I was deeply saddened in recent days to learn that the great-grandson of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller had died. Richard Rockefeller, a physician who practiced for nearly two decades in Portland, Maine, was killed while piloting his light plane. He was 65.
Richard was a philanthropist and humanitarian whom I had the pleasure to meet during the production of a documentary film I co-produced a couple of years ago. His work with Doctors Without Borders/Medecins San Frantieres has been widely noted. He was instrumental in establishing the organization in the United States and sat on its board of advisors for 21 years. He spoke passionately about the need to give people in poor parts of the world access to medicine.
My interview with Richard Rockefeller for my doc “Fixing the Future” was about a different kind of community-building. Rockefeller was among those who helped fund the creation of a fascinating initiative in Maine called "Hour Exchange Portland." The exchange is a what is known as a “time bank.” People in the Portland area agree to provide their skills, whatever those skills may be, by the hour. Maybe it’s cutting a lawn. Maybe it’s physical therapy. People who provide their skills via this bank don’t expect money in exchange. What they do expect is to be able to get an hour of someone else’s skill in return.
There are time banks of one form or another in spots across the country. After my film came out, some volunteers put together a time bank in my own part of New Jersey. Rockefeller explained to me during the filming that an hour earns a person the same “time dollar," no matter what the service.
“Right away, (that’s) a radical departure from the formal economy where different services are worth different things depending on scarcity and supply and demand,” Rockefeller told me. Within the time bank, everybody’s time is equal, so economists, for that reason, often find this “completely foolhardy and incomprehensible,” he said.
Rockefeller also noted with a smile that “fortunately” the system also does not compute for the Internal Revenue Service, which has ruled that time banking involves the swap of what are termed “friendly favors," and are, therefore, non-taxable.
The best way to understand a system is to try it out. So I did. What I put into the time bank was an hour squirting in and nailing in insulation for a nice Portland woman’s basement. What I got in return was magnificent: an hour-long sailing lesson riding the waves of Maine’s Casco Bay.
With the hard work of volunteers and Dr. Rockefeller’s moral and financial support, Portland has ended up with an extensive time exchange system. Some people without health insurance are even able to swap their skills by the hour for medical treatment from doctors and other health professional who are part of the bank.
What I noticed was that swapping skills is a handy way to bring diverse individuals together. People often talk while they are together giving or taking the labor. They talk about a lot of things, but often they talk about community challenges and opportunities. They even might talk ways to fix those challenges. In this way, Richard Rockefeller should also be remembered as a man who helped build something that was more than a time bank. He also helped build what I like to call a social capital generation device, a system that pulls people out of their living rooms and puts them together to get important things done.