“We have what we need—if we use what we have.”
Edgar S. Cahn, Ph.D., JD
Time banking was created in the 1980s by the late US civil rights lawyer and political activist, Edgar Cahn, to address social issues arising from inequality and alleviate social exclusion. In 2011, an estimated 160,000 people around the world used time banking in 34 countries, including about 30,000 people in the United States. As of 2021, the number of participants in time banks in the US had increased to between 40,000 and 50,000. Meanwhile, the development of time banking apps has made community record-keeping significantly easier.
Here we want to provide an overview of some of the nuts and bolts of this movement so that this community-building tool becomes more widely known and available.
What is Time Banking?
Time banking is rooted in the notion that the money economy is just one aspect of the way that goods and services are produced. Another, invisible economy also plays a central role in our daily lives. This is the economy of home, family, neighborhood, and community. We don’t think of these things as part of our economic system—but they are. In fact, they constitute what Neva Goodwin, Co-Director of the Global Development and Environmental Institute at Tufts University, has named the core economy.
Why is it important to recognize that home, family, and community form a core part of the economy? One reason is that many of our social problems can be traced back to the fact that the core economy has been damaged as more and more economic services (care work being one obvious example) are turned into commodities that are bought and sold on the market.
Time banking seeks to reverse this pernicious trend by creating, at the local level, an economy where everyone is valued and where equity is celebrated and honored. What does time banking do? If properly supported, a time bank stimulates a community-wide cycle of action, learning, gathering, projects, initiatives, and rewards that enlists people’s untapped capacity to extend trust, build mutual support, reduce social isolation, and advance shared purpose.
People who are active in a time bank earn credits through hours of community work then spend those credits in return for services from other community members. For example, they can take classes from other members, learning new skills such as a language or how to play a musical instrument. Give your time as you will—whether it be yard work, helping with transportation, picking up food, or cooking meals. All these exchanges are valued only in terms of the time spent doing them, making an important statement to participants about their self-worth.
This is an innovative approach to stimulating neighbor-to-neighbor acts of kindness. One hour equals one credit—regardless of the service you give. No money is exchanged, only time. This affirms the value of community members’ talents and contributions and helps reweave the social fabric essential to community vitality.
Indeed, people have used time banking for a wide array of projects aimed at repairing, rebuilding, or replenishing their communities. The practice helps the vulnerable, promotes intercultural learning, reduces isolation, and in some cases cuts out-of-pocket costs by tapping into communities’ often abundant but untapped social capacity. It gives members access to skill-building activities and job opportunities. Through these exchanges of time, members get to know their neighbors and make friends while helping to build caring, vibrant communities.
There are several different models of time bank exchanges. One common model is a neighbor-to-neighbor time bank, in which individuals join a time bank so they can earn and spend time credits by helping each other. Each hour of service contributed by an individual earns a one-time credit that can be used in several different ways: 1) to receive services from other members of the time credit exchange; 2) to purchase with credits items such as school supplies, food, and clothing; and 3) to take classes, such as dance or music lessons, yoga, and so on. Depending on how the time bank is set up, an individual could also donate saved time credits to someone else.
Another time bank model involves the creation of targeted or specialized exchange networks that focus more on time credits. An example is cross-age peer tutoring, in which older children tutor younger students, accumulating time credits that they can then trade for school materials and equipment such as donated computers. Here are some additional examples of the forms time banks can take:
- Friends’ time banks, with up to 35 people who already know each other.
- School- or church-based time banks, where members of a pre-existing community use the time bank to weave a tighter community.
- Regional time banks, typically comprised of a federation of neighborhood time banks.
- Social service agency-based time banks, where clients become participants and people’s lives are transformed through a supportive community.
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Building Communal Bonds
To appreciate how time banking can build and reinforce communal bonds, consider the results of a survey of older adults who belonged to a time bank established by the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, one of the largest time banks in the US with an estimated 2,000 participants. In the survey (conducted in 2009), 90 percent of respondents said that they had gained new friendships through the time bank, 71 percent said that they had contact with their new friends at least once a week, and 42 percent saw their time banking friends two or more times a week. Two thirds said that their access to health services and other resources had improved. Most respondents reported that time bank membership gave them the support they needed to remain in their homes as they aged. They also indicated that their involvement in the time bank had increased their sense of belonging and their trust in people from other backgrounds, cultures, and age groups.
Time Banking Amid COVID-19
COVID-19 brought new urgency to the task of implementing models that generate and strengthen systems of informal support for people and neighborhoods experiencing great need, allowing individuals to stay safe while feeling connected.
When many states were in lockdown, time bank members offered services such as virtual tutoring for children and adults. Members provided peer counseling support and emotional guidance, helping others laugh, relax, release fear and tension, and feel less isolated. Other members delivered groceries for vulnerable neighbors who needed to stay inside.
When we witnessed a national shortage of masks, the Pennsylvania-based Neighbor to Neighbor time bank mobilized by simply asking who had the materials needed to make masks, who could sew, who had a pattern, who could share; no one cared where the time was coming from or who it was going to. There was simply a need in the community that time banking was able to meet. This asking and receiving was done through software, email, or phone.
The result: thousands of cloth masks were produced and delivered to soup kitchen staff, programs providing medical transportation, time bank members and their family and friends, unhoused populations who could not receive food unless they had masks, and more. All this was handled through a network of caring community members who came together for a common goal.
Setting Up a Time Bank in Your Community
Increasingly, time banking—and the mutual aid principles on which it is based—is gaining adherents. Yet most people still lack access to time banking networks. Want to start your own? The first thing to do, of course, is to make sure there isn’t an existing time banking network in your area. A directory of many time banks is available here.
Most (non-agency) time banks start small, with an inspired citizen who hears about time banking and decides to bring the practice to their neighborhood, school, association, or church. The first step in starting any time bank is to gather a group of people who want to make it happen.
When that group has been assembled—or maybe even before—the question may arise: Should we hire a staff person to get things off the ground? Generally, the answer will be “no.” A small, member-led time bank will establish an immediate sense of ownership by members and create the community connectedness that is the essence of time banking. And you won’t be burdened with fundraising for a staff position in the project’s early stages. If your vision for your time bank is ambitious, you may take on paid staff in the future. But start out with community ownership. Then, when the time comes to bring staff on board, you will be ahead of the game on four fronts:
- Members will expect to own and share responsibility for the time bank.
- You will have a good sense of who you want for the paid position.
- Whoever comes on as paid staff will have a strong support system already in place.
- You’ll likely be more prepared to raise funds.
Beyond developing a strong sense of community ownership, here are five basic steps to help guide your efforts:
- Get to know time banking and share that knowledge with others on your “first steps” team (likely very small).
- Work with your first-steps team to host introductory potlucks where you spread the word to interested people and find individuals who will take the next step: running time bank workshops.
- Time bank workshops are a great place to recruit your core group of committed individuals to form a start-up team.
- Work with your start-up team to plan for and set up the roles and processes that the ongoing leadership team will adopt.
- With your leadership team in place and everyone having a good sense of their roles and responsibilities, your new time bank will be up and ready to roll!
A Growing Movement
The time banking movement is growing and evolving rapidly. Adaptable to the needs of different kinds of communities, time baking is breathing new energy into families’ lives, supporting respite care providers, and increasing trust and a sense of belonging in neighborhoods. Thanks to time banking efforts, faith-based organizations are seeing more community engagement. Parental involvement in schools has increased. Disengaged youth are reengaging. Universities are applying time banks in their academic fields. Local community agencies and community-based organizations are deploying time banking as a new way to get more people involved.
Even collaboration between US and international time banks has grown stronger over the last decades. Every year in March, timebanks across the world celebrate Cahn’s birthday and discuss their respective happenings. The stories shared are inspiring.
In short, time banks meet daily social care needs and tap a hidden and underutilized local resource—the ability and willingness of individuals to provide services to each other. Using a circulating, community currency sets in motion a chain reaction that brings people together in unforeseen and unpredictable alliances. These days, with social bonds fraying in so many places, the ability of time banking to bring people together for mutual benefit has never been more important.