March 17, 2013; Source: KATU-Portland

In a creative twist on alternative currency, a Portland, Ore. nonprofit has organized a system in which homeless people can exchange donated tokens for goods and services of their choice at a variety of local businesses. Here’s how it works: a person who wants to donate money to a homeless person without worrying that their donation could fuel a drug or alcohol habit can buy “give tokens” from the sponsoring nonprofit, Sanctity of Hope, or from participating businesses. Each token costs a dollar and is worth a dollar to the recipient. The recipient can then spend the token at participating businesses, including thrift stores, hair salons, bike repair shops, food carts, restaurants, laundry facilities, or lodging facilities. The tokens can also be used for mass transit. The business then returns the tokens it receives to Sanctity of Hope for an equivalent cash reimbursement.

The volunteer members of this all-volunteer organization have so far done an impressive job of signing up businesses located in the city center with products and services most needed by people living on the streets. And so far, Sanctity of Hope has covered all of the intermediary transaction costs, raising whatever modest revenue is needed to keep the system going.

If the idea grows in scale or complexity, the nonprofit intermediary may need to generate fee income for its services, perhaps through a small surcharge on token purchases by donors or a small fee deducted from each dollar reimbursed to businesses. But that business planning can come later. In the meantime, we commend the initiative of a small group of people in launching this intriguingly simple yet powerful method—propelled by mutual dignity and respect—to connect people who want to give and people in need. –Kathi Jaworski