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Time Banks, Barter, Community Gardens and More: Economic Misery Provides Opportunities for Nimble Nonprofits

As we’ve written about before in “What Budget Cuts? The RFPs Continue to Pour Out,” “One, Two, Three* Easy Steps to Start-Up a Nonprofit Upstart,” and “Grant Writing from Recession to Recession: This is a Great Time to Start a New Nonprofit,” the Great Recession and continuing economic malaise present tremendous grant opportunities for nonprofits—provided they are fleet of foot and keep their eye on the prize.

The Wall Street Journal’s “For Spain’s Jobless, Time Equals Money” offers a case on point. The story details self-help efforts by desperate unemployed Spaniards, particularly those in their mid-20s to mid-30s (their unemployment rate is over 50%, which is similar to that of African American young adults), to overcome jobless and essentially cashless lives. In addition to the ever popular community gardens and direct barter systems (“I’ll give you a chicken for a haircut”),* these efforts include time banks.

A time bank is essentially a formalized barter system in which hours worked or stuff provided by one member are quantified and “banked” to be used in exchange for goods or services from another member. Thus, if you have a chicken and need a haircut, you don’t have to find a hungry barber. Rather, you find another member who wants a chicken, get credit for the transaction, and spend the credit with a member who is a barber. The barber gets credit for the haircut and uses it to have his scissors sharpened.

The article cites other permutations of barter systems, including gardening co-ops, in which people garden together and trade their labor for shared produce. Free stuff exchanges, which are easily facilitated by social media, are also becoming popular. At itinerant locations, like somebody’s basement or an actual storefront, people bring piles of stuff they don’t want in order to pick through piles of other people’s stuff they might want, all without exchanging money. The ultimate expression of these ideas is to develop locally accepted script that takes the place of currency, a concept that bloomed in America during the Great Depression (“Hoover Bucks”).

Some or all of these make dandy project concepts for foundation grants—particularly for organizations working in extremely disadvantaged communities. As we’ve written about before, grant writing is largely the art of telling funders what they want to hear. Any of these time bank or barter-style ideas will warm the stone-like hearts of foundations with preconceived notions of how services should be delivered to the poor folks—through methods like sweat equity, bootstrapping, using local resources to reduce carbon footprints, and the like. A thousand programs and communes have been started with similar ideals, but why not begin a few hundred more?

Although ideas about time banks and bartering spring to life when the economy is sufficiently rotten, to most funders barter and self-help projects will seem like new ideas if they’re pitched carefully. In taking these project concepts and running with them, you’ll keep your staff busy, build neighborhood social infrastructure, and you might even help a few people in need.

While the trend toward time banks, barter, co-op gardens, free stuff exchanges, and the like help keep people afloat, they are of course disastrous for a modern, currency-based national economy, which is underpinned entirely on people being willing to accept pretty pieces of government issued paper for their labor. It also makes tax collectors unhappy, since the vast majority of these transactions are “off the books,” even though the value is supposed to be reported.**

* Even Seliger + Associates has bartered before. When we were starting out about 20 years ago, we had little money for equipment and were struggling to make do with a single PC and its 12-inch screen. But a computer recycling nonprofit appeared, and we traded grant writing services for a couple of somewhat out-of-date but serviceable PCs with luxurious 15″ monitors. About 12 years ago, I came across a party company run by a fellow who also had a nonprofit on the side that worked with at-risk kids. At the time, I had teenage twins, so we traded grant writing services for a party—which is surely a one-time trade in the annals of barter. And, yes, I reported the value of goods and services received on my tax returns. I’m still open to the idea, if someone has an interesting trade to make. Grant writing for a Porsche 911, anyone? Send me your ideas and maybe a trade can be made.

** For a great description of how the underground economy works in poor communities, see Sudhir Venkatesh’s seminal Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Poor.

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