Minnesota county invents community currency for card-carrying heroes

Good shopping. Hennepin County, Minn., home to the Mall of America's 400 stores, has found a way to combine volunteerism and the nation's unofficial favorite indoor sport'shopping.

The county worked with Commonweal Inc. of Minneapolis to develop the Community HeroCard, a smart card system that rewards each hour of volunteer community work with 10 service dollars that card holders can redeem at participating merchants. The HeroCard system piggybacks onto the electronic backbone of the Federal Reserve's Automated Clearing House, said Kevin Ryan, president and chief executive officer of Commonweal Inc.

Commonweal officials track volunteers' hours in an online account. The HeroCard information is stored in a Microsoft SQL Server Version 6.5 database that runs under Windows NT. HeroCard holders can check their account balance at

Merchants and volunteers can sign up for the HeroCard program at the Web site.

Local hero. Deb Truesdell, Commonweal coordinator for Hennepin County, explained it this way: Let's say Truesdell is a HeroCard carrier. She walks into a luggage store that is a 10 percent HeroCard participant.

Truesdell buys a suitcase for $100. She pays for it by credit card, debit card, check or cash. Then she says to the cashier, 'I'm a Community HeroCard holder,' and gives him her HeroCard, which is the size of a credit card and has a magnetic stripe.

Encoded on the mag-stripe card are the card holder's name, card number and the organization for which she volunteers.

The cashier runs the card through a Tranz 380 x2 card reader with up to 256K of RAM from VeriFone Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., a subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard Co. Because the luggage store is a 10 percent HeroCard participant, $10 is drafted from the merchant's account. The $10 goes into the HeroCard holder's account in a local bank. 'Now there's cash, real cash, available to the volunteer,' Ryan said.

HeroCard currency is accepted only at 70 stores in the Mall of America and other neighborhood stores. 'So the money stays in the community,' Ryan said.

The HeroCard program started in 1997 with 12 merchants and 150 card holders. Now 43 nonprofit organizations have enrolled 2,150 card holders, and 70 local merchants accept the HeroCard currency.

'Trudy Walsh


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