Why ask why? Why not just get down to timebanking?

This entry is for excited, eager founders of new timebanks who feel that stressing the core values of timebanking to newcomers is too deep, abstract, or unnecessary preaching. Your steering committee may be steering you wrong.

There are a lot of things that can go wrong in a young timebank, and most of them have to do with context. The first “service credit” exchanges started as pilot projects in the 1980’s, employing the concept of one credit for one hour of service. The observations of these projects became the subject of the book No More Throwaway People: The Co-Production Imperative, by Edgar Cahn. The most successful projects held steadfastly to some common core principles, henceforth known as the Core Values of Timebanking. They are not meant to be seen as rules to follow or break occasionally; they are more a set of best practices and natural laws of social interaction that have been shown to heal communities. Ignore them at your own peril.

Beware the Barter Mentality: Credits are not like money!

When members don’t understand the nature of timebank credits and a new definition of debt, problems can develop quickly. For example: a member who had given time to assist in legal research for another member accrued quite a few credits in her early membership. She was fiery, passionate and worked hard to give her best. She moved to a new location and suddenly needed firewood desperately. I knew of a member who had donated firewood in the past, so I referred her to him. He told her she was welcome to look around his property and pick up anything she could use on the ground.

Unfortunately, there was not much there this year, and of course it was wet—being on the ground. She complained to me that the wood was no good, that she was spending “hard-earned credits” for it, and that he had fallen through on his end of the deal. I told her that it was a gift, and one that she could have refused. She didn’t have to take the wood, but she did, and there must be reciprocity—that even in the market mindset she would have lost in court. In fact, she was “spitting on the gift.” I also tried to explain that there are no “deals” in timebanking and no contracts whatsoever. You don’t always get what you want, and you can never demand. She was overly concerned about wasting her credits as if they were scarce. I told her again that this is not money, and that she did not have to have any credits at all before asking for what she needed, confronting her Scarcity Mentality. She could not process my insights nor respect my decisions and became belligerent, leaving the timebank, at least for now.

It’s too bad we lost that member, but if people can’t let go of their hangups about money they can ruin relationships and cause others to leave as well—hurting the whole timebank; every coordinator has faced this problem at one time or another. One must balance empathy and autonomy with what is good for the whole. I had learned this lesson my first day on the job and was quick to confront it this time.

In that case, a member had left an expletive-filled message on our only plumber’s answering machine, when he was told that the plumber was recuperating from shoulder surgery and could not do the work immediately. The issue exploded when the coordinator before me did not handle the complaint in a timely way, and we lost our only plumber at the time.

In another case, one member thought that he was “overcharged” for writing a business letter, saying that a seventeen-hour exchange should have only taken 20 minutes. I said if it was that easy, he could have written it himself; as I understood it, the letter involved considerable research and preparation. He was so concerned about the “cost” of the letter that I gave him 50 Time Credits from my personal account to demonstrate abundance, and told him that he could not complain after the fact about time involved when he set no limit beforehand. He could always avoid exchanges with that member in the future if he so desired, but responsibility for the exchange remained with him and him alone.

Way beyond the credits, within these stories, is the construction (and deconstruction) of a social network– the relationships that form a personal safety net. Does it help relationships to be known as a cheapskate? Does having a lot of credits guarantee services? No. It’s all about building your reputation, which is by far more easily maintained than salvaged after a break in trust. Forget about the credits, forget about debt—the riches lie in the community around you.

Love thy neighbor, silly.

My advice for new coordinators is to be firm in your core values, while also allowing members to find grace in reflection. It takes time and patience to find community. If members can get caught up in the money mindset, so can leaders. Take the time to reflect on the origins of your policies. If something feels funny, talk it out with your fellow leaders. Heavily rooted in ethics, the core values of timebanking are a great map to guide your path.

Assets and Gossip

The heart of timebanking rests in equality. Everyone has something of value to contribute, and all hours are of equal worth. But we can’t ignore the fact that we live embedded in a cultural context of extreme inequality all around us. Judgements tend to creep in. The concept of hard work is different in everyone, and is a hallmark of the American work ethic. No pain, no gain. But in timebanking, work is not necessarily hard or even particularly skilled, such as companionship or making an extra plate of cookies—but it is critical work. In my orientations, I describe it like this: Some hours may seem longer than others, but it all evens out. The person you are helping will go on to help another and it is not your business how they do so. Judging the capacity of others or the nature of their contribution is counterproductive. If someone else finds a service valuable, it is.

The beautiful thing about timebanking is that assets are revealed naturally in the course of time.

Volunteerism: When helping is hurting

A woman in her sixties, we’ll call her Julie, joined the timebank needing rides to her doctor. For many reasons, timebanking was a much better solution for her than trying to deal with state agencies for transportation. In return, she faithfully worked in the timebank office helping shape policy, performing background checks and orientations, and putting to use all her lifetime experience as a nursing administrator and social activist. She felt useful and purposeful again, something she had not felt since her health failed her and she’d had to stop working. She was no longer isolated and dependent on agencies to meet all her needs, and she was being transformed before my eyes. I was very grateful for all her contributions to the timebank and felt that she was an essential asset during our start-up.

Along came “Susan,” an avid volunteer at her church and new timebank member, offering a ride to Julie for a medical appointment. Everything was fine until the end of the exchange, when Julie brought up the total number of hours to record for the day’s work. Susan adamantly refused the hours, saying there was nothing she needed in return, that she just “wanted to help others.”

Susan did not know it, but she had just insulted Julie. All of a sudden Julie felt like an object of charity again, not valued for her work in the office. She had earned the right to ask for help and she wanted to use her credits with dignity and pride. She called me to complain; I heard the emotional pain behind her words, though she made it a point to tell me how nice and helpful Susan had been.

I called Susan and tried to explain that accepting the credits from other members is a vital part of timebanking, what reciprocity means to members in need in order to restore their dignity, etc., and she said she understood. She accepted the time credits and we thought everything was fine, until Julie asked her for several more rides. Finally, Susan asked Julie why she kept calling her for the same service. “Because you offered it,” Julie replied. Susan sounded embarrassed, saying, “Yes, but isn’t it asking a lot for me to keep doing this over and over?” Julie said, “If you can’t do it, just say so. It’s okay to say no, but why is it not okay for me to ask?”

When I spoke to Susan, she could not seem to shake the mindset of volunteering she believed. She had given “plenty” of herself and yet it was “not enough for some people.” She ended up leaving the timebank with some sort of resentment. She tried to see Julie as an asset, but she saw her more as an object of pity. Therefore, she saw Julie as an object, an “it,” –the other, the lesser–unintentionally. Luckily, Julie was a strong timebanker and shook off her feelings of inadequacy. She moved on to find other rides and do more work in the office. As for Susan, I do not know what became of her, but I feel she is a good fit as a volunteer, maybe just not for timebanking, at least at her current level of consciousness. If Julie had not had such a good feeling already from timebanking, she might have left as well in defeat and shame.

Lessons Learned

Make the point of explaining in orientations how the core values illuminate why timebanking is not charity or barter, but something much, much, more. People learn best through real stories that bring the core values to life. Those who do not “get” the difference between volunteering and timebanking can end up hurting vulnerable people without even realizing it.

And, members who go about exchanges as if they are doing business–nip it in the bud. Even business members, maybe especially business members, need to understand the value and proliferation of good will and act accordingly. There is a way to ask nicely and with the best intent for the community, and that is to let go of demanding. Little by little, the transformation will astound you.

Learn more about the core values of timebanking here.


Stacey Jacobsohn is the Director of Time Initiative of Maine (T.I.ME)