Timebanking: The true sharing economy lets you swap good deeds with neighbors

Across the world, people paint houses, plant gardens, repair bikes, and more as part of Timebank, which treats everyone's time equally and allows them to swap services.

Louisville TimeBank members Linda Erzinger and and Juliya Pogrebinsky in a tiling workshop taught by a TimeBank member
Image: Beth Thorpe

On the Louisville TimeBank Facebook page, a member who has come down with a cold extends a plea for homemade soup. The request is answered in minutes. "Thank you TB family!" she posted. "I'm good to go." Other posts involve requests for plywood, borrowing a dog crate, offers to donate a propane tank and an old dryer. One woman's friend came over to comfort her when her cat died. "I would never have met this neighbor if not for TimeBank," she wrote.

The Louisville TimeBank is one of the largest in the country. It has attracted more than 300 members since it was founded in 2012 by Jennifer Turner, who was inspired by the PBS documentary Fixing the Future. It's an exchange system that's part of a growing movement across the globe to create communities through sharing--true sharing, not the kind associated with so-called "sharing economy" companies like Uber and Airbnb, which offer valuable services but are ultimately about making a profit.

I became a member of the Louisville TimeBank a year ago. Through the website, you can post skills, or things you can offer--mine included "editing resumes" and "pet-sitting"--and also things that you may need. I've requested (and received) a few rides to the airport. When someone needs something you're offering, they can message you through the TimeBank member's website, or ping you on Facebook (and vice versa). Once the transaction is complete, you go back to the website and log your credit "hours"--one hour is a single credit.

The dollar value of the service is not the point. "The concept that everyone's time is equal is hard for people to wrap their minds around," said Beth Thorpe, coordinator of the Louisville Timebank. Unlike bartering, which is taxable, in the Timebank, an hour spent cleaning a closet out is worth the same as an hour of help filling out taxes or walking the dog.

Although the Louisville TimeBank has only been around a couple years, the history of Timebanking goes way back. "There were Timebank-style things going on during the Depression," said Thorpe. She refers to something called the Self-Help Cooperative Movement, which originated in 1932 to help Los Angeles farmers who needed labor in exchange for food. At the time, there wasn't enough help in the fields, and people were starving.

The world's first official Timebank was started in Japan in 1973 by Teruko Mizushima. Thorpe said it fit well into the culture of taking care of elders. "You put work into this pool," she said, "and when you're older, there were people to help you."

In the US, the Timebanking movement started on the north side of St. Louis (where Thorpe grew up) in the mid-to-late 1970s through an agency that wanted to teach people that they each had something valuable to offer each other. People would post signs in their homes of things they could do, what they could offer their neighbors. "It's a very powerful thing for someone who's always been given to think they can be a giver," said Thorpe. "This is a big difference between what we do and charity. It's empowering."

It was Edgar Cahn, CEO of Timebanks USA and author of No More Throw-Away People, who popularized Timebanking. Cahn was Robert Kennedy's speechwriter, and had worked in DC as a lawyer serving anti-poverty initiatives. He developed the idea of "Time Dollars" in the late 1980s as a way for communities to help themselves. The inspiration had come from a personal experience--in 1980, Cahn himself suffered a heart attack. The experience taught him how quickly, and easily, we come to depend on each other, and how important communities are in our survival.

With services like Lyft and Airbnb becoming woven into our lives and changing conceptions about how individuals fit into the economy, it would be easy to think of Timebanking in a similar way--as a service that helps us save money and take on working roles by circumventing the traditional corporate hierarchy. But that would be a mistake. While it's true that through Timebanking, you can end up saving on goods and services, the fundamental goal is to help each other.

"At one time," said Thorpe, "I would have gladly held on to 'sharing economy' as a title." Now, she's skeptical. Those workers, Thorpe says, do not have stable incomes and are shouldering most of the risks themselves rather than having protection through their employer.

Eric Bachman, now the tech coordinator for TimeBanks USA, first joined the Timebank in Germany in the 1990s. His passion is conflict resolution and he sees Timebanking fitting into a model for communities to become better able to self-sustain. "Everybody has times in their life when they need help or support," Bachman said. "Timebank creates a structure where we can really share with each other."

It's this kind of support that takes Timebank beyond a mere marketplace for exchanging goods and services.

In June 2013, Dan DeSpain was biking to a Kentuckians for the Commonwealth birthday celebration where he was going to be volunteering at a table to talk about the Louisville TimeBank. On that bike ride, a driver ran a stop sign and hit DeSpain, who hit his head on the side of the curb and suffered a traumatic brain injury.

DeSpain had been a member of the Louisville TimeBank for just three months--but when the accident happened, he was overwhelmed with support. People from TimeBank came to his house, changed the dressings on his wounds, and took him to the doctor's office. "I can't imagine going through it without the Timebank," he said.

"There are all sorts of things that happen through Timebanking that you can't promise," Thorpe said. "But if you're involved, they happen."

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