The Spice of Life

Timebanking – people exchanging services with each other – is well-established. There’s now a new scheme which incentivises volunteering by allowing time credits to be exchanged for services from organisations and businesses. So what is its place in the world of volunteering and what are the pros and cons?

A thing of beauty

I have in my wallet a very stylish yellow bank note imprinted with a picture of a windmill. No, it’s not a Euro, though as I’m writing this blog post on the train to Brussels for a board meeting of the European Volunteer Centre, that would have come in handy. It is a Spice Time Credit note, representing one hour of volunteering time completed, ready to be exchanged at any Spice participating business or service. More of how it works in a minute. But just to note that it is a thing of beauty, crisp and clear of design (the product I understand of a design competition with local school children which only adds to its allure) and with a prominent watermark to guard against forgeries. No cruddy scrap of paper this.

A Spice Time Credit note

So what’s it all about?

First a bit of background. Spice was formed in 2009 as a legacy of a European Union-funded initiative to develop new social currencies in ex-mining areas in South Wales. In one sense it is nothing new. Timebanks have been around for many years, themselves building on the age old tradition of mutual exchange and barter which gets away from the need for formal currency. I’ll cut your grass and you will drive me to my hospital appointment in return. And we will develop a system to log this exchange to give it greater visibility and recognition and to enable us to bank volunteer hours earned so they can be redeemed at a future time.

Where Spice differs from the classic Timebank model is that it is not about a person-to-person exchange but a person-to-organisation one. Time Credits are earned in the traditional manner through various forms of volunteering but rather than just being used to purchase other volunteer services they can also be redeemed for services or to hire things from participating businesses which have signed up to the scheme. For example, you can use your Spice Time Credits to hire a DVD from a local library or have a session in the gym, or (and there are some high profile partners) visit the Tower of London or the Blackpool Tower.

The clever thing is that the Spice Time Credit does not have a direct monetary value but a time value. So you are exchanging your volunteer hours for the equivalent leisure hours. One Spice Time Credit equals one hour of volunteering. So you would need two Credits to go to the cinema to watch a two-hour film (I have it on good authority you won’t be kicked out if the film overruns) and say eight to go on a day trip to the amusement park. This is clever for two reasons. First that it helps avoid the sullying of volunteering with a direct monetary transaction – everyone’s hour is worth the same, whoever you are and whatever you do. And crucially it keeps the taxman off your back – which has bedevilled some alternative currencies in the past – as there’s no direct correlation between Credits earned and the monetary redemption value.

Does it work?

All well and good. But what’s the point, or the theory of change in today’s lingo? Spice claim that they are hoping for three outcomes. First to engage a new cadre of volunteers who have not been involved before and in doing so build communities. Second to reward existing volunteers, a thank you for giving your time if you like. And third to use the process and the adoption of the scheme by public sector agencies to build more co-productive services between staff and local communities.

A new evaluation suggests that they are having some success. In the study by Apteligen, which involved over 1000 time givers, 45% of respondents said they had not regularly given their time before earning Time Credits, with 81% saying they are very likely to carry on giving their time in the future. In terms of benefits, 45% of members reported feeling healthier; 19% said they had less need to go to the doctor since earning and spending Time Credits; and 58% said they had improved their confidence. As for organisations, 62% of participating groups said they were making better use of skills and resources within the community; 48% were able to deliver improved access to services with the same resources; and 74% that they were able to promote what they do to more people.

What’s not to like?

Are there any disadvantages? Some people will always be opposed to any attempt to incentivise volunteering in this way. My view is that anything which brings new people into volunteering as this appears to be doing shouldn’t be sniffed at. Perhaps a more pertinent criticism is that it might cause divisions between volunteers who have access to the scheme and those who don’t, creating a two tier volunteering community. The solution to this dilemma I guess partly lies in the sensitive way such schemes are handled between new and existing volunteers and the evidence suggests this hasn’t been a problem to date.

I came across a slight variation on this issue recently when talking to the volunteer manager of a major cultural institution. She was considering introducing Spice into the volunteering programme but said the response from existing volunteers had been underwhelming. Not, because they were worried it would only apply to new volunteers, but because they saw it as an affront. They hadn’t asked for an incentive in the past so why should they need one now? But there is a neat solution to this concern within the system in that Spice Time Credits can be given to others to use. So if existing volunteers decide it is not for them they can earn the Credits and then pass them on to say a local school or community group which can exchange them for much needed services. The volunteer might even feel they are contributing twice: once through their volunteering and once through the passing on of their Time Credits. Neat!

Anyway I’m converted. It is clearly not for everyone but as a way of stimulating new social action and rewarding volunteers it gets my vote.

Now to see if I can exchange my Spice Time Credit note for a tour of the Eiffel Tower! If I fold it just so…….

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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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