Time banking – volunteering or profiteering?

Andy Fryar October 1, 2012 27
Time banking – volunteering or profiteering?

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




  1. BeachGirl September 29, 2014 at 4:44 am - Reply

    I’m a member of a Timebanking scheme in NSW. I agree with the person who said that the people paid to introduce the scheme locally “talk up” the services offered. For instance, I noticed that two such people put down themselves as having offered ‘Timebanking advice and support’. Hmmmm, isn’t that what they’re paid to do?! Also a couple of people have said that there are safety issues. Yes! I could really use some help in my garden but do I feel comfortable asking a stranger to my house? Maybe not.

    Prior to joining Timebanking I did heaps of volunteer work. Now it seems I’m pretty much the only active member in my area and have little hope of receiving any benefit for the time I help in the local library. It’s kind of a shame really as I didn’t just ask for help in my garden but for mowing at a couple of older community members’ houses.

    In my case it seems that what I do IS volunteer work as I have very little hope of reciprocity. C’est la vie.

  2. TimeBanker1 September 6, 2014 at 11:28 pm - Reply

    As an active timebanker, I’ve discovered some major flaws that are never discussed, anywhere.
    1. Most members of most timebanks are inactive.
    About 5% (up to maybe 10% in rare cases) of any timebank membership is really involved in giving or receiving ANY service within, say, a 6 month period. A few passionate believers do most of the work of the TimeBank. This contradicts one of the basic tenets of the TB: getting people to do things for other people, or asking other people to do things for you. It appears that the majority of Americans have a hard time trusting people in their community — particularly when they have to come to a member’s home for some service, and they don’t know them. It seems like you’re asking for a favor from someone you don’t really know. Most timebanks will agree with part of this assessment, and others will strongly disagree.

    2. Some timebanks exaggerate the number of time exchanges and members in order to attract grants and various forms of funding. Very loose definitions, vague reporting, and “time-inflation” (claiming a service took more time than it did) all contribute. It is difficult to NOT “talk the game up” when soliciting new members, just like a real cash bank will advertise benefits and exaggerate services and other things to attract a baseline of customers. Most timebanks will vehemently disagree with my observation for obvious, personal reasons: if they agreed, they would have to be accountable for being accurate and realistic about what’s going on, and that might reduce the numbers and make it harder to attract community support, media coverage, and grant dollars.
    3. There appears to be a universal need for at least one fulltime paid coordinator/director/time exchange manager. This need translates into the following: one driven, highly passionate woman will often take over the entire timebank either in reality or in essence, and lead the group in the direction they see fit. This will always coincide with their own agenda — which is to create a fulltime job, paid for with real dollars and cash, to run the timebank as a social change organization. They will tend to be overly optimistic and ignore problems and risks, and tend to exaggerate successes and membership numbers and time exchanges in order to attract public dollars that can finance their “dream career.” Now these people (these passionate, driven leaders almost universally tend to be women for some reason) may actually be doing “good” in their agenda that they’ve set out to achieve, but in many cases they lead the group on projects, activities, networking and grant hunting that leaves the basic energy and effort of developing individual, one-on-one time exchanges as a lower priority, thus causing the timebank to languish and not really build a solid grassroots foundation. This last point has produced emotional, angry outbursts, including tears, when presented at a local group who clearly had a leader who, being unemployed, stressed repeatedly to the group that if it wasn’t for her, there wouldn’t be a timebank in the first place. Not true at all, but intense, passionate driver-type personalities often have weak, milquetoast kinds of followers, and they blindly go along with what’s being stated by the self-appointed driven leader. It was amazing to watch her go through various theatrics: anger, lashing out, tears, a story out of nowhere about a happy recipient of a timebank exchange … its like a bizarre dog & pony show with smoke and mirrors, all designed to emotionally divert people from the nuts & bolts of what is actually going on.

    4. Liability for the governing board, combined with a widespread lack of background checks on the people who join as members, puts Board Members of a TimeBank at significant legal exposure to lawsuits if something seriously bad happened during a time exchange: a theft, an assault, etc. Unfortunately it is expensive and most timebanks have a hard time producing consistent, sustainable revenue to pay for valuable Board indemnification insurance. Why?
    Because most timebanks have trouble collecting annual membership dues, since the majority of members actually do not do any exchanges of any kind. Thus it is a little like a ponzi scheme or network marketing: there is a constant need to canvas and attract new blood, new members, because they pay their $10 upfront and the money is needed to pay for general member liability and other expenses. But the majority of those members will not renew, so excuses are often made and endless delays in getting renewal money, yet these non-paying, inactive members are counted as “members” when reporting numbers to the public and to outside groups.

  3. Gillian Whalley-Okafor April 24, 2014 at 5:57 am - Reply

    One of my concerns about Timebanking is the safety of vulnerable people who may participate. Formal volunteering has checks and balances in place
    to help ameliorate any potential risks. How are Timebanking transactions monitored to ensure that people are not put at risk?

  4. Angela November 20, 2013 at 11:09 pm - Reply
  5. Helga Wientjes August 12, 2013 at 9:10 pm - Reply

    Hi Andy,
    I am not sure if I find the question whether timebanking is or isn’t volunteering very helpful. Does it matter?

    After the Christchurch earthquakes it turned out that Lyttleton is a pretty resilient community and the Timebank has played a key role in that. The fact that Timebanks are popping up left, right and center tells me that it’s something that appeals to people.

    When we hold our monthly orientation for new members we ask people why they want to be part of it. Everyone of them answers that they like their community to be connected. People who are self-centered would not join in the first place. Also community organisations can be members also, so time bankers support these community organisations also.

    In regards to the ‘who loses’? point you make. The thing is that most people who join the time bank would not hire the professional lawn mowing business in the first place. Before Timebank I would do that job myself (and hating it and being bad at it) but now, my ‘neighbour’ who loves doing it and is good at it, does it for me, while I help out someone with something I actually like to do (e.g. baking a birthday cake). So I see only winners!

    Timebanks are equitable. The beauty is that we all have something to give and it’s really empowering to experience that. If at times people need more support than they can give (and this period can extend for a very long time), timebankers contribute because the reason they join the time bank is that they want to look after each other.
    (You are not force to use your time credits and can donate them to other members or the community chest).

    I am inspired by volunteering but also by time banking.

    Let’s get on with both!


  6. Sue Hine May 17, 2013 at 4:54 am - Reply

    Lots of debate going round about terminology – an ongoing topic. Susan Ellis showed us there is no unilateral definition in her doc http://www.energizeinc.com/art/documents/Vocabulary-full1page_2011.pdf way back in 2005 at the first Australasian Retreat.

    Do we say ‘anything goes’ or do we try to define the core essentials of volunteering?

  7. Claire Teal January 24, 2013 at 1:21 am - Reply

    Hi Andy et al

    I’ve got a question and a thought to add to the conversation here…

    First, the question: I can’t seem to find anything anywhere about what prompted the tender process for the roll-out of this pilot. How did the NSW government come to be contemplating timebanking in the first place? Anyone know…? Was it sanctioned by the NSW community in some way (i.e. via training sessions run by volunteer centres, network discussions, etc?) I’m curious…

    Secondly, I am actually really interested in timebanking and will look forward with interest to see how it goes. In my still (…mumble…) young-ish impression of the world, it fits with my evolving and fluid definition of volunteering, and I think it has lots of scope to bring more people into the widening and diversifying world that is volunteering. I also don’t have a problem with its government backing. Here in NZ, the bulk of funding for volunteer centres comes from the government, who dictates how we spend it through holding us to what we write in our funding applications. This doesn’t sound all that different to me..?

    Love to hear your thoughts!

    • Stefan Sojka November 3, 2013 at 7:59 pm - Reply

      Hi Claire,

      I can answer some of your questions. I was the one who arranged a meeting with MP Victor Dominello to tell him about timebanking, after which he encouraged me to write a submission to the call for submissions for the volunteering strategy. The deadline for submissions was the very day I met with him! I wrote as detailed a submission as I could in about three hours about Timebanking. few weeks later I was called in to meet with the Volunteering Strategy team to discuss the concept further and they put it into the Strategy and I was invited to the launch of the strategy. Victor loved the idea and personally endorsed my submission. I went to him because I saw it as the most direct way to ensure timebanking took off as rapidly and as efficiently as possible – with government funding and support. I discovered it myself through a talk on http://thersa.org/ about the UK experience, after which I researched it, contacted the US organisation to get a timebanking starter kit and found out as much as I could with a view to starting the scheme myself in Australia. I realised it was such an awesome idea with such huge potential, that rather than think I could do it myself, I ought to go straight to the top, talk to the minister (who happens to be my local minister) and convince him that he could get on board and make it happen. I am so glad I did.

  8. Mike Feszczak December 10, 2012 at 7:36 am - Reply

    I think Time Banking is a great idea.
    But, I don’t consider it to be volunteering. From what I have read this is an excellent way to barter skills outside of the business/trade sector (who have Barter Card and the like to do the same job as Time Banking).
    I can see that it will provide a platform for community engagement and integration as well as some benefits detailed in other posts, and these are laudable aspects that can could be of great benefit to individuals and communities.
    But there is an expectation of repayment in kind (service delivery by someone else involved). (Another kind of black market?)
    I generally agree with Andy on this one.

  9. wendy December 9, 2012 at 10:39 pm - Reply

    Tme banking would be denificial in Aged Care, some organisation have up to 14 site.
    The skills of volunteer could be shared, giving the volutneers the opportunity to work across all sites and the organisation the benifit of their skills.
    The issue is transport, the organisation would have to provide transport but it coudl be done.
    It reminds me of the barter system which was very popular in WA many years ago.

  10. Peter Roberts November 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    I ran a time bank over here in London for nearly nine years. In my view Timebanking isn’t volunteering, it is different.and better. That’s just my view though. Volunteering England classifies Timebanking as ‘long-term, episodic, reciprocal volunteering’.

    One comment I would make is about your Worry No.4. That makes no sense to me. If someone is well enough to talk to someone fon the phone they can talk them through how to make a cake, identify tomato blight, teach conversational Spanish or any number of things. Just being on the other end when someone else needs to talk to someone is valuable too. Someone can be old and / or ill but be a vast source of wisdom. Timebanking is also about redefining what constitutes ‘work’ and therefore what someone can do as a ‘volunteer’.

    • ozvpm_andy November 8, 2012 at 10:59 pm - Reply

      Thanks for sharing your insights Peter

  11. Liz Hicks November 6, 2012 at 9:26 pm - Reply

    Mmmmm interesting. My instinct was to see this as clearly not volunteering if there is an expectation of reciprocity and I’m sticking to that. Time banking it appears to me is a green dollar scheme and I’ve sought opinions on this from two people involved quite differently in civil society. One is a advocate for beneficiaries and low income families who recalled that when time-banking / green dollar schemes were tried in NZ with beneficiaries the Government indicated that it might consider the exchange of skills/time/services as a form of income and should they offset it against benefits (we don’t want to go there methinks). I suggest that it is a way for people to maintain their skills during a period where they are not able to be in paid employment.
    The other is my daughter who is involved with a time bank scheme. While she agrees with me that it is not volunteering if you expect an equal tangible reward for her contributions, she says there are some people in her group who see the scheme as a way to connect with their wider community and provide opportunities to just share their skills/time and expect no ‘reward’
    I certainly think that Governments should not be involved in this type of community activity.
    But time-banking is an interesting debate that needs to be had as we all recognize the need to be flexible about our definitions of volunteering and how we implement them.

  12. Helen Dew November 5, 2012 at 11:48 am - Reply

    The wealth of information about Timebanks at Living Economies http://www.le.org.nz includes a You Tube presentation by Edgar Cahn, founder of Timebanking and author of ‘No More Throw-Away People’. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8R6VkqvsBY&NR=1 (6.14mins)

    Listen also to Martin Simon, founder of Timebanking in the UK, author of ‘Your Money or Your Life – Time for Both’.

  13. Wendy Moore October 23, 2012 at 12:47 pm - Reply

    Andy, one of your concerns seems to be that time banking is more about benefiting individuals rather than community organisations and causes. People volunteer for many different reasons. They give their time to benefit a community. In the more traditional, altruistic role of volunteering they would receive recognition and that is all. However, even in traditional volunteering the volunteer receives benefits like social inclusion, satisfaction, friendship and connection. International students learning English may volunteer to help a community and in return benefit by getting practice in conversational English. Volunteers seeking employment may volunteer in an area related to their work. They are giving their time to help and in return benefit by gaining work related experience.

    You mentioned in your article that
    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”.

    We can tap into an area of people who would not normally volunteer. This is great! We are also tapping into a group of people who have low incomes and these could also be people needing assistance from community organizations. Time banking would be of great benefit to these individuals and others who they assist.

    Someone who can paint, may not necessarily be a keen gardener or be able to do handyman tasks, however, there are other people with those skills. I believe that Time banking utilizes skills which people have and matches them to tasks needing to be performed either for individuals or for communities.

  14. Sue October 21, 2012 at 4:49 am - Reply

    I’m pretty open-minded about Time Banks. Seems to me they are a reincarnation of the Green $ exchange we had a few years back. And a couple of generations ago Baby-sitting banks were all the go. I could argue that there’s a fair exchange involved in being a volunteer, even if we wouldn’t call it a trade. And I’d like to think that people involved in time-banking might discover volunteering along the way.

    But Government funding and support for Time Banks? The questions really start to roll out. Is NSW really short of volunteers? (I thought the global view was an increase in numbers.) What is the motive to push volunteering at this time? What is the next move? Mandatory ‘volunteer’ service? Cuts in funding and more pressure on volunteers to do more? Whatever, there is change all round us at present, which iterates how important it is for managers of volunteers to be visionary strategists and leaders, as the IVM Day poster proclaims.

  15. Peter Heyworth October 18, 2012 at 11:50 pm - Reply

    I had heard of Time Banking but not really put any level of thought into it. Several things come to mind.
    – We are in a ‘brave new world’ where the traditional definition of volunteering has, & will continue to be pushed to the max. In 5 years I wonder what it will look like? The question is, as always, how will we respond to it? I prefer not to knee jerk, as we have traditionally done in the past but to think it through.
    – The obviously positive effect on low income earners and their integration into the community + participation in meaningful work has got to be good.
    – Like Andy I struggle with NSW including it as part of their volunteering plan, although with the impact low income earners i can see why their interest.
    I would certainly like to see more examples and work through the absolute myriad of questions i have

  16. Cara Thenot October 15, 2012 at 6:21 pm - Reply

    My first reaction was that it didn’t seem quite right to call time banking “volunteering.” But, then I wondered: What if volunteer managers and nonprofits perceived time banking as simply another tool or resource for harnessing people power to accomplish goals? What if a volunteer manager knew that his/her organization had an abundance of volunteers with gardening skills but low on volunteers with graphic design skills? Perhaps the volunteer gardeners would agree to “time raise” and exchange their gardening skills on the time bank to receive some graphic design skills for the organization? What if a nonprofit/NGO time bank were established in which organizations could help each other find needed skills? As @John Ramsey commented, perhaps we look at time banking for what it is and then see how it can help us accomplish our mission?

  17. John Ramsey October 15, 2012 at 3:13 pm - Reply

    From the other side of the world in the UK I completely agree that it is not volunteering for the fundamental reason that there is clear tradeable benefit. As it happens I would say the same for Rockcorps.

    So what. I’ve had this argument before and the implication always seems to be if it’s not volunteering it’s down the ‘ladder of goodness’. Why? Why not just celebrate those activities for what they are?. It’s important to recognise there is a wide spectrum of community involvement. Each has it’s value, each is important and each is different.

    From an organisational point of view the challenge for me is ensuring all our participants (and non-participants) have the opportunity to try out all the different ways they can engage with us rather than keeping them in their ‘volunteering cage’ or ‘activist cage’ etc and throwing away the key.

    • ozvpm_andy October 15, 2012 at 3:18 pm - Reply

      Thanks John – what a well balanced response. I really love the ‘ladder of goodness’ image …might have to pinch that one :O)

      • johnramsey October 16, 2012 at 6:58 am - Reply

        If this had been the December hot topic, Andy, it would be the beanstalk of goodness 🙂

  18. Tara Cantwell October 15, 2012 at 5:46 am - Reply

    What an interesting idea! In some ways I think concept of volunteering needs a bit of a sexy revamp and this could do just that for some of our community who may not share our passion for volunteering (yet!). Yes it’s a trading scheme, self-centred and government funded but many current volunteering options fall into these categories too. The ‘original’ volunteering we know and love has the capacity to build and strengthen communities while educating individuals at the same time and I see the potential for this time bank to do the same.

  19. Rita Britton October 13, 2012 at 8:55 pm - Reply

    Interesting concept Andy and I guess it fits right in with the idea that the next generation is interested more in what they can get from volunteering. I can also see that it may be used to mobilise the community – those who find it difficult to get involved. I always am amazed that there is this kind of pennies available for these new projects and to the concept of actually managing the “time” is a whole new industry. I think again its an idea that the current volunteering world has to “blend” into its current practice – just like it did when the obligatory volunteering became the norm (volunteering for the dole) and my experience of this has only been very positive.

    This is the first time I’ve heard about this the time banking concept and I will obviously have to keep my eye on the page.

    • ozvpm_andy October 13, 2012 at 11:15 pm - Reply

      One thing is for sure Rita – if it is successful we will be hearing a lot more about it

  20. Wendy Lown October 13, 2012 at 1:50 am - Reply

    Agree with your comments Andy. Great idea but shouldn’t really fall under the definition of “volunteering” . But is there a bigger picture application for volunteer organisations? I’ve heard the term “cross-volunteering”. What does it mean and does it have any similarity to time banking?

    • ozvpm_andy October 13, 2012 at 11:14 pm - Reply

      Hi Wendy

      I’ve not come across that term before. I think one of the issues for me is how do larger and well established agencies benefit from this? One participant in my workshop in Sydney suggested perhaps larger vol orgs might develop their own in house time banks as a way of offering volunteers something different.

Leave A Response »