Hackerspaces & Money: The Membership Form

Nick Farr | Posted 2009.10.06 at 3:00 pm | Perma

Note: This is the first specific installment of a five part series on Hackerspace organization called “Hackerspaces and Money: Five Approaches“.

C-base. Noisebridge. C4. HacDC. They are officially recognized and organized as independent entities.   These spaces are funded, operated and controlled as directly as possible by their members.  They open their spaces up for events, classes and social gatherings, and eagerly invite new members to join.  These spaces are good examples of the Membership form of organization, the style of organization that most directly inspired the wave of spaces that began to form in late 2007, after Hackers on a Plane and that year’s Chaos Communications Camp.

While these spaces may make it look easy, bootstrapping a space under the Membership form of organization is often far more difficult than pursuing other forms of organization, especially when starting from scratch.  There are also other ongoing organizational challenges.  Ultimately, if something fails, members can only blame themselves.

Bootstrapping

Unlike Anarchy, Membership spaces require an official form of organization with explicit expectations, rights and responsibilities of members.  Unlike Angel spaces, Membership spaces require their members to contribute the bulk of what it takes to rent and operate the space.  Unlike Owner spaces, Members have an equal say in where to locate, how much to pay in rent and what projects to pursue with group funds.  While spaces run by a Board and spaces run by Members are largely similar, the degree of difference in control and responsibility can be substantial depending on the situation.

Following this formula, the first step in bootstrapping is officially forming an organization.  Incorporating is usually the first place where the 2+2 model from the critical mass pattern comes into play.  The 2+2 group is usually the first to sign the paperwork and contribute the startup funds necessary to secure and rent a space.

Even while the 2+2 group has an implicit authority by virtue of being founders and visionaries, all they can do is set an example, work on the tasks at hand and inspire others to help.  Without a space, these membership groups recruit others by reaching out over e-mail, attending conferences, dropping by local events such as DorkBot and Maker Meetups, and hosting their own workshops in shared spaces.  More members means more dues and resources, but it also means more opinions and potential for disagreement.

In some areas, the 2+2 group will often contribute a substantial boostrapping funds to execute a lease, after which the usual rent and expenses are paid for by member dues.  In many ways, it’s easier to “sell” potential members on the value of a space once it’s actually leased.  Some hackerspace efforts began collecting dues long before a space was leased, making the process of executing a lease a shared effort from the beginning.  In any case, once a group is large enough to pay the expenses, it’s safe to call the bootstrapping process over.

Advantages

The notable advantages over alternative forms are largely ones of legal compliance, independence and true democratic control:

  • Anarchy: Membership spaces are official legal structures with explicit expectations and guidelines for operation and more stable bases of operation.
  • Angel: While Membership spaces can generally collect donations from outside the group, core expenses are paid for by members and function entirely independently.
  • The Owner: Members are not accountable to the concerns of an owner, the nature of their business, living situation or other concerns.  As a group, members are free to use the space as they see fit, negotiate changes as a group of peers and have discussions where everyone is on equal footing.  There is no “veto power” in a Membership group.
  • The Board: Members generally stay informed to all operations of the group and generally participate in any discussions that make a substantial change in the group.  Instead of changing decisions made by a board, or waiting for a board election to intervene, decisions are made as a group from the beginning.

Disadvantages

The notable disadvantages over alternative forms require more work from the members and more time spent on administrative matters and potentially distracting disagreements:

  • Anarchy: Membership spaces must periodically file paperwork, support the space through dues, stay on top of other legal requirements and fulfill their stated obligations as members.  This leaves less time for projects, hanging out, etc.
  • Angel: Members are generally constrained by the resources they can obtain themselves.  Instead of having the space and cool projects paid for, members must assess dues and raise money to pay for rent and expenses.
  • The Owner: Instead of having an owner to rely on for collecting and paying the rent, easily making special arrangements, mitigating disagreements among participants and having one “final say” on matters, members must come to agreement on certain issues or figure out ways to work around issues.
  • The Board: Instead of electing someone you like to make decisions for you, members must spend time on an ongoing basis meeting to discuss issues and working to solve problems collectively.

Other observations

Talk of a fully democratic membership organization may be a bit misleading.  In any group, leaders will generally emerge.  Those founders who start spaces naturally fill a leadership role by guiding their space from nothing to existence.  Sometimes, in the best interests of getting the space going, founders will gloss over underlying issues within the group that form from differences of opinion.  Failure to resolve these in time usually results in group fragmentation that can lead to a group’s demise.

If the founders or other leaders who emerge exercise too much power, or hold onto it for too long, they can alienate others in the group or possibly even default in practice to another form of organization.

Another problem with fully democratic organizations is that members can always vote with their feet!  Failing to attract new members or high membership turnover is also a big problem with membership spaces.  Unlike Owner or Board spaces, every member is inherently responsible for creating the conditions that attract and retain members who help support the space.

Conclusion

While I strongly believe this form of organization is the best and most closely aligned with what hackers look for in a space, it’s not without its problems.  Hackers are generally bad at paperwork and group dynamics, so sometimes an alternative form of organization is the best course of action to pursue.  Sometimes ceding a little bit of control for the sake of having a space or keeping it open is the best thing to do.

However, if you’re serious about building a dynamic, sustainable space, you should consider following this model!  It’s worked throughout the world and with the right energy, it can work for you too.

Categories : organization  people  theory