Empowering non-organizations: Legs and Pockets

Posted on Thursday, 15 May, 2008 by


legs for getting places… (by scottobear, cc)

Web 2.0 tools have made it easier for people to form groups; ranging from temporary flocks of people with a similar interest to close-knit communities, increasingly part of extensive interconnected networks.

Thanks to Web2.0 people can connect and organize, without a manager or a managing structure to lead or frame this organization process. “The power of organizing without organizations” is how Clay Shirky calles it. Others have used the term “non-organizations” or “ultra-lights”. Many Internet mediated groups are non-organizations, in the sense that they do not have a traditional structure or legal entity like a foundation or a association, or a company.

An example is the group of dairy farmers in rural Portugal I am part of, convening around a blog and an email group, and meeting f2f a few times a year for an excursion or study day. There is real value for learning and socializing, there are some shared values, a shared identity. But it comes without the things that used to be part and parcel of more traditional organizations. There is no mailing address, no letterhead paper, no statutes or articles of association, no official “Committee” and no member administration.

When the dairy farmers network wanted to liaise with the traditional Farmers Union in Portugal, they were not accepted unless they would be a “real” association. The “ultra-light” can not be eligible for EU subsidies for training or extension, even though that is what it does.
When hiring a venue to convene, or a leaflet to print, one member has to personally take the financial responsibility up-front. When afterwards members chip in, they can not be given a receipt. The group can not own anything, not hire anybody.

A solution for the non-organizations might be to go the traditional way: formalize the group and rig an organizational structure along traditional lines, depending on the preferences: an association, a company or a charity. But this seems more complex than strictly needed, it would raise transaction costs, and more importantly: what would be lost in the process?
The lightness is a relief, it is felt that the lightness is conducive for learning, for attracting the right people for the right purpose. The agility, the single focus of a group to do its thing, and to stop being a group in case the energy ebbs is unique and refreshing.

This was the conclusion of the case study i did last year:
“Web 2.0 supported communities have the potential to support social organization for development, linking different actors to local development. The organizational models that we avail of at present do not match the new dispersed form of organization. To promote autonomy, sustainability and replicability of communities, further thinking is required.”

John D Smith and I have done some “further thinking”.

We have looked at existing communities, many of them “ultra-lights”, we have reminded each other to look and read with the question in mind:

“How can communities get legs and pockets”?

Legs for getting places, doing the thing it is they want to do;
pockets for being able to pay their way for as long as they want to.

You need legs before you can have pockets, but too large pockets might get in the way for good walking.

We have come across many communities that are -in whatever way- struggling with these questions: some for lack of pockets, others for getting their pockets filled and stopping walking to spend money or get more.

Trying to think of what would be needed to get legs and pockets, one thing might be collective money management tools. A tool to make international online banking “visible” to a larger community, in order for the community leaders to move money in an accountable way. It should be simple, but not too simple; communities probably want to differentiate several “stashes” of money. Read John’s blogpost about it here.