Let’s NOT Make a Deal

The question has come up more than once at Village 101 presentations about what the Village’s relationship to bartering services is going to be.  So I thought this might be a good topic for a post.

Straight bartering of services poses some very real problems.  But rather than discuss them theoretically, let’s look at a real-life practical example.

For example, let’s say that 78 year old Mary needs transportation on an ongoing basis because she doesn’t drive. Setting aside taxis (which are expensive), Mary can use the local bus system and she can also get some transportation from a local nonprofit transportation provider—both of which the Village could help Mary arrange.  But what if Mary regularly needs transportation when the nonprofit doesn’t offer it (like after 4 pm) or to someplace not easily accessed by bus? What does Mary do then?

In Mary’s opinion it would be great if she could just trade something she has to offer and wants to give—like computer instruction—-in exchange for “x” number of rides and skip the whole Village membership piece altogether.  That way, it wouldn’t cost her anything and she could also teach people how to use their computers which she likes to do.

Sounds good? Everybody gets what they want right?  And better yet, no money needs to change hands. So what could possibly be the problem with this?

Let’s start with the issue of how to fairly commoditize the value of the services being exchanged.  Does one hour of computer instruction = one hour of transportation?   Is one hour of help decluttering your garage = to one hour of help completing social security forms?  Is one hour of grocery shopping = one hour of accompanying someone to a medical appointment? Since that’s the way most exchanges work, let’s say yes. One hour = one hour regardless of the complexity & skill level of the tasks involved.

But even if we say one hour of computer instruction  = one hour of transportation, what does Mary do if no one in the Village requests computer instruction?  In other words, if no one wants what she has to trade.  She is still going to need transportation.  That need is not going to go away.  Does she try to find something else to trade?

Or what if only one person in the Village needs computer instruction this month and it only takes two hours to teach?  Would it be enough for Mary to only get two hours of transportation this month in exchange?  How is she going to get to where she needs to go the rest of the time?

Or what if there are five people in the Village all of whom want to offer computer instruction in exchange for rides?  Odds are there will not be enough requests for computer instruction to exchange for all the rides these people need.  Or if there are three requests for computer instruction this month, which three of those people get them and which two don’t?

It should be clear by now why Villages don’t do straight barter. It just breaks down too fast.  If someone needs something essential—–like regular transportation to the doctors, to run errands, to the grocery store, to an evening social event—it can’t be dependent on them having something to trade.  If they are going to be able to age-in-place and continue to take care of themselves, their transportation needs have to be met consistently and dependably. Which is why they become a Village member.

That way for one low fee (around $12-15 per week) they get several round-trip rides each week to places they need to go.  Does the same volunteer always take them? No, probably not.  The Village will have lots of people who volunteer to drive. But this way, they can count on getting to where they need to go every week without always having to find someone who wants computer instruction  (or yard work or meal preparation)  in exchange for the ride.  And, for that same $12-15 per week, they can get a lot of other services/programs/support they may also need in addition to the rides.

Given the cost of gasoline and the time obligations of transporting someone even just to the grocery store each and every week, year after year, for 5 years in a row, you can see why many adult children buy memberships for their parents. It gives the parents back their independence and it lessens the burden of having to be a caretaker on the adult child.

I hope it is clear why Villages don’t just facilitate straight bartering/exchange of services. Members join a Village in order to receive aging-in-place support on an ongoing basis, which the Village arranges for them as inexpensively as possible.  Barters simply can’t be counted on to work long-term, which is exactly what Villages are supposed to do: be a dependable and sustainable way for people to age-in-place.

This is not to say that volunteer hours shouldn’t be timebanked and redeemable.  We’re exploring how that might work and what we—and our friends in the community—might be able to offer in exchange as a way to reward our volunteers.   But that’s a subject for another post.

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