*Time Dollars: A New Currency in Community Building

by Edgar S. Cahn

Building social infrastructure and assessing community assets have been key elements in past efforts to rebuild communities. Time Dollars add a third piece. Time Dollars are a currency to record, store and reward transactions where neighbors help neighbors. People earn Time Dollars by using their skills and resources to help others (by providing child or elder care, transportation, cooking, home improvement). People spend Time Dollars to get help for themselves or their families, or to join a club that gives them discounts on food or health care. 

Time Dollars enable human beings for whom the market economy has no use to redefine themselves as contributors, and they give society a way to value activities the market economy does not. Time Dollars empower any person to convert personal time into purchasing power, stretching limited cash dollars further. Time Dollars reinforce reciprocity and trust, and they reward civic engagement and acts of decency in a way that generates social capital, one hour at a time. 

In the process of developing applications for this new medium of exchange, the Dollar Institute has seized upon a fourth element — one that is even more basic, more fundamental than Time Dollars. It is called Co-Production.

What is Co-Production?

Co-Production is the essential contribution to change efforts needed from the ultimate consumer in his or her capacity as student, client, recipient, patient, tenant, beneficiary, neighbor, resident, or citizen. Experience with Time Dollar programs leads to a hypothesis: Without Co-Production, nothing that professionals, organizations or programs do can fully succeed. With Co-Production, the impossible comes within reach. If this hypothesis is true, community-based groups, policymakers, and human service agencies must be convinced of the indispensability of that contribution, and they must begin to intentionally generate Co-Production from the recipients, targets, or consumers of their efforts. Reciprocity must be central to achieve social change. This is the Co-Production Imperative. 

Co-Production is not simply a euphemism for expanding or enhancing specialized social services with free labor contributed by the consumer. Its function and its power are far more fundamental. If undertaken as a priority and intentionally, Co-Production can yield new and more effective services and outcomes. It triggers processes and interactions that foster new behaviors. It alters conventional distinctions between producers and consumers, professionals and clients, providers and recipients, givers and takers, investors and managers. By creating parity for individuals and communities in their relationships with professional helpers, it achieves systemic change.

While Co-Production values what professionals have to offer, it also poses a challenge to prevailing notions of “best practice” to the extent that “our best thinking” has led us to where we are — paralyzed or frustrated by our inability to make inroads on major social problems because we have failed to incorporate Co-Production as a pervasive strategy that redefines roles, relationships, processes, and outcomes. 

Yet as critical as It is, Co-Production-the essential labor needed from the ultimate consumer — is never fully funded and rarely directly funded, even partially. Instead, we fund specialized programs, professionals, outreach workers, and local organizations-paying staff while the extensive and essential labor from the individual, the household, or the community goes uncompensated. We rarely lay out this inequity so explicitly. In part, that is because the cost of actually purchasing that labor at market prices, even at minimum wage, would be prohibitive. So we tiptoe around the issue, calling for “community involvement,” requiring “citizen participation” — without insisting on it too directly lest somebody ask us to pick up the real cost. (Think of the family as a good example of Co-Production) 

Time Dollars are a mechanism for rewarding that reciprocity and converting that contribution into compensated labor. They are a mechanism for securing Co-Production 

Experiments With Co-Production

This past year, the Time Dollar Institute undertook to design and directly operate cutting-edge Time Dollar programs in order to better understand and showcase the many dimensions of Co-Production, the dynamics it creates, and the reshaping of roles, processes and outcomes that result.

Student Tutors Earn Computers  In a cross-age peer tutoring program in Chicago, student tutors earn Time Dollars with which they can buy refurbished computers. Students are co-producing the key element often missing from less successful tutoring and education efforts: peer approval of academic achievement. In the Chicago sites, attendance went up on tutoring days. Students came to school in order to stay after school to tutor or be tutored. Bullying after school stopped. And 400 children earned sufficient Time Dollars to purchase recycled computers to take home at the end of the school year.

 Teen Jurors Promote Responsibility  In Washington D.C., a Time Dollar Youth Court brings juvenile first offenders charged with non-violent offenses before a jury of teenagers who earn Time Dollars for their service. The teens co-produce key elements missing from many unsuccessful juvenile interventions: peer approval and community acceptance. Teen participants gain status by reasoning, by urging responsible, decent behavior and by calling for prudent risk avoidance. In the Washington Time Dollar Youth Court, there have been only 8 re-arrests in more than 150 cases, job offers are coming in for offenders who have completed their community service sentences, and youths are spending the Time Dollars they earned through jury service on recycled computers.

Legal Services Exchanged for Community Improvement   The Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C., made a retainer agreement with a local law firm: Residents working on a community-building initiative donate one Time Dollar (one hour of volunteer work) in exchange for one billable hour of legal work toward getting rid of crack houses fighting police corruption, and releasing funds to renovate a playground. Last year, the firm billed $234,979 in legal services benefiting the community, and community volunteers have paid that bill with Time Dollars earned cleaning up trash, planting flowers, taking down license plate numbers of drug dealers, providing safe escort to seniors, tutoring at school, and performing neighbor-to-neighbor tasks. To further test the principle, the Institute this year helped public housing residents in Washington, D.C., start a Time Dollar Food Bank There were many places where residents could get free food-more and possibly better than what the Time Dollar Food Bank could make available. Nonetheless, with the Food Bank as a catalyst, 296 residents of the public housing complexes have generated 78,540 hours of service (measured in Time Dollars) during the past 11 months.

While these are successful examples, it is important to note that Time Dollars are not a panacea, nor are they the only means of securing Co-Production. Volunteer programs, charismatic leadership, block clubs, neighborhood associations, social movements, employee ownership, changes in professional practice that insist upon greater patient or client autonomy, religious exhortation or spiritual inspiration, neighbor-to-neighbor help, resident-owned and managed enterprises, peer counseling and peer support programs, twelve-step programs, the entire self-help movement — all generate Co-Production.

New Strategies For Generating Co-Production

Conventional efforts by human service programs to mobilize a community are labor intensive and tend to tax organizational capacity. In the end, the level of commitment is often unpredictable. However, if human service organizations or programs are to take a new approach and embrace Co-Production in their organizational mission, structure and budget, two questions arise:  

 (1) How do you shift from a service-providing mode, a largesse mode, a unilateral mode, a professional treatment mode, and a traditional volunteer-recruitment mode into a Co-Production mode? and 

 (2) How do you do it without prohibitive cost and an excessive diversion of scarce resources? The following examples begin to answer these questions, and show how Co-Production can be an operational norm for communities, organizations, neighborhoods, membership groups, professionals, and even government agencies.

The New Welfare Law:  The “community service” option in the welfare law represents a historic opportunity to redefine work so as to include a broad range of social contributions which the market does not value but which generate the social capital essential to rebuilding community, revitalizing neighborhoods, and strengthening families. In addition, earning Time Dollars for community service work under welfare requirements creates a work record, imparts work readiness habits, generates references, and provides a support system that can be critical to job retention. Time Dollars could buy extensions of public assistance where there are no jobs available.

New Professional Roles:  Co-Production provides an opportunity to re-conceptualize the nature of the working relationship between service providers and communities. A service organization could become a consulting firm, a lender, a broker, or an investment counselor rather than the “holder” of the knowledge and power needed for community change.

Fee-For-Service Arrangements:  Time Dollar fees could be charged for a range of professional services offered in communities: mental and physical health, legal services, etc.

Technical Assistance:  Rather than paying professional technical assistance providers, governments and foundations could support reciprocal technical assistance services between neighborhoods.

Tax Strategies:  A community could create a special taxing district option modeled on Business Improvement Districts, through which a neighborhood improvement tax (with the option of paying in dollars or Time Dollars) would improve local services, schools, and facilities. Or, where neighborhood improvement results in higher valuation and assessment, tax credits could be offered in return for Time Dollars earned creating the appreciated value.

 Home Ownership:  Home buyers seeking to secure affordable housing and renovation funds through subsidies and other government programs could be offered Time Dollar loans, which would be repaid through work helping to maintain neighborhoods, provide social services, staff neighborhood facilities, augment Head Start capacity, provide community-based care for the elderly, etc.

Converting Government or Foundation Grants:   Community Development Block Grants and other neighborhood development grants could be turned into Time Dollar loans, repayable by community groups. Through this strategy, the city would get services delivered on a community-basis at a price it could not afford otherwise.

 Education:  Tuition fees or equipment fees for the use of computers could be charged in Time Dollars; students could be permitted to convert loans into Time Dollar loans; adjunct faculty and guest lecturers could receive compensation in Time Dollars coupled with faculty privileges.

New applications of Time Dollars and Co-Production are bounded only by the limits of creativity. In any application, Time Dollars and Co-Production operationalize a dramatic shift in the service delivery relationship, with important results.

The Broader Implications of Co-Production

Changing unilateral acts of largesse — by volunteers, by government, by helping professionals, by social service agencies, by community development corporations — into reciprocity turns decency, caring, and altruism into a catalyst for contribution and self-validation by the recipient. It redefines work. It expands our notion of compensation beyond what money can buy and substantiates a definition of value beyond that to which the market accords recognition. It says we need each other. In the context of broader Co-Production strategies, Time Dollars have the power to:

  • Move us from a deficit-model to an asset-based model by harnessing underutilized human resources to help address critical social problems
  • Develop human capital so that disadvantaged persons can find paths out of poverty and avoid being shunted for life into dead-end jobs and revitalize the work ethic by rewarding social contribution as authentic work
  • Generate social capital in communities habituated to redlining and dis-investment
  • Rebuild the non-market economy of family, neighborhood and community

In short, Co-Production supplies the elements needed to bring to fruition a vision:

To put within our reach the power to create a world where any person willing to contribute by helping another will be able to earn the purchasing power and status needed to enjoy a decent standard of living and the opportunity to learn and to grow.

Edgar Cahn is President of the Time Dollar Institute, a non-profit corporation that creates and sponsors initiatives so that the beneficiaries of social programs can become co-producers of education, justice, self-sufficiency, opportunity, community development, and social change. The Time Dollar Institute can be reached at P.O. Box 42160, Washington, D.C. 20015.

*This article is excerpted with permission from a report to be published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 701 Saint Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21202, 410/547-6600.

Visit the Time Dollar Institute Web Site at: http://www.timedollar.org