The idea of “social banking” is a bit of a mind-bender for most Americans accustomed to the cutthroat ways of Wall Street and the alarmingly concentrated banking/finance sector. In the US context, with a handful of exceptions, “social banking” can only be understood as an oxymoron or cynical PR gambit.

But in Europe, the Institute for Social Banking is dedicated to helping banks that want to develop more ethical, socially minded approaches to monetary policy, banking and insurance.  The Institute provides training and research, hosts educational seminars for banking practitioners, and strives to promote ecologically positive industry practices. Despite these ambitions, the Institute concedes that there is no widely accepted definition of social banking; it remains a somewhat “off to the side” of mainstream industry practices — a sincere but still-evolving ethic and portfolio. 

As an American, I find it remarkable that the Institute for Social Banking even exists. Even more impressive is the Institute’s recent week-long seminar in Switzerland exploring how social banking could begin to understand and support the commons.  Here is a description of the course.  Besides introducing the commons more generally, the seminar included sessions on indigenous commons; organizing and financing common businesses; community-connected farming; alternative currencies; and imagining a common world / society.

My colleague Silke Helfrich attended, and reports back that there was keen interest in the commons – enough so that at the conclusion of the week, participants issued the following statement: 

A Living Manifesto for Social Banking and the Commons

19 July 2013

This is the first iteration of a Living Manifesto for Social Banking and the Commons. 

It is the result of a week-long summer school, which brought together leading experts in the Commons, Social Banking and Alternative Finance with practitioners from around the world, to consider the question: What is the role of Social Banking in supporting a Healthy Commons?

This Manifesto is a first iteration. In the spirit of the commons and commoning it can be commented on, revised and transformed by members of the Institute and the wider world. A second iteration will be published as part of the conference report, and the Manifesto will remain as a living document on the Institute’s website. 

Welcome to the Commons.

Preamble:  Social Banks value and support the commons as an essential part of a flourishing society and ecology, alongside the private and public sectors. 

Social Banks believe in, and actively support, the un-tapped potential of all and our ability to collaboratively develop commons-based ways of organising and living that can help meet the complex ecological, social and economic challenges we collectively face.

A Living Manifesto for Social Banking and the Commons:

1.    Social Banks have an evolving understanding of commons culture and commons institutions, and listen to and understand the needs and values of the commons. 

2.    Social Banks work to make the commons visible by telling stories about the commons, nurturing empathy and supporting the development of new commons.

3.    Social Bankers help commoners find each other, and cultivate existing and new clusters of Commons activities, helping for form commons clusters and hubs.

4.    Social Banks gather, develop and share open access knowledge as a commons, and in relation to the commons, by freely sharing knowledge and information.

5.    Social Banks work to build long-term trust with and between their customers, which begins with a commitment to transparency in their own operations.

6.    Social Banks help to promote accountability and good governance for the commons by working together to develop, revise, and keep alive good governance practice, supporting and enhancing the commons.

7.    Social Banks are learning to assess the value of the commons beyond financial value, and are developing new measurements and new understanding of wider value.

8.    Social Banks are helping to democratise finance by providing commons-based services for the commons by creating and maintaining appropriate sources of finance. 

9.    Social Banks bring together financial solutions to meet both individual needs and the needs of the commons – in addition to the services provided by banks.

10.    Social Banks will play a role in encouraging the wider community and government to respect and value the commons.

11.    Social Banks will pool and freely share best practice to support, develop and enhance their ability to support the commons.

12.    Social Banks recognise the limits of what they can do, that the commons are strongest locally, and commit to playing their role alongside others: locally rooted and globally connected.

This interest by European social banks in the commons is potentially quite significant in addressing an ongoing problem of so many commons:  developing the financial wherewithal to build the infrastructure and the systems to maintain themselves, particularly those commons projects that have a larger scale.  Clearly this challenge will require a lot of co-evolution and innovation, but it’s a great sign that there is in fact interest in tackling this problem, at least among Europeans.  I will have to work on my fellow Americans.