Saturday, December 8, 2012

Time Banks: A Powerful Tool for Building Social Capital in Credit Unions and Cooperatives?

As I've discussed previously in greater detail, the strength of the sense of community that members experience in their credit union/co-op has a huge impact on their level of identification with the organization. This level is important because, the more that members internalize the fact that they are member-owners of an organization rather than its customers, the more their skills, energy, and relationships can be mobilized in support of their co-op's goals and interests. For example, a member who barely identifies with his or her co-op will be much less likely to, say, contact his or her Congressional delegation to encourage them to support Member Business Lending legislation than a member who has a clear sense of ownership of, and belonging to, the organization.

As such, I believe that one of the most important challenges facing contemporary credit unionists is the development of methods by which the collapse in the social capital that accompanied the post-1969 trend of credit union professionalization can be reversed. In the above-linked essay I proposed one strategy: democratizing community giving. In this piece I will propose a second, parallel opportunity: time banking (see the below video for a brief introduction to the concept).

I made this connection at the Vermont New Economy Conference last week, when, after the Cooperative Vermont convergence, I decided on a whim to attend the session on time banking. I'd heard of the concept before, but had never really given the model much thought. Happily, the presentation and subsequent discussion were extremely illuminating, and it quickly became apparent to me that time banks could be a powerful tool for strengthening the web of members' social inter-relations (i.e., social capital) within a cooperative organization.

Practically, a co-op/credit union time bank could work as follows. Using one of several existing open-source platforms, the organization would set up a time bank on a section of its website and create accounts for all of its members. Members would then have the opportunity to post both services they'd be willing to perform, as well as things they need done, and they would be able to use the site to keep track of how many hours they'd given to, and received from, others. As all of the participants would be co-op/credit union members and the system's infrastructure would be administered by the institution, every helping act facilitated by the time-bank would thus serve to increase the salience of the participating members' relationship with their co-op, while also increasing the organization's overall social capital by fostering new intra-membership relationships that had not previously existed.

In any case, the proof will be in the pudding; at the end of the session, a group of folks from my town got together and decided to develop a proposal to attempt to implement such a system through one of our local cooperative organizations. We'll be pitching it to the board on the 17th, so keep your eye out for updates as the project progresses!