups. With all the early enthusiasm, why was the initial pick-up so slow?

A Learning Curve

Probing deeper still: Why, out of the several start-ups, did at least half never really get going at all?

One important answer is this: There is a learning curve – and that learning curve was steeper than anyone expected.

Sinead wrote about this in her report. TimeBanking sounds simple, she noted – but in putting it into practice, people found it confusing. TimeBanking sounds a lot like money – but it’s not money. Unlike money, there is no price – and that is a profound difference. It’s a bit like volunteering – but you get something back for contributing, and this, too, is a profound difference. It’s not barter, because there’s no negotiation between two individuals about the value of a swap.

So if TimeBanking is not money, and is not volunteering, and is not barter. what is it?

TimeBanking is its own thing. Different from anything else that people will have done before. Creating a TimeBank calls for many people to step forward to organize a new way of acting together.

Which means that creating a TimeBank is often not nearly as simple as it might first appear.

And figuring out what that is takes time.

The sole overarching aim of TimeBanking is to generate cycles of paying it forward, with no possibility of gauging the precise value of what will be given and what will be gained. This means that a large measure of trust is required for TimeBank members to jump in and give an hour of precious time, now, for the possibility of receiving an hour of someone else’s time later.

Challenges of Start-Up

Think about that for a moment. TimeBanking is a great and beautiful idea that calls on the best of people. But putting that beautiful idea into practice? Making it a part of a community’s shared life? Getting it to be something that people just do? That’s a challenge of a different order.

It requires holding onto hopes, dreams and a vision while, at the same time, getting on with real hard-nosed practical action – like making brochures, creating sign-up forms, organizing regular get-togethers, setting up orientations, managing membership lists, tackling the question of liability, trouble-shooting, finding funds to pay necessary costs, planning for future actions, understanding what makes people tick.

It calls for creating a whole new set of habits and expectations for TimeBank members, many of whom will be strangers to each other. That’s a bit like asking a whole bunch of people to make a new year’s resolution and then stick with it – all together, at the same time! And all of that before the benefits of the good resolution become evident.

BUT.

And here’s the big “but:” There is one pattern about start-up TimeBanks that over time has shown up again and again. And it looks like the Northern Ireland TimeBanking experience is headed to match this pattern exactly.

Pattern of Growth?

The pattern is this: When a single TimeBank figures this all out, becomes successful starts to grow; when there is a TimeBank in place whose members really “get it;” when those members start to put their own shoulders to the wheel of organizing the TimeBank: then the chances are good that other TimeBanks in the area will start to “get it” too.

What does this pattern tell us? It suggests that for some reason, if one group goes through the learning journey, then that journey becomes easier for others.

It’s as if the learning becomes contagious.

The Redburn Loughview Estate is a close-knit community where community members were willing to take the plunge. Sinead’s recent experience suggests that this TimeBank’s success marks a turning point — and perhaps the pattern is about to happen in Ireland.  Suddenly, she’s seeing that TimeBanking is being picked up in a new way. TimeBankers are getting together– and fired up with enthusiasm.

Growth may still be slow for a while – but for Sinead, a threshold has been crossed. She is seeing critical mass forming.

Ireland: get ready!