Anne Slepian had been thinking about ways to get to know the neighbors in her town of Arlington, Massachusetts, but like most busy people, she found that the opportunities always seemed to slip away. Then one day, it occurred to her that the best way might be to share each other's hobbies, skills, and talents through a neighborhood bartering system.
Anne went door-to-door, sharing her brainstorm. "I took cues from what I saw," she says of her initial visits. "If there was a guitar in the background, I asked them if they'd be willing to give lessons. Some people had tools they were willing to lend. Or they said, 'I have little kids and I would love to exchange babysitting with somebody.'"
Eventually, Anne had a four-page list of names, phone numbers, and items, but she soon realized nobody was willing to use it. "People weren't going to give and receive with people they didn't know personally." Undeterred, she organized the first of what would be many neighborhood potluck dinners. Everyone who came wore a name-tag indicating one thing they wanted to swap. "Once people got to know each other," Anne says, "they were more inclined to call each other and say, 'Hey, I need help moving a couch.'"
Today, nearly 20 years later, Anne's neighborhood is thriving. She says the true beauty of the exchange is the close-knit, friendly community it helped to create. "The exchange and potlucks woo people who want to interact in a neighborly way. It means a lot to people," she says.
Neighborhood exchanges like Anne's hark back to a time when folks routinely gathered together for a barn raising or pitched in to help each other bring in the harvest. However, as people lead busier, more insular lives, "that neighborhood or community exchange has gone out of our society," says Neva Goodwin, PhD, codirector of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
"People now count on getting their needs met through the formal market. If you have money, you buy it, and if you don't, you can't."
That may be changing as organizations, such as the Time Dollar Institute in Washington, D.C., help areas create formalized programs in which time is given a value, and a computerized system keeps track of credits earned from services rendered.
"The time/dollar concept is very simple," says the group's founder, Edgar Cahn, a law professor in Washington. "One hour equals one hour regardless of the activity." Ideally, to avoid tax problems, time/dollar and similar exchange programs shouldn't involve cash -- no one gets paid. "This is not a commercial exchange, so it's not a commercial barter and it isn't subject to tax as if it were real money," he says.
Instead, the concept puts a value on people skills and talents that are often considered valueless in a currency-based market. "You can create a database that tells you about the incredible richness of people and their talents and abilities," says Cahn. "People may not have marketable skills, but they can spend time with a child, teaching her to tie her shoes or the difference between green and blue."
The benefits touch people from all walks of life. "It might be a teenager who has a hard time finding work," says Goodwin. "Or it might be a retired person or someone who is bedridden and normally wouldn't be able to afford help for certain services."
Through a time/dollar program or neighborhood exchange service, that bedridden person could, for example, make phone calls to someone else who is ill or housebound and needs a little human contact. The time spent doing that equals value within the network that can be applied toward, say, having someone make a casserole dinner or walk the dog when you're out of town. "It turns out that people have something to offer that is really valued by other human beings even if it doesn't have a market value," Goodwin adds. "That is an enormously important thing to achieve."
Programs like these give people the sense that they are playing an active role in society, says Andrew Wolk, a professor of social entrepreneurship at Boston University in Massachusetts. "They're not just receiving; they're giving in a way that makes them feel as though they have some value. It helps people discover skills they have and ways in which to exchange those skills that don't revolve around money," he says.
Many service exchanges are coordinated by hospitals, houses of worship, or nonprofit community organizations. In Minnesota's Washington County, the six-year-old Neighborhood Service Exchange is run by a nonprofit volunteer agency. The 160-plus members share a common bond, regardless of their age, economic status, or race, says program manager Cathy Dyball.
People have varying needs, from changing a lightbulb and getting to the grocery store to phone calls, yard work, cooking a meal, or fixing a computer. "We keep track of the volunteer hours," she says. "They accumulate what we call credits. People spend them to get someone to help them. That's where the connections develop. Many people become friends just by sharing services and getting to know each other."
There can be problems, of course. Some participants may take advantage of the system, using several hours of other's people's skills, then becoming unavailable when it's their turn. But skill swap administrators say the opposite is actually more common: Too many participants offer their skills, but when it comes time for them to use the swap system, they often balk, feeling that it's better to give than to receive.
Anne Slepian stresses the importance of having meetings or publishing newsletters to get the word out, reminding everyone to use the system. It's not just a matter of tapping skills for personal use; it's also a way for communities to build stronger bonds.
"People are so busy, they don't feel like they belong in the community and don't know how to reach out to those around them," says Dyball. "These programs help people connect with each other. They feel more involved and become more involved at other levels. They tend to vote more often, they tend to be more concerned about urban blight, and they care more about what their neighborhoods look like. They start thinking about how to make life better for people around them," she says.
That's exactly what Cahn was striving for. "Neighborhoods are the ecological niche of our species. If we don't keep them vibrant, alive, safe places where people can trust each other, we lose the habitat that our species needs to survive."
This is all anyone needs to start a neighborhood exchange service in any community.
Visit a few homes in your neighborhood or enlist four or five friends to join. Encourage them to enlist four or five of their friends. Offer credits as bonuses for each person signed on to the network.
Once people sign up, a simple spreadsheet program (which comes with most home computers) can organize and match people and services.
Assign new members such activities as grocery shopping, helping with homework, or fixing a meal. Getting people immediately involved helps them feel useful and part of the organization.
Whether it's a potluck dinner, community cleanup, or helping the less fortunate, monthly gatherings help break the ice and foster the sense that everyone is part of an extended family.
Recruit new members, make known the available services, and keep people interested in maintaining the program. Use monthly gatherings as an opportunity for members to share how they helped one another. Get people to commit to earning and spending a certain number of credits each month.
For more information on starting a Neighborhood Service Exchange, visit www.timedollar.org. There you'll find how-to-start manuals, free software downloads to manage your exchange, and examples of successful time/dollar programs across the world.
Don't think you have a skill to offer a neighborhood skills co-op? Think again. Here's a sample of just some of the skills neighbors are trading in skill swaps around the country:
Arts and crafts: Lessons in stenciling, beading, quilting, knitting, and much more
Baking Bicycle repair and maintenance Bookkeeping and accounting Car advice and repair Computer advice Cooking lessons Cooking meals Driving/running errands Haircutting House-sitting Access to unique home resources, such as a home gym, hot tub, and more Massage Playing music Pruning advice Sailing lessons Scrapbooking Sewing lessons Singing lessons Teaching another language Typing Walking pets
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, March 2004.