Bringing People Together Through Money? Community Currency and Local Exchanges

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Becky Booth is standing in line for the cashier at the Tower of London, with family visiting from the U.S. But when she is ready to buy the tickets, instead of “conventional” money she hands over six “Time Credits.” She had earned them earlier this year by volunteering with children at a local community festival in Wales.

Booth is CEO of the Spice “time bank,” named for its mission to “add some spice” to the organization of society. Like many other community currency initiatives, Spice isn’t aiming to replace “conventional” money but rather to supplement it.

“Our ambition is to counterbalance what the mainstream system is not good at,” says Booth. “For example, engaging people in community services, building neighborhood cohesion and valuing unpaid work.”

Spice is a success story. Since its foundation in 2009, it has grown into an organization employing 25 staffers and working with 600 partners, from museums and concert halls to swimming pools and art schools. So far, an estimated 18,000 users have earned the currency, and approximately 450,000 Time Credits have been issued.

But it is also a relatively rare success story. According to Gill Seyfang, a researcher at England’s University of East Anglia, Spice stands out among community currencies for its reach and longevity. For the past decade, she has been researching the spread of the three main types of community currencies. Among these, time banks like Spice make up 50 percent of the 3,500 community currencies in the world. Local exchange trading systems, or LETS, in which people exchange all kinds of goods and services with one another, are second at 40 percent, and local currencies, which issue paper or digital money for a defined region, make up the last 10 percent.

But while LETS are declining and local currencies are reaching a plateau, time banks, alone among the community currencies, are growing. The success of Spice and other time banks sheds a light on why some do-it-yourself currencies succeed and so many others fail.

Policy Support and Funding

For Seyfang, there are a number of reasons time banks tend to do better. They are generally professional projects that contribute to empowering communities and providing social services. As a result, initiatives like Spice have attracted the interest of policymakers in the past few years. Unlike some time banks, Spice is not based on a “person-to-person” system but rather on a “person-to-institution” model. Instead of people giving time to and receiving time from others, they can give time to community and public institutions, like schools and social and health care providers, in exchange for access to cultural and educational activities, like art classes and concerts; access to swimming pools; or even benefits like contributions to social housing rents.

“Such a system is effective for gaining institutional buy-in and funding,” says Seyfang.

Compared with time banks, LETS have low chances of getting funded because they generally consist of small, amateur projects made up of five to 200 users. According to Mary Fee, the coordinator of LETSlink UK, the main body supporting LETS across the U.K., many of the exchange currency projects die out because of lack of funding and human resources.

Local currencies, meanwhile, generally receive policy support when there is a crisis with the national currency, but this support tends to stop once the economy gets back on its feet. The Bristol Pound in the U.K. is a curious exception.

This currency appears to “be breaking the ceiling of the scale that most local currencies have failed to deal with,” says Ben Brangwyn, co-founder of Transition Network, the mother organization behind eight local currency projects in the U.K. He says that a “friendly city council” and a credit union wanting to integrate the project also help explain the Bristol Pound’s staying power.

Easy to Replicate, Attractive to Users

For Seyfang, a key feature of time banks is that they require little infrastructure to be replicated and can work in many different contexts. It’s an idea shared by Spice’s CEO.

“Time Credits are an incredibly adaptable tool,” says Booth. “We have been able to replicate the model in schools, housing associations, churches, social care services, amongst young and old, in urban and rural areas.”

Like time banks, LETS can be set up easily and at low cost. “All you need is a computer and a circle of friends or of like-minded people, so LETS have been good at replicating,” says Seyfang.

But while LETS are easy to set up, they’re not considered mainstream. They typically include strong environmental or communitarian ideals, like economic inclusion and reducing material consumption, which can turn off some users. According to Fee, LETS also suffer from the competition posed by time banks—since Spice’s creation, there has been a significant drop in the number of U.K. LETS members.

As for local currencies, Seyfang believes they’re more difficult to set up because they require security systems. But Brangwyn disagrees and has developed a “How to” guide, which details 10 steps to set up a local currency scheme. For him, the biggest challenge to the growth of local currencies is that their use requires an extra effort: Users need to convert their national currency into the local currency and then find businesses that will accept it.

“The success of community currencies depends largely on the level of ownership the community feels towards the currency,” his writes in his guide. “Communities have to consider it their currency or they will not embrace it.”

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