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Time Banks: An Economy Of Volunteering

Updated: Jan 17, 2021

Do you know that volunteering can be exchanged too? The TimeBank system helps to explain the give and return logic behind community activities.

About thirty years ago, law professor Edgar Cahn invented a system for valuing things that are necessary for society but are often unpaid, such as companionship, neighborliness, mentorship, and community building. He called the system “time banking,” and the way it works is simple: every time a member completes an hour of service, they earn a time credit. This credit can then be exchanged for an hour of service from another member of the timebank. Members perform a wide range of services for each other, including gardening, tutoring, visiting people in the hospital, giving people rides to the doctor or grocery store, art classes, and small household repairs.

In a time bank, everyone’s work is given equal value — an hour of running errands is worth as much as an hour of French lessons. Often, time banks employ a broker or online database to keep track of people’s skills, needs, and hours exchanged. Since the first time bank was established thirty years ago, more than 300 time banks have sprung up in the United States and around 250 time banks have been established in the United Kingdom.

Although most time bank members are individual citizens, a few organizations have also participated. For example, a symphony joined a time bank in Pennsylvania, and they exchanged concert tickets for help with their bulk mailings.1 Hospitals and health organizations have also established time banks because they recognize that social support is intimately connected to health. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this comes from Richmond, Virginia, where a time bank for people with asthma cut emergency visits and the cost of treatments by more than 70% over two years.2

For many people, time banking is a remedy for the traditional social service model that confines clients to a passive, receiving role. Time banking encourages everyone to think about their own assets and potential contributions to the community. By bringing people together and encouraging them to revalue their skills and knowledge, time banking can make a substantial impact on mental health. For example, one survey of a time bank for senior citizens found that members’ health improved because they felt connected to the community.2 

Timebanks employ logics of the Associative and Communal Systems of Exchange.3 As an Associative system, time banks are designed to be mutually beneficial for members by distributing skills and services to those who need them. Timebanks can also save money for members and allow them to access services they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. For example, someone who requires extensive medical care might not be able to afford a weekly cab ride to the doctor’s office, but they can trade volunteer hours for a lift from a neighbor.

As a Communal system, time banks help build community cohesion and encourage members to develop a shared identity through service. A study of an inner-city time bank in Glasgow, Scotland found that the bank created a strong sense of community; the coordinator noted that “The time bank is knitting together community organizations, not just individuals….It has evolved into a community-led as opposed to a one-to-one exchange time bank.”4 Furthermore, the time bank helped overcome social exclusion and connected people with services they desperately needed. One woman had waited a long time for social services to repair her kitchen, but once she joined the time bank the work was done immediately. The timebank is also being used to curb bullying in local schools — older students are rewarded for helping younger ones transition to new schools.

Although the traditional market economy can efficiently distribute many consumer products and services, this system doesn’t put a price on many essential parts of community life and thus pushes them to the margins. Timebanks try to build community by placing a different, non-Price value on these essential services, and in the communities where time banks have been established, members have documented many benefits to community cohesion and personal well-being.


  1. Bega, Loretta. (2008). “An Introduction to Time Banking.” Get Rich Slowly: Personal Finance that Makes Cents. March 13. (

  2. Rosenberg, Tina. (2011). “The Health Payoffs of Time Banks.” The New York Times. September 20. (

  3. Biggart, Nicole Woolsey and Rick Delbridge. (2004). “Systems of Exchange.” Academy of Management Review 29(1): pp. 28-49.

  4. Seyfang, Gill. (2004). “Time Banks: Rewarding the Community Self-Help in the Inner City?” Community Development Journal  39(1): 62-71. (

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