What If My Bank Made Me Join a Group?

What If My Bank Made Me Join a Group?

Friends and colleagues have asked me, “How would you like it if your bank made you sit with a group of neighbors in order to carry out your banking business?” The question is asked rhetorically, and the questioner never waits for an answer. It is assumed that it is obvious that the rituals of savings groups are an inconvenience to people, that anyone in her right mind would choose the ease and convenience of formal banking over the endless meetings and risks and involvements of savings groups.

I’ve been reading the book Community: The Structure of Belonging, by Peter Block. The author spends a couple of chapters reminding us of how isolated and alienating life has become in the industrial world, particularly for those who live in suburbs and spend a lot of time in automobiles. Among many sources, Block draws on three people whose work I greatly respect – One is Christopher Alexander, whose book A Pattern Language is the reference for my family, every time we set up a home, and has equally inspired the city of Portland, always highly rated as one of the best places to live in the US.  Another is Werner Erhard, whose courses argue strongly for the possibility of authentic communication. The third is Robert Putnam, who has popularized the concept of social capital, a quality that is measured by the richness and frequency of interactions among people.

Reading Block’s book has been an opportunity to think about my own life, which is filled with all sorts of distractions from my work: board meetings for a local NGO; fund raisers for other people’s NGOs; conference calls with friends with whom I’m organizing various events; neighborhood salons, at which the folks on our street get together, have wine and cheese, and talk about matters of mutual interest; weekly shopping trips, that we always make with our neighbor, a habit that started when we were trying to live without a car and has continued since we got one, not for the negligible gas savings but for the chance to ride and shop together.

Every one of those activities has been a deliberate choice, and I treasure them all. They have helped me feel at home in a new city, they take me out of monologue into dialogue, they introduce me to new ideas, they give me minor conflicts to resolve and situations to mediate. When I am being a member of my community I am a more interesting person than I would be if I stayed home, went shopping alone, and watched television in the evenings. All the things that hurl me into contact with other people, that take countless hours, that are often at the wrong time, that are sometimes inconvenient – they are not interruptions to the rest of my life. They ARE my life.

Community is being rediscovered in the United States. Farmers markets are catching up, some, to big supermarkets; supermarkets are convenient, but only ten percent of shoppers in them have a conversation with another shopper; farmer’s markets have less choice and take longer to shop in, but people have more conversations with other people. Community is alive and whole, complex, irritating and satisfying, joyful and sad, comfortingly safe and disturbingly risky. It is unpredictable because it depends on human beings, but for the same reason it is empowering and satisfying.

This has been in the back of my head every time I have thought about the question, “How would I like it if my bank made me sit with a group of neighbors in order to carry out my banking business?” But I want to answer it this time: I don’t know. It would be terribly inconvenient. But I’d make a lot of new friends, I’d learn a lot about my town, it would be fun, it would be messy and alive and exciting. It’s a close call.


Reader Comments (9) 

I love this post

Tue, February 1, 2011 | Helene

I do, too.

Tue, February 1, 2011 | Megen

My Morning in the Formal Economy

Or should I say my morning of being financially included? I agree with Paul.

I went to Bank of America in Harvard Square to open another account Saturday morning. If I could connect the very cool Square (a gadget that fits on your phone and takes credit and debit cards) to a separate account, I could help students raise money for their various charitable causes. I would sell carpets and scarves right from my office, able to track the account using Google Analytics. Two hours later, my brain full of various options, I ended up opening two accounts. I know not why. Clearly my banker had not read Nudge and could not set easy defaults. I had too many options each with different charges, and all incredibly expensive. Just to get out of there, I opened two accounts. Of course, I will close one when I have the courage. 

In contrast, I met with my condo association this weekend. The association is a form of savings group. We meet, save up together based on our square footage, invest the money, and use what we can to fix up our house. The meeting takes a pleasant hour. We could just meet once a quarter, but choose to meet monthly. We trade parking tips for snow emergencies, share phone numbers of good electricians and plumbers, eat snacks, review the books and have a good laugh. The tough decisions like raising our monthly fees to build a reserve are not easy. But, at least at the end of the meeting, we leave understanding what we have heard. I can’t say the same happened at my inclusive, option-spewing, formal bank.

Tue, February 1, 2011 | Kim Wilson

Since reading Community, I've been thinking about new ways of being and belonging. Now Paul is making me think about new ways of doing business! I've got nothing like Kim's experience but yesterday I went into what might have been a humdrum neighborhood association meeting with a whole new mindset.

Wed, February 2, 2011 | Carol

This is great. I especially love the comment that "this IS my life." Dennis and I were talking yesterday about how we can organize, but it is simply not possible to plan out our lives. We have had the great good luck always of feeling part of small communiities with whom we could share our joys and our misfortunes. I hope the trends toward community will outweigh the forces of isolation (one reason I can't stand vote by mail) for our children's sake.

Thu, February 3, 2011 | Mary Ann Buchanan

I also really liked this. It seems to be kind of a New Hampshire thing but groups of more than 3 people cause suspicion up here. It's "Live Free Or Die", "Fences Good Neighbors Make" and "Property Protected by Smith and Wesson". When I was in New Bedford I worked at the community level for more than 20 years, immersed so much in so many communities that at times it was hard to breathe. Most of the various community groups I worked with were imposed in some way on those that joined them but the imposition was easily shrugged off by the current value each group member derived from showing up. And as with most things those who showed up most often (not only in body but in mind and spirit) gained the most from the experience. When I moved to NH during the first 2-3 years of This Endless War I was a member of a great affinity group. We met to share ideas and strategize, go on field trips to harass Karl Rove,Ed Gilllespie or do civil disobedience at our local defense contractor. I didn't have any gratitude for G.W Bush bringing us together but I was grateful never the less. I think there is a higher level outcome of groups that is more than just the utility of what happens mechanically in them. I think main line microfinance too often promotes the idea that clients can "graduate" out of groups once they have the means. I think that is unfortunate and negates the distilled value and power of a well functioning and dynamic group. To be honest I think that is what has always excited me about this field - not fat loan portfolios and the more, better, bigger but the synergy that is born out of solidarity and common purpose. Thanks for this! Bill

Thu, February 3, 2011 | Bill Maddocks

Hi Paul and Kim

I loved this post and Kim's response too. More often than not we extrapolate our own preferences in terms of the kind of financial services we would prefer to people who have a different set of socio-economic needs and user preferences. 

In my limited experience working with the groups, I have observed that groups that are situated in more remote rural areas tend to benefit greater from the group feature since it acts as a crucial social safety net providing unemployment, health and other emergency benefits that we take for granted in the more advanced economies. 

I have not found the group feature as effective in creating a marginal value addition in urban areas where people value their time differently and hence of limited utility. This is not to say that groups are not useful in urban settings but that I have not seen people willing to spend as much time (for better or for worse) in building and strengthening social ties with their peers.

I agree with Bill's statement that ultimately the people who gain the most (normally) are the ones who put in the most into such groups. 

I wonder what Malcolm Harper would say about your post. I have heard him speak very eloquently about the downside of being in a group. 

Thanks again for a thoughtprovoking post,

Wed, February 16, 2011 | Vinod Parmeshwar

Hi Vinod!
Interesting what you wrote re value added of urban vs rural groups. The organization I direct is working primarily in urban township areas and yes, people do value their time differently than in rural areas. We spent a solid three years of tireless promotion and groups talking about their success before the VSL concept took root and demand exploded. But, at least in our context (South Africa), we don't see the unwillingness to form groups as primarily related to the way time is valued, though it surely plays a part. This isn't based on anything scientific, it is just observation; however it seems people were reluctant to come on board due more to a caution and skepticism borne from having been 'burnt' many times by unscrupulous promoters of various schemes; from the pyramid scheme to bogus funeral policies to RoSCAs and ASCAs where more people than not would abscond with the funds, etc. Weak social capital and the urban reality of transience plays a role here where the unspoken 'threat' is of social exclusion and condemnation holds little weight. 

I believe that people needed to be convinced that their self-interests would be met via this type of communal action and that the 'evidence' needed to hit a certain critical mass before we found our tipping point. But perhaps that is just the reality here in South Africa?

Fri, February 18, 2011 | Jill Thompson

good post, thanks Paul! Resiko Kardiovaskular

Wed, August 1, 2012 | Solusi CMP

Originally published in 2012, and republished with a more recent date to move it up the chronological list.



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