UK LETS and Complementary Currencies
Development Agency


published by

Re-thinking Subscriptions
Our ongoing research with groups, as we try to keep our contacts up to date, brings to our attention, with specific evidence, a number of issues about how organisers have been managing their groups. One important issue is the charging of sterling subscriptions, and renewing them on an annual basis.

Paying a subscription demonstrates a degree of commitment and "loyalty to the cause". At the same time it is an ideal mechanism for keep numbers manageable, ie keeping the group exclusive for those who value what it provides. Some organisers feel there is an ideal size for a group. One LETS organiser even told us: "we want to keep the number down to 65 so that they all fit on one page". It looks as if others systematically exclude members from joining who "do not fit into their ethos". But what about inclusivity, making the benefits of LETS available to those in real economic need who don't have the confidence to fit into this kind of social group?

Many individuals value their membership of a LETS more as a way of gaining a circle of friends than for economic benefit. This is just as much a justification for LETS as anything else - in what other context do you sit in a room giving attention to a group of people, not drinking, and not sharing your troubles, but offering your skills, and sharing your needs? In the course of trading, the tendency is for long-term relationships to be formed so that people evolve from polite strangers "playing the game" to everyday friends just doing favours for each other. So if they receive a renewal demand, or are phoned up and asked if they want to stay in the group, they may let it go, especially if the person asking the question also seems to be making an emotional demand. So there is an argument for constantly "turning over" the group.

But we are also seeing the phenomenon of some groups winding down. One group has account numbers up to 129 and yet only 14 of them survive. Another group has account numbers up 940, yet there are only about 180 on the books. What happened to the others? A few may have died or left the area, but that's a massive turnover.

In these cases, the diligent bureaucrats in their quest to manage the sterling budget, whilst claiming local currency for doing so, have usually ignored the much more important issue of substantial credits and commitments. Sometimes these are simply being "left on the file", or even worse they may be carefully removed from the balance sheet. Typically those who stay on are "in credit" which has to be balanced out by an ever sinking system deficit, whilst members with commitments have melted away. We wonder if those who were so casually excluded were asked to balance their account to zero - as "the rules" say you are meant to do.

And what does this ever-decreasing circle do for the morale of those who soldier on playing by "the rules"? How do those who have worked hard over the years to keep the system going, or who provided food or valuable services, feel about the marketplace which they entered in good faith being eroded to the point of inevitable failure by this kind of management tactic? As well as shooting ourselves in the foot, in these days of credit crunch, such procedures do not bear examination in terms of "banking" practice - how would you like it if your local building society folded your account because you had not accessed it for a year?

Meanwhile life has moved on. Nobody expects to pay for accounts on Facebook and Freecycle for example. The business models have changed: in one case your data is an asset to the organisation; in the other case the organisers volunteer from a sense of mission to reduce the volume of landfill. Many people who look to join LETS now assume it is online, they probably don't even expect to pay, and when having found a contact online it points them to something leftover from the eighties, it really puts them off.

The good news is that going online - YES we can help you do this - substantially reduces sterling costs, and takes care of all those administrative chores that may fascinate our aspergic brethren but drive most long-suffering organisers into burnout - so that's recommendation number one: GO ONLINE. This brings many benefits in terms of convenience, immediacy, flexibility, coolness, relevance, and is a sine qua non for engagement with the younger generation - who invariably assume that LETS is already online.

An interactive website enables participation over a defined area which might be a county, a postcode, a geographical area, or a community of interest. Contact details can only be accessed by logging on with an individual password. Once inside the site, members can find others who live near them, but at the same time a a wider market can develop. Local groups can be semi-autonomous but are supported by some functions being centralised. Members who are not online are given access and support by a buddy, and this can be turned into a positive feature by making it an excuse to bring a group together. Meetings are an excellent way for members to meet up, but since anyone can see who else lives near them, the initiative of setting up meetings may be devolved to local organisers, who can become official local contacts.You don't have to be friends with everyone in the scheme - just like in real life you can form your own sub-groups and use LETS for what you need whenever you need it. So an online system can give rise to a looser form of participation that could be part of everyone's lifestyle.

Once your data is online, anyone can print any part of the directory off whenever they like, so your central printing and postage costs will be substantially reduced. Therefore the cost of maintaining inactive but available accounts which can be re-activated at will, is negligible - the software can even be set to make unused directory entries disappear after a specified interval. So our recommendation is that if you feel you have to charge a fee to join your LETS as a sign of commitment, please just make it a JOINING FEE - the software we provide then enables a small monthly fee to be taken in local currency to support central administrative functions.

Subscriptions are not the only way to raise funds. One alternative is to MAKE EXCHANGES. This can be a way of engaging with someone who doesn't have time to do any work. Such "cash-rich" and "time-poor" individuals can earn currency by means of sterling donations and spend it on services that they might otherwise have paid for in cash, thus supporting the group in a very practical way. On trading days a "Bureau de Change" can accept sterling in exchange for local vouchers that are used for trading inside the market place. At the end of the day traders can keep them, or hand them in and put the value of them into their account. Vouchers can also be used to calculate a commission, instead of charging traders for their stall.

On a more formal basis, eg when dealing with funders, you can "match" the sterling funds with local currency. This could be a way of topping up your sterling account and your local funds at the same time, but this leads into a discussion about projects, which is another big topic. Meanwhile any more ideas or comments that organisers have about the above, please contact us.

© Mary Fee: February 27th 2009 - admin-at-letslinkuk.net.

© Published by LETSlink UK, 12 Southcote Road, Tufnell Park, London N19 5BJ