As the recession and Occupy movement encourage people to reimagine work and how they get their needs met in the new economy, Timebanks are catching fire. They are a clever tool to circumvent the scarcity and misdirection of conventional money. Timebanks are at heart a simple concept – you work for an hour, earn an hour credit, and spend an hour with anyone in your Timebank community. Timebanks don't pay taxes or get penalized in benefit reductions because they are more like charitable volunteering circles of mutual aid or relationship-based gift economies than market-based national currencies.
Timebank values are:
- We are all assets – we all have something to give.
- Some work is beyond price – work has to be redefined to value whatever it takes to create healthy, socially just, and sustainable communities and that work needs to be honored, recorded and rewarded.
- Reciprocity – helping works better as a two-way street and we need to work together to build better communities.
- We need each other– people help each other to reweave communities of support, strength & trust by creating relationships through exchanges.
- Respect – every human being matters and no one should go without getting their needs met regardless of their position in life. (Stemming from this, everyone’s hour is equal in a Timebank.)
You can easily start a Timebank on paper and pen (which is how the first one was created) with a written directory of requests and offers in various skill categories on a bulletin board and an account ledger to track hours exchanged. Or you can circulate notes measured in hours, like Ithaca Hours, or you can create checks or vouchers that can be mailed in or deposited at the Timebank. Another option is to have the Timebank operate through a call center managed by a Timebank broker that facilitates trades and records them on members' behalf. Timebanks existed long before computers and during the Great Depression, unemployed associations achieved a high level economic complexity trading hours on just paper. This is still a great option for more unplugged communities.
Arroyo Timebank– Food Forestry Workshop
However, there are a number of different internet-based Timebank software platforms that exist now to facilitate larger scale, more efficient and decentralized trading. Some of them are free using open source code and some are paid, hosted and externally maintained by companies. Some are flexible and let your community come up with your own rules, like charging in a community-defined unit or charging more than an hours for an hour of skilled work. Others are more strict to follow Timebank rules, particularly in the US where taxes and social security benefits might be an issue if not followed to the letter. The mutual credit currency systems that are similar to Timebanks, but don’t follow their rules (like one hour equals one hour) and operate under their own values are more appropriately called LETS (Local Employment Trading Systems). These more market-like systems may use units that represent national currency, allow bidding for prices, and often involve small to medium sized businesses.
Here are some Timebank and LETS software offerings from beginner to advanced:
- Community Exchange Systems is a world-wide free hosting exchange platform, that will allow you to do basic trading with no money or technical assistance needed. CES is not strictly Timebank software (it is more like a LETS, but can be set up as a Timebank) and allows you to pick your currency. CES, developed by Tim Jenkins in South Africa, allows communities to trade amongst the 339 exchanges in 34 countries. This is a great place to start if you don’t have a techie on staff or any money to shell out for your Timebank project. It’s also not the easiest to use software available and we felt it was a little clunky, but it’s a good place to start without a lot of resource input.
- hOurworld is a national nonprofit organization that offers Timebank software and hosting at no cost. It is fairly basic, but easy to use and you don't need tech staff. Their system is similar to and developed by some of the same staff as Hour Exchange Portland, an extremely successful Timebank. They also offer free software trainings and paid trainings on how to organize a Timebank and how to develop cool applications, like coop and microenterprise development. They are developing fundraising application on their software to help fund their Timebanks. Their staff is awesome – caring, knowledgeable and experienced. hOur World is also seeking to interoperate with Open Source Currency (see below).
- TimeBanks USA, also a national nonprofit, just rolled out Community Weaver 2.0, which has more functionality than its predecessor versions of Timebank software, including features to keep your community abreast of events and announcements. All Timebanks under its umbrella are nodes of one system, rather that completely independent Timebanks. Community Weaver 2.0 allows you to produce transaction reports, which is great for grant writing and reporting statistics to validate your funding. Timebanks USA charges an ongoing fee based on membership size for their software and hosting and it is not open source. However, this is a good option for a group without tech help to maintain the site, and where some grant funding is available or the community members can afford small membership fees. They provide an array of trainings at a moderate cost regardless of which software you use, which is helpful since starting a timebank can require a steep learning curve. However, a large national organization providing a one size fits all software, doesn’t necessarily fit all communities, which is why some groups make their own software or fork from an open source code base.
- Open Source Currency was started by Tom Brown and is used for the Austin Time Exchange Network and the Timebank I coordinate, Bay Area Community Exchange, as well as a number of other forks in development in California, New York and outside the country. Tom sets up forks of the code for nonprofit groups for free, hosting them for a bit, and then spinning them off into autonomous open source Timebanks run by their own staff or volunteers, which can share code development among the forks. All of these forks run on Ruby on Rails, which is a very versatile programming language, but requires skilled techies to maintain and customize. We liked this one the most after doing a survey of what software exists because it already contained elements of Facebook, Craigslist, and Couchsurfing that make it a very useful trading system, but even more so, a community-building software. There are reputation, transparency and relationship features built in. It is the only software other than GETS that I know of that allows you to organize groups within a Timebank to offer internal community trading in private or public groups and also trading with members outside your group as well. It shows all of the transactions and comments people have made about each others' trades, which helps scale trust-building for a larger region like the Bay Area where people don’t know each other. It allows you to organize by neighborhood, to trade within your neighborhood or town and also in your greater region if set up as a regional umbrella Timebank, like ours. It sends categorized request and offer emails out to its membership to generate quick responses. The software is continually evolving in functionality. It can be set up with multiple currencies.
- Community Forge, Matt Slater's baby, is also a Drupal-based software that could be set up as a Timebank, but its more LETS-like and can be a commercial bartering system. He offers an open source version free to nonprofits, and a highly customized and versatile version with tech support at commercial rates if needed. This is a great option for groups that have access to Drupal coding volunteers. Matt is great person to work with, very generous and into the gift economy and bartering – he also publishes Community Currency Magazine. His systems are used across Europe, especially in France.
- GETS Plus, developed as a for-profit venture with radical intentions, is the most highly developed and complex currency technology I know of that allows Timebanking and multiple other currencies on the same platform. It has a baffling menu of 130+ features including mobile phone payment, printed currency capability and credit card processing. It's great for groups that are interested in starting a local business exchange in addition to a Timebank or LETS, want multiple currencies, and can afford the relatively high cost for the extra dazzling functionality. If you have plenty of money from an angel or a business network and you are trying to organize a large geography, GETS is a good bet. Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and Green America Exchange use GETS.
- Some Timebanks also have their own unique software like Rich (Richmond) Hours and Fairfax Village Networks. This is not an option for many groups, because it requires a large financial or highly skilled tech volunteer investment to create the software from scratch, which is no small feat.
Echo Park Timebank- Artists Bailout
Every community has different needs and resources. I encourage you to try out the Timebanks above and choose which is best for the context you live in. All of these platforms are continually evolving and improving. In the end, we may all end up using the same software, but for now I see great strength in diversity and experimentation. In the meantime, if there are any Ruby on Rails geeks that want to lend a hand to our rad open source currency project, please contact me at mira (at) sfbace.org. Go open source and support the currency commons!