Timebanking across organisations: how to create an economy of abundance

Fiona Sheil was responsible for co-ordinating NCVO’s programme of seminars, training and advice work on public service commissioning and procurement. Fiona left NCVO in October 2013 but we have retained her blog posts for reference.

This is a case study by  Camden Shares & Timebanking UK.

‘Deficit’, ‘lack of resources’, ‘if only we had more money’…
An exceptional and very simple timebanking model to capture and share local resources; pulling together organisations, local groups and people; from great international arts institutions, right down to un-constituted community groups and members of the local community. Working together, these different groups break out of their traditional roles and silos and share their underused resources, encouraging partnership and joint working; bringing dividends for communities and organisations from across all sectors.


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This case study challenges the pervasive negative gloom.

This case study explains:

  • Timebanking: what is it?
  • Who are Camden Shares? The HCCT story
  • Why Camden Shares? (why take an asset based approach and why organisations should share)
  • How does it work?
  • Making it happen: first steps to Camden sharing
  • Work plan – what happened in the first two months
  • Now and next steps
  • Contact details

This guide acts as an introduction and first-steps model for funders and organisations wanting to set up a brokerage project for organisations, groups and individuals to trade their resources, time, energy and ideas, at a time when making the most of what you have is absolutely crucial.

Timebanking: what is it?

This is a guide to exchanging and trading resources and ideas between organisations, groups and individuals. It’s about timebanking: where hour-to-hour exchanges replace the role of money.

Timebanking is a means of exchange used to organise people and organisations around a purpose, where time is the principle currency. For every hour participants ‘deposit’ in a timebank, perhaps by giving practical help and support to others, they are able to ‘withdraw’ equivalent support in time when they themselves are in need. Everyone’s time is equal, so one hour of my time is equal to one hour of your time, irrespective of whatever we choose to exchange.

Who are Camden Shares?

The HCCT Story

Camden Shares is a project set up in May 2010 by the Holy Cross Centre Trust (HCCT), a charity in Camden that works with some of the most marginalised groups in society. HCCT is community organisation that has been in Camden for over twenty years and in 2007 was part of a consortium that was successful in securing the mental health day centre tender for the borough. HCCT’s CEO, Sam Hopley, recognised however that even in winning the tender, the organisation lacked the resources to deliver the service people wanted. At the same time, he began to explore the principles of coproduction – meaning the delivering of public services in equal and reciprocal relationships between professionals and the people using those services. HCCT recognised that the answer to their resource issue, and a better way of delivering services, lay in co-production.

The Kings Cross Timebank was launched in 2008 as a means of co-producing the day centre. Every interaction with the centre is timebanked, meaning that for every hour someone puts in to the centre, they can take an hour out. The timebank unlocks the potential is HCCT’s greatest asset – its people (staff, volunteers and users) – and means everyone is seen as an asset. In the Kings Cross Timebank, everyone is a timebanker and can contribute to the running of the centre. HCCT treats people as resources in their own right, as citizens, who have something to give back, not just as passive recipients of the service we chose to give.

This sharing of time has led to many ‘user’ designed and delivered activity – art classes, film clubs, yoga sessions – that extended the activity HCCT was able to offer. However, Sam recognised that to achieve the mission of the charity, the principles promoted through the Kings Cross Timebank needed to be extended outside of the day centre. As he says:

“Traditionally we work with excluded people in excluding ways. We take people out of society and then we try to fix them and then we’ve fixed them we put them back. We thought about that a lot and realised that as a process that didn’t really work for us.” – Sam Hopley09

HCCT needed to find a way not just to mainstream the users, but to mainstream the organisation; making it part of the local community, taking its users with it. Camden Shares was born out of a desire to provide opportunities for HCCT users to access resource across the borough, to be an asset where traditionally they were seen as a deficit. At the same time, HCCT recognised that there was a lot of under used resource and capacity in the local voluntary sector, resource that would be better used if only people had access to it.

Why Camden Shares? (why take an asset based approach and why organisations should share)

As demonstrated, the genesis of Camden Shares was in the work HCCT had been doing for a number of years with the Kings Cross Timebank – exploring co-production and timebanking.  To achieve the charity’s goal – ‘mainstreaming people’, HCCT had to find a way to mainstream the charity. There are four main reasons for doing this:

It saves money. In the midst of confused recession, it is absolutely vital that we make what we have work for us, and give us real value. When we look around communities and regions we see an abundance – an abundance of talent, skills and energy in people, and an abundance of physical wealth in the form of buildings, space, services. At a time when we can’t pay for new stuff, we should be using the stuff we do have in more creative ways. HCCT wanted to open up resource through this multiplier effect. Timebanking is the means of exchange that works with abundance, not scarcity, recognising the value that anyone can bring. ‘It makes available the broadest range of skills and ambitions’- Sam

It is about equality. It is simple – an hour for an hour. There are no different rules for anyone. That gives everybody access to the same resource, networks and opportunities, as well as everyone the opportunity to contribute. Not everyone may wish to utilise resource in the same way, but access to the opportunity is very important.

New relationships. Of course the ‘stuff’ that Shares gives us access to is pretty exciting, but behind that is something more important which is the chance to forge relationships with new people. By exchanging assets with people and organisations in the marketplace, individuals are meeting new people, learning new skills, forging new relationships, all of which helps build up the networks that we are so often excluded from. Timebanking ‘gives permission’ to engage, and makes possible new and reciprocal relationships. Looking at the roster of Camden Shares members, including University College London, the British Library and the British Museum – how many opportunities would local voluntary and community groups previously have had to collaborate with such organisations? Creating a timebank across local organisations, HCCT provided a positive mechanism for organisations to reassess their reluctance to engage with HCCT’s service users, and provided an easy platform to enable the development of partnerships and shared opportunities. As Sam says, “why should we continually keep people apart?”

Co-production. People can! We think people have to be empowered to fix themselves and make services work for them. We believe the power to make real change in our communities rests with people. The Shares model is about creating an environment for this to happen, for people to become co-designers and co-producers of the services they are part of. By creating an opportunity for all to contribute, participate and take, we are building a new infrastructure upon which services can sit.

Making it happen: first steps to Camden sharing

HCCT took the skills and approach from running the King’s Cross Timebank and applied this to starting Camden Shares.. The co-ordinator of the King’s Cross Timebank led the initial stages as their remit would allow. This meant they already knew how to run and promote a timebanking exchange model, and that they could demonstrate the success and commitment to such a project.

To begin Camden Shares, HCCT began doing deals with organisations that provided particular activities requested by HCCT service users. These were things like accessing gym services to support a healthy living project and access to a local cinema for tickets. It soon became clear that ‘bigger was better’ and the more members of the timebank – organisations, groups and individuals – the more resource could be traded and the more trades could be made. Incrementally, HCCT built up their approach to trading with other organisations – building understanding in how to trade fairly and effectively, and simultaneously creating the capacity at HCCT to make sure the trades happened.

As the project grew and a network of interested members developed, the work stepped outside the role of the King’s Cross Timebank co-ordinator. So HCCT began talking to their Board and to commissioners at the London Borough of Camden about funding and recruiting for a post specifically tasked with taking the project forward.

In conversation, HCCT’s Board agreed that long term objectives for social inclusion and equality mean they want to strive to stop ‘delivering’ services – and to function entirely in equal, co-productive partnerships with their users and the wider community. Timebanking was already an agreed means to enabling that – building opportunities and appreciation of co-production and HCCT’s service users across silos and sectors… making real the opportunity of social inclusion.

As Sam rightly sees it, small organisations have two choices: you specialize (therefore potentially compounding service user and commissioning silos), or you innovate. So HCCT’s Board were able to see that Camden Shares was an innovation to take them towards their goal – of mainstreaming their service users and them as an organisation. Networking for them, became a value in itself. And so the Board approved the pursuit of funding for the Camden Shares project.

Work plan – what happened in the first two months

Collaborative design

HCCT had a long running and very productive relationship with two of their commissioners at Camden Council, Miia Chambers from Communities & Third Sector (now at P3, the social inclusion charity) and Sophie Martin from Adult Social Care. Their support and contacts meant HCCT had an initial list of people to talk to, test ideas with and begin trading. Quickly, this model spiraled and the fledgling timebank picked up interested members far beyond that service area group. Smartly, no one tried to rein it in – timebanking needs to be led by the enthusiasm of members, and that’s what they did.

Sustainable funding

Having won agreement from the HCCT Board that the development of Camden Shares supports the HCCT mission, HCCT were free to use their reserves to kick start the Camden Shares. So HCCT, making commissioners fully aware of their commitment, took the step of funding Camden Shares from their reserves for six months, recruiting Gavin Atkins as its coordinator. Camden Council, recognising the value of the model,  have subsequently funded parts of the project, however it has remained low cost.

Even though Camden Shares is a relatively cheap project to run, largely existing on one staff member and a website, sustainable future funding remains an area to be explored. Ideas for further funding include exploring the potential commercial and strategic value brokering exchanges and sharing across sectors:

  • Looking at the commercial value of trading space – potentially taking a top slice or membership charge to maintain the Camden Shares brokerage
  • Developing capacity for there to be an online exchange platform (something Timebanking UK is working on at the moment)
  • Considering the commercial value of Camden Shares voluntary sector member’s expertise in community decision making and solutions. As ‘localism’ kicks in and the structure of public, private and civil leadership alters, what is the role for such brokerage projects as this?
  • Seeking public sector funding for Camden Shares as a tool to support between cross-agency working in the public sector.
  • Whether a Community Interest Company might be an appropriate path to sustainability – but will that suit everyone involved?
  • Whether it might be a platform to enable/broker collaborative local procurement between interested charities and businesses – saving money by scaling up purchasing orders and coordinating the managing of those orders.
  • Considering consultancy – taking the learning of timebanking from this project and helping other organisations and localities pursue the same path – ‘levering in a bigger conversation about co-production’.

Marketing and Growing the Membership

“We didn’t want to present a finished product. We want people to own and shape it – as much of a blank canvas as possible” ¬Gavin Atkins

In Gavin, HCCT had deliberately recruited somebody from outside the mental health sector, and with experience working in small frontline organisations to ensure they would create a varied network of members.

I tried asking Gavin for lots of impressive sounding rules on how to market such a project, but as ever, these things come down to common sense:

  • Be available. Get out there and meet people. Their policy was ‘word of mouth’ – nothing fancy. Two ‘champions’ were recruited in Camden Council, which gives the project real profile amongst what isn’t just a commissioning body, but a huge employer and potential resource.
  • Be accessible. Keep the message simple and visible.
  • Use basic, live tools. Camden Shares is accessed by a website which Gavin maintains, charting the activity and opportunities within its membership, and people can engage very clearly in the development of Camden Shares. Members are encouraged to see it as a platform they can contribute requests and offers to as well.
  • Involve individuals as well as organisations: timebanking says that anyone can give and take (all hours are equal) and the real capacity to make change in our community exists in individuals – they have the ability to think outside of defined parameters, to be more spontaneous.
  • Facilitate, don’t manage. You get the best networks when you have the greatest number of people advocating for what you’re doing. HCCT believe that non-professionals come up with the same quality of ideas of professionals, ‘the energy they have behind them is different’ – and it’s that which powers Camden Shares along. Gavin’s role is one of facilitator, not professional problem-solver.
  • Model the exchanges. To determine the best process and structure for the timebank exchanges, a workshop was run for interested members to trial different mechanisms. Bringing people together to try out different models of exchange for the timebank had a number of advantages:
    • It familiarised everyone with the timebanking concept
    • It got people thinking about – and in some cases, questioning – what they had of value to swap, and what they could seek in return. People find it surprisingly challenging to think about what they most want, rather than just asking for what is obviously on offer.
    • Everyone learned how to swap.
    • Don’t be a gatekeeper: don’t create rules and stipulations until need for them has actually arisen – and ask all members to be realistic about risk (say, to vulnerable users) and to abuse of the system (giving more than taking or taking more than giving etc)

It was made clear from these workshops that the coordinator should be as hand-off as possible during the exchanges. After arranging initial contact between members, Gavin leaves members to make their own arrangements. This avoids the potential for an over-management and complication of a process which is, and should remain, very simple to do.

Co-design – balancing people and technology

What’s striking about a model like Camden Shares is the lack of complexity. You might look for difficulties, but they’ll be hard to find. Aside from the challenge of sustainable funding, the only other issue to address is the role of technology.

Development of a web platform has to be balanced – the network has to precede the development of a platform of exchange, because ‘if you move ahead, you won’t be co-producing anymore’. Only a platform produced to meet the immediate needs and wishes of its potential membership will be sustainable. Soaring ahead with complex technology with be unhelpful and exclusionary.

As is, the Camden Shares website is a wordpress blog. Of course, demand may see it develop into an exchange platform, but for now, Gavin puts people in touch with one another. You simply ring up, make your offer and/or ask, and he’ll scout it out from the membership.

The Camden Shares website acts as a shop window the resource; what is available and wanted, but also inspires others to make their own requests and offers, to shape the resource the way they want. In time, an online exchange platform will reduce a large amount of the administrative burden, allowing people to be in more control of the exchanges they make. But beyond that Gavin and Sam are adamant that the networking needs a real person to go out, communicate, share, and co-ordinate the co-design and development of the project. The potential equality and reach of the internet is one thing, but it certainly can’t do all that. And when you want everyone, from all walks of life, to be able to engage and share in the project, you need someone to make that happen.

Getting it wrong

It’s in HCCT’s nature to take risks and be at the vanguard, and in this it is no surprise that they aren’t afraid to fail. Sam recognizes that the funding culture of the voluntary and community sector has made us afraid to try things in which we might not succeed. By really embracing the co-production approach, and taking a facilitative and collaborative rather than managerial role, Camden Shares, while allegedly at greater risk of failure, is actually far more likely to succeed – because its developed out of the realities and needs of its members, and commissioners and members alike have all been involved in developing and steering the organization.

Now and next steps

Camden Shares is now making trades between individuals, groups and individuals across the borough and more importantly, creating new relationships for members to shape to their need. In the past year Camden Shares has exchanged over three and a half thousand hours, from students timebanking a dance class to sheltered housing tenants (video here), through University College London using the network to reach more participants for its members (case study here) to Sadlers Wells supporting local community activity through exchanging tickets for rehearsal space (details here). The network continues to grow, and the opportunities for using that network are only limited by the member’s ideas and imagination.

Sam Hopley became Timebanking UK’s chief exec (part time, while remaining at HCCT) in February 2010, with a remit to explore the application of timebanking in all its possibilities. HCCT is working in partnership with Timebanking UK, to explore the potential for Camden Shares – both locally in Camden and nationwide. In Camden, the Shares model is being explored as a platform for locally driven projects, initiatives and businesses – individuals making use of the resource and networks in their communities to come up with solutions to locally indentified social problems. Camden Shares is a social marketplace that allows members to shape the use of that resource. Micro social enterprises and social entrepreneurs are beginning to explore how through Camden Shares they can deliver their services – whether it’s accessing timebanked training to compliment a support group they want to set up, or a room for a yoga class they want to run. In addition, HCCT is exploring the mix of time and money, where those with personal budgets can access more support through timebanking and social entrepreneurs can access more resource through putting back into the network.

Timebanking UK is supporting this exploration, through development of an online platform and bringing together all those who are interested in how this might work in their community. Already there are interesting conversation going on and projects developing in Lewisham, Hackney (Hackney Shares, being run by Timber Wharf timebank) and in Bromley & Greenwich (with Age UK). If you are interested in exploring this further, or discussing how a Shares model might work in your community, HCCT and Timebanking UK would like to talk to you.

Contact details

Sam Hopley, Chief Exec of HCCT & TBUK, 020 7278 4437

Gavin Atkins, Camden Shares Coordinator, 020 7278 4437

Fiona Sheil – co-author, NCVO Public Service Delivery Network

If you have a project on public services or partnership you would like us to cover, please contact Fiona on the above email.

In producing this case study, we are hugely grateful to Sam Hopley (CEO of HCCT and Timebanking UK) and Gavin Atkins (Camden Shares manager). They have been excellent friends to NCVO, and we hope their vision for Camden Shares is one that other organisations will take on and help build.

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