This is a "four step" guide to setting up a mutual credit system in any community. Mutual credit is a form of money in which users pay each other using a system of debits and credits. Within such a payment system, there is no need for cash or banks. Mutual credit can help revive organic trade between neighborhood businesses or among community members. It is stimulative in a way that reflects community values, and can move economic activity into the doughnut. That’s because transactions (technically lending and borrowing) are guided not only by profit but by participants’ long-term priorities as community members and the trust they have in each other.
Why use it?
Recent years have seen great interest in the phenomenon of local currencies and their ability to influence an economy. Mutual credit in particular is a system that can provide liquidity where needed, helping stimulate sustainable economic activity.
A true circular economy must address externalities not always valued by traditional currencies. In a mutual credit system, participants can use alternative denominations of value, such as “hours of work,” “favors,” “kilowatt-hours,” or their own new denomination. This can create a more holistic or sustainable economy, rendering different forms of work or value more visible, to be acknowledged or compensated appropriately. Using a complementary medium of exchange in this way can help bring to light all aspects of an economy.
In order to set up a mutual credit system, you will need to get to know the players in your economy, the resources, time, and skills available, and the needs of individuals and the community. This information allows you to map existing or potential value flows between different members of your community. We call it resource-mapping, and it is usually the hardest part about setting up a system of mutual credit.
Who is it for?
Business owners and entrepreneurs are often the most important agents behind kickstarting a larger ecosystem of mutual credit. They may also have the most to gain, since the added purchasing power in the local economy and stability to weather external financial shocks are great advantages for small and medium-sized enterprises.
However, anyone can benefit from using mutual credit in their community, whether it is a small group of friends, a municipality, or something else. Depending on the situation and resources available, there may be many different ways to implement a mutual credit system to suit the situation.
Mutual credit is also a good resource for development professionals working with underserved groups. For example, the mutual credit platform Trustlines is essentially a mobile-first payment solution that works equally well for people who do not yet have any savings in their national currency.
How long does it take?
Setting up a mutual credit system using our four step guide can be accomplished over the course of a few weeks. Within the four steps, we suggest both a learning session and a workshop that can each be between half an hour to a couple hours long.
When starting your own system of mutual credit, resource-mapping, community-building, and organizing a full-fledged pilot can be longer projects taking anywhere from weeks to months depending on the size of your community and scope of the project. However, simply trying out mutual credit between a few friends is easy and instant if using a bilateral (peer-to-peer) credit system like Trustlines. We encourage facilitators to first try it out with friends before embarking on the four steps, to get some firsthand knowledge of what it is like to use mutual credit!
How many people is it for?
While it is possible for both the Learning session and the Offers and Needs Workshop to be held with many people, we suggest aiming for 10-30 people per session to keep it intimate and allow everyone the chance to speak. We suggest aiming for a larger community of 10-100 people to start off with, to try out the system and make some exchanges or transfers. This will help reveal if there are any unexpected issues or additional facilitation resources needed by the community.
Note that if you opt to use a simple accounting platform for bilateral (peer-to-peer) credit, like Trustlines, you’ll technically only need a minimum of two people to start the entire mutual credit system! After that, the community can grow to have as many users as you wish.
What materials do you need?
For an initial meeting, we suggest paper and pen to assist in brainstorming for market facilitation. For example, this may include listing each person’s offers and needs. Some helpful worksheets and handouts are available below to print and distribute.
Participants may also want to bring items to trade, although this is not required for an initial meeting.
After mapping the different players and the potential value flows between them, the next step will be to set up a marketplace. A marketplace is anything that helps community members advertise their offers and needs to each other. It can be a physical place with booths, or a message board online, or a mobile app with a built-in map--or anything in between.
Four Steps to Setting Up a Mutual Credit System
Step 1: Gather potential members
The first step is to gather interested members of your community. For this, you may want to create and distribute marketing materials like flyers, or use digital or social media ads (e.g. through Facebook, Instagram, etc.) You may use the sample PDF handout provided below for joining the Trustlines Network, or create your own. A good rule of thumb is to always provide:
- A sign-up list, especially including email addresses
- A time and date for the learning session(s)
When recruiting new members, person-to-person communication always works best. If you are focusing on local businesses, a tactic that works well (but is time-consuming) is going from door to door at local shops, to inquire directly with shopkeepers who may be interested.
Be prepared to invite interested people to an initial learning session. This is so they can have the opportunity to learn and discuss the idea in a casual setting before committing to be members.
Step 2: Learning session
The learning session is both for discussion about mutual credit and to give interested community members the opportunity to ask direct questions about the project. It can also be an opportunity for members to meet each other and begin the process of forming connections. This can be done online virtually, or in person as needed. It should be easy, casual, and fun for potential members. If possible, make it a social event with food or drinks!
This session is not just for potential members, but also should be useful for the organizer. The organizer will need to consider things such as what unit of account they should start off with, or what accounting platform their community will feel most comfortable with. It is a chance for the organizer to get to know the thoughts and pain points of the community firsthand, and to validate their assumptions about how mutual credit could help the community and how to proceed with the workshop.
A good rule of thumb is to prepare a short (10 to 15 minutes) presentation or talk about mutual credit and the goals envisioned. You should cover the basic idea of mutual credit, but also try to focus specifically on why you think this belongs in your community. Remember this is equally a learning session for the organizer, as well as potential members. Save plenty of time for questions and open discussion.
At the conclusion of the learning session, invite all interested people to a follow-up workshop to focus on market facilitation. If desired, you can provide them with two of the PDF handouts found below to prepare for the workshop: the Inventory of Skills and Resources, and the Skills and Needs Member Worksheet. Each person should fill out the worksheet--If they have trouble filling it out, they can check the Inventory for inspiration.
Step 3: Offers and needs workshop
The Offers and Needs Workshop is meant to help with the most crucial aspect of mutual credit: market facilitation. This is an exercise to help your community figure out what types of resources are available to trade, and to help make connections between people interested in trading with each other. This can be done virtually but it is preferable to do it in person so that everyone can speak easily to each other.
- To start off the workshop, you can use the Skills and Needs Member Worksheet PDF handout provided below. If you were able to provide this earlier, some people may already have filled it out. You can start out by sharing your own worksheet or picking some examples from the Inventory of Skills and Resources. Or, you could start by asking one or two people to share their experiences filling out the worksheet. Keep this short, just to demonstrate what is needed.
- Next, ask everyone to find a partner and fill out their partner’s worksheet. (Sometimes, it is easier to fill out the worksheet when another person helps you out or encourages you!) Give everyone ten minutes to focus on the first partner, then another ten minutes for the second partner. (Make sure to warn them after the first ten minutes have passed!)
- After giving everyone enough time to fill out their sheets, it is time to share the results with the group. You can do this a few different ways. If you’re working with a small group, you can form a circle and go around the circle, asking each person to present their partner’s worksheet. As they do so, make sure to take notes on a chalkboard or a shared spreadsheet: “Offers And Needs for Our Community.” If you’re working with a bigger group and don’t have time for every person to share their worksheets, you can instead ask each person to write down their offers and needs on a chalkboard or the shared spreadsheet. Tell each person to put their initials next to their offers/needs!
- Finally, this is the time to make connections. If the group is small enough, you can ask people to raise their hands and announce the connections they’d be interested in. If the group is too big for this, ask everyone to look through the offers and needs and make a list of the people they might be interested to trade with, and then ask them to find each other and introduce themselves! Another thing you can try is to have people make tally marks, or put up little stickers, next to offers or needs that they are interested in. That way, it will be visually apparent which things have trading potential.
- The next thing to do is to ask the group if anyone had trouble finding trading partners for any of their offers or needs. This is important! As a community, you will need to figure out how to address the unmet offers and needs. Perhaps you need to recruit specific shops or communities to join the mutual credit system. Whatever it is, that will be your next step!
- It is good to open the session up to comments or questions about the process at this point. You can do this periodically to check whether anyone had difficulty with the tasks so far or had other comments they wanted to share.
- There are going to be several more decisions to make as a community now. Decide on next steps. Will you have a follow-up discussion and ideation session, to talk about the details of the system you want to set up, or to test out different accounting systems to see what people are most comfortable with? Will you start up a marketplace right away? These are things you should align on together with the group before dispersing.
Step 4: The Marketplace
The marketplace could be a permanent physical place, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, it could be a website or even a group chat on a messaging service, where members can list goods and services for sale or post their requests. Alternatively, the marketplace could be an event. Some communities meet regularly, every weekend or once a month, to buy and sell goods using mutual credit. These meetings could be in a physical community space, but they could also be done online.
You could use all of these methods or none of them--but the important thing is that you should have some way for members of the mutual credit system to discover each other, and to see the goods and services that are on offer!
What does the facilitator need to know or be able to do?
The facilitator should be familiar with mutual credit and be able to suggest or discuss the social guidelines, a marketplace, or an accounting platform for implementing it.
When deciding on a marketplace and accounting platform, it is good to take into consideration the needs of the community. For example, do you have reliable internet in your area? Do members use smartphones? How do community members communicate with each other--Facebook, SMS or messaging apps, or good old fashioned meetups? These may affect your decision about what type of accounting system to use and how to create an accessible marketplace.
Some of the resources available on the Trustlines communities page
may be helpful.
Notes: Choosing an accounting platform
There are a few different mutual credit accounting platforms available to use. A big difference to note between platforms is whether it allows for bilateral (peer-to-peer) credit, or only multilateral credit.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of platforms. A platform offering multilateral credit will give the organizer centralized control over adding members and allocating credit, which can mean a simpler experience for users. However, centralized control may take longer due to organizational set-up and may require more effort to maintain over time, since the organizer always needs to exist to add members. It is also possible to apply to join a pre-existing system of mutual credit as individuals or as a community.
A platform for bilateral credit (like Trustlines) will mean more choices and control for individual users and less (or zero) responsibility for the organizer. While it may mean more work initially to educate new members about creating credit lines, it is also simpler since individual users can take initiative, customize their own credit relationships, and grow the community independently. For example, getting started with Trustlines is relatively simple, since users who have downloaded the app can start creating connections with each other immediately, without requiring any centralized organizer.