The Community Exchange

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/GIORDANO AITA

Suppose that–in some particular city–there’s a
carpenter who dreams of learning to play the piano…
and, nearby, a music teacher who’s looking for someone to
advise her on how much insulation her home should have.
Meanwhile, in the same metropolis, a community group that’s
doing energy audits is looking for help in remodeling its
new offices.

Such interlocking webs of talents and needs aren’t all that
uncommon in large urban centers. In most cases, however,
the people involved never learn about their complementary
abilities and wants … they become examples of the
thousands of “resource leaks” that occur in any city when
people and information aren’t properly matched.

Community groups can set up an organized community exchange to
help people contact others, to teach or learn skills,
acquire information, swap goods, or simply get aid in
planning a community project. The most successful of these
organizations–The Learning Exchange (TLE) in
Evanston, Illinois is now eight years old and has over
30,000 members.

Despite the success of that operation, however, the
mortality rate for exchanges is extremely high. Most groups
follow one of two quick routes to oblivion: They either
think too big, or think too small.

Avoiding a Big Mistake

Many exchanges die of overgrowth because–as they
acquire more and more members–they fail to adopt the
professional business techniques necessary to cover their
steadily increasing overhead costs. And those groups that
do take a businesslike stance often find themselves
squeezed between raising their fees to cover expenses
(while perhaps losing participants and failing to
accomplish some of their original social goals) and
spending excessive amounts of time searching for outside
subsidies.

The Evanston group avoided such a dilemma by making two
decisions at the outset of its program. First, it wanted to
offer a variety of easy-to-manage services, and determined
that it would recruit the large membership needed to
support such services. Second, TLE wanted the bulk of its
working capital to come from its members, and so built the
cost of soliciting the needed funds into its budget.

The types of services that TLE offers (and doesn’t offer)
are all related to its substantial growth. The operation
isn’t technically an exchange, but instead functions as a
referral service. Barter is possible within the TLE system,
but only on a one-to-one basis. The Learning Exchange’s top
administrators say that credit record systems–which
are essential for multi-party barter– are “too costly
and complicated to administer.” The keeping of such records
makes running a large-membership swap system much more
difficult than operating a smaller organization.

There are Small Problems, Too

Exchanges can most effectively offer the advantages of a
credit system by deliberately limiting their membership.
They can also, however, make the mistake of remaining too
small. An exchange needs a fair number of participants to
maintain member interest. After all, people won’t receive
much in return for joining such a group if they have only a
few other members with whom to trade. Interest can also
wane when an exchange’s information isn’t up to date, when
participant satisfaction isn’t monitored, and when renewal
memberships aren’t followed up on. Unfortunately,
“maintenance” bookkeeping is usually at a minimum (or
nonexistent) in small exchanges.

That doesn’t have to be the case, however. A few people
with good management skills can help an exchange avoid the
common “too small” problems.

David Tobin (of the Washington, D.C. Barter Project) points
out that some small groups can easily cut costs by
providing credits in return for labor and material
contributions toward organizational overhead costs: For
example, participants in a Eugene, Oregon exchange are able
to get credit–instead of being paid–for putting
in volunteer time in the group’s office, while a print shop
earned barter points by producing promotional flyers for
the organization.

Through the Barter Project, Tobin can provide a limited
amount of technical assistance and information to newly
formed exchanges. He eventually hopes to be able to raise
funds to provide seed grants to start new exchanges or
“beef up” struggling organizations.

For the past several years, the good folks at the Institute
for Local Self-Reliance in Washington, D.C. have worked to
help urban residents gain greater control over their lives
through the use of low-technology, decentralist tools and
concepts. We strongly believe that more people (city
dwellers and country folk alike) should be exposed to the
Institute’s admirable efforts . . . which is why we’ve made
this “what’s happening where” report by ILSR staffers one
of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ regular features.