I was recently asked to speak on the topic of time banking schemes, and while this is now a relatively common practice in other parts of the world, time banking is still in its infancy here in Australia and also across the pond in New Zealand.
Interestingly, time banking is one of the key strategies written into the NSW government’s volunteering strategy for the period 2011 -2021, and $300,000 worth of funding has been provided to Volunteer Centres in the Hunter and on the Central Coast to trial the project in those regions. You can read more at http://www.volunteering.nsw.gov.au/volunteers/timebanking/timebanking-providers
So what is time banking?
Time banking is a volunteering scheme based heavily on the principle of reciprocity, whereby participants essentially earn – and then trade – credits of time with other registered members of the time bank.
For instance, I might join a time bank scheme and spend two hours of my time mowing lawns for other members of the collective. These two hours are then ‘banked’, that is, they are recorded as a credit for me which I can ‘cash in’ at a later time to retrieve services that I need from other members of the time bank (such as two hours of baby sitting or having a fence painted) – (See image below courteousy of http://www.helpdirect.org.uk/preston-south-ribble/other-projects/time-banks/)
In essence, time banking is a trading scheme in which ‘time’ is the currency – replacing cash.
First developed by Edgar Cahn in the USA in the early 1980’s, time banking has since grown to have a presence in more than 35 countries around the world, and is well entrenched in both the UK and the USA where more than 300 time banking schemes exist.
Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that time banking attracts a greater number of low income earners to community participation that traditional forms of volunteering. A study of time banking in the UK found that time banks were successful in “attracting people who would not normally get involved in traditional volunteering”. The same report found that “while only 16% of ‘traditional’ volunteers had an income under £10,000, four times as many (58%) of time bank participants did”.
This was further illustrated with the following statistic which demonstrated that “nearly double the number of time bank participants were not in formal employment (72%) compared to traditional volunteers (40%)” [The times of our lives research, UK, 2002]
So clearly, time banking is meeting a niche which traditional volunteering misses.
However the question I want to pose in this hot topic is whether or not time banking is truly volunteering at all?
Anyone who has read my hot topics over the last decade will know that I am the first person to rock the boat and advocate for greater ways to broaden the definition of what and who a volunteer is; but I can’t help feeling that time banks somehow overstep that fine line and are in fact something else.
I’m quite happy to be persuaded to another way of thinking, but there are a couple of key points that I just can’t get my head around at the moment.
I guess the first core question for me is the question of what constitutes reciprocity and what is payment for a service?
A young person volunteering in order to get their resume up-to-date is a good example of reciprocity at its finest. You give you get.
I’ve also been a big advocate for many years now of innovative program’s such as the 10,000 hours project (US) and Orange Rockcorp (UK), where volunteers who give a certain number of hours to local voluntary charities receive a free concert ticket in return for their time.
Susan Ellis of Energize fame recently responded to a post in the OzVPM Newsgroup, where she shared information about a UK project where volunteers received discount vouchers to local businesses in return for volunteer effort. Again, I have no problems with programs of this type.
So what’s the block in time banking for me?
Well essentially I believe it is more about an individual trading scheme than it is volunteering.
Some of my key concerns are:
1. It’s too self-centred
While innovative program’s such as those mentioned above provide tangible rewards in return for volunteering, the volunteering is being conducted to benefit community organisations and community causes. In the case of time banking, the recipients of the services being received are primarily individuals. Sure this builds social capital and helps those in need to help themselves (which is a great thing), but is it volunteering? It seems to me it is ‘informal volunteering with benefits’!
2. It’s a trading scheme
Most definitions of volunteering anywhere in the world have, as a basic tenet the idea that “volunteering occurs without any expectation of monetary reward”. When even the literature promoting time banking itself refers to time banking as being an ‘alternate monetary unit’, I think it treads dangerously over the line of not being a volunteering activity.
3. Who loses?
Another commonly held principle of volunteering is that it should never take away paid jobs. Now I know better than most that this is a huge grey area, but I wonder, for instance, how the local guy with a lawn mowing business in a small regional area suddenly fares when a vibrant time banking scheme emerges in that community and half a dozen members of the time bank are now mowing multiple lawns in exchange for other services?
4. It is not equitable
Time banking assumes all members have something to give and something to get. So where does that leave community members who require a service, but who, perhaps for health reasons, are not able to participate?
5. It’s government driven!
Call me glass half empty man if you like, but in NSW at least, the time banking scheme is being driven, supported and initially funded to the tune of $300,000 by the NSW government. One has to wonder what is in it for them?
Now let me finish by stating categorically that I am not opposed to time banks. I think they are a great way to engage communities, and particularly those who are marginalised and have little to offer the broader workforce. My issue here is the fundamental question of whether or not time banking should be included in a strategy for the growth of volunteering by an Australian government or whether it belongs elsewhere?
OK, over to you!
I am a time bank novice and invite intellectual debate and the chance to be proven wrong by those who have direct and more practical experiences of time banking. I am of course always interested in broader thinking about the topic.
So do you agree or disagree with my thoughts?
Let’s hear from you