MM 2018: Form a committee to explore converting our organization to a multi-stake holder Cooperative


#1

The primary goal of formalizing our organization as a cooperative is to provide an ideological bridge between our members and the movement who do not yet believe in the importance of an independent technology organization for fundamental social change, but do understand what a cooperative is and can more easily relate politically to the cooperative structure.

A significant part of the committee’s job will be evaluating our political strategy and developing new opportunities for organizing within the coop movement nationally and internationally to move beyond the foundation driven non profit communities in which we are currently working.

Another goal is resolving contradictions and weaknesses in our current democratic structure. Legally, we are two organizations - a legally recognized cooperative based in Mexico and a 501c3 nonprofit organization based in the United States. Although we operate via by-laws approved by members in both countries that give the elected leadership committee full decision making power, legally this body has no standing. The US non-profit organization has a non-functioning board that has legal power and authority over the organization. Similarly, the Mexico Coop holds legal power over the Mexican Coop but has an ill-defined relationship to the Leadership Committee.


El objetivo principal de formalizar nuestra organización como cooperativa es proporcionar un puente ideológico entre nuestros miembros y el movimiento que aún no cree en la importancia de una organización tecnológica independiente para el cambio social fundamental, pero entiendo qué es y qué puede ser una cooperativa. Fácilmente relacionarse políticamente con la estructura cooperativa.

Una parte importante del trabajo del comité será evaluar nuestra estrategia política y desarrollar nuevas oportunidades de organización dentro del movimiento cooperativo a nivel nacional e internacional para ir más allá de las comunidades sin fines de lucro impulsadas por la fundación en las que estamos trabajando actualmente.

Otro objetivo es resolver las contradicciones y las debilidades en nuestra estructura democrática actual. Legalmente, somos dos organizaciones: una cooperativa legalmente reconocida con sede en México y una organización sin fines de lucro 501c3 con sede en los Estados Unidos. Aunque operamos a través de los estatutos aprobados por los miembros en ambos países que otorgan al comité de liderazgo electo el poder de toma de decisiones, legalmente este organismo no tiene autoridad. La organización sin fines de lucro de los EE. UU. Tiene una junta directiva que no funciona y que tiene poder legal y autoridad sobre la organización. De manera similar, la Cooperativa de México tiene poder legal sobre la Coop mexicana pero tiene una relación mal definida con el Comité de Liderazgo.


#2

Some background on a couple things here would be helpful. If this is too much to answer, or not the feedback you’re looking for, say so.

“The US non-profit organization has a non-functioning board”

What does this mean? Board members who don’t participate? Board members who don’t understand the organization? Board members who are antagonistic to the staff or organization?

A functioning board would be helpful in making a decision like this in a way that doesn’t call on the work of members and staff. Have there been attempts to get a functioning board? What happened with those?

What would be the organizational structure under a co-op? How would it be different? Better? If we imagined a future where becoming a co-op turned out to be a mistake, what are some reasons that would be?

While becoming a co-op may attract members who understand what a co-op is, why aren’t those members attracted to what a non-profit is? Why isn’t that enough?


#3

Good question! What I meant by non-functioning board is that the official 501c3 (just like the organization in Mexico) has functionally ceded authority of the organization to the elected Leadership Committee (which is a highly functioning body that has been leading the organization through this process).

Legally, Media Jumpstart (the 501c3) does have a board of directors - made up of myself, Alfredo and Josue. We have to have one legally and the three of us ultimately are responsible for the organization and have the authority to make decisions for the organization. We simply have chosen to operate as a democratic organization in which the elected leadership committee has power.

This proposal is about reconciling that contradiction, so the elected body is also the body that has legal responsibility and authority.


#4

Got it. Makes sense.

So what about these questions? :slightly_smiling_face:


#5

I write as a longtime MFPL member, active user, and leader in the “platform cooperative” movement, which is trying to bring cooperative models to more online platforms.

I think this is very exciting. I already regard May First as very close to a cooperative (I wrote about it in my recent book on the subject, Everything for Everyone), and from a political perspective I view the legal form one uses as close to irrelevant. That said, for reasons of solidarity and clarity, some jurisdictions, including New York, consider it illegal for an organization not registered as a cooperative to describe itself as such. Also, I think the cooperative model could be a powerful way to better align and focus MFPL’s mission. Finally, as an “ideological bridge,” forming MFPL as a co-op could be an educational tool across the movement it serves, providing a laboratory for good governance and a model for how economic democracy can better our relationships with technology.

I’m in a position, also, of being a member of MFPL primarily for the services it offers. I appreciate the educational and advocacy efforts, and I would want to continue them, but in my view there are other organizations that overlap with it quite considerably in that work. Where I think MFPL is most unique, and where I think it can be most powerful, is in providing affordable, innovative, secure, and open tools for movement organizations working in solidarity together. Education remains an important part of that, but a lot of that education can happen implicitly, through the difference we experience between using MFPL tools and, say, Google’s. Structuring the organization as a cooperative, rather than a nonprofit charity, better aligns with this role of mission-driven service provision.

The challenges are in the details. What kind of co-op would this be? Who would the stakeholders be? How would this affect what is already quite a democratic governance model? Would it be a nonprofit co-op (which would reinvest all surpluses into new projects) or one that returns a percentage of surpluses to members as dividends? Are there potential legal pitfalls in turning a nonprofit into a co-op? These are tricky questions, but fortunately there are lots of people with good experience we can draw on in the co-op world. I’d love to help facilitate those conversations.

Above all, there is tremendous opportunity for better aligning MFPL with the growing movement for economic democracy, both online and off.


#6

Thanks Nathan for the support and thoughtful comments.

I think Steve’s questions help address Nathan’s comments, particularly the (my paraphrasing): what could possibly go wrong?

This opinion is my own (as an elected member of the leadership committee) but doesn’t represent the organization or even the LC, which I think is divided on it.

The mission of the organization as approved by the membership is movement building for global transformation and emancipation. For reasons that Nathan describes well, we have chosen a strategy of a membership organization that provides service as a means to fullfill this goal. I think it’s a good strategy and I don’t think we should change.

However, if there is one thing I have learned in the 13 years of pursuing this strategy it’s this: providing services is not enough.

I’m increasingly convined that liberation will only come from truly controlling the development of technology. And right now, technology is helplessly intertwined within the concepts of business, capitalism, immediate functionality and service. We need to dramatically re-imagine technology.

So, forming a coop (specifically one that favors workers and users as stakeholders) helps us re-imagine technology. But is it enough? In some ways we may be taking a step backwards by switching from a non-profit model to a business model, thus re-enforcing some of the concepts people have about technology and about us. If this change re-enforces our members perception of us as a service provider, rather than a movement partner in liberation, then it could back fire.

As for Steve’s second question:

while becoming a co-op may attract members who understand what a co-op is, why aren’t those members attracted to what a non-profit is? Why isn’t that enough?

I think over the previous 10 - 15 years we have seen the coop movement gain enormous traction within the movement, particular in the United States, while our understanding of the dangers of the non-profit industrial complex has grown.

Given this environment, I think it’s harder for members and others to fully grasp the idea of a non-profit organization radically transforming our relationship to technology. While being a coop also presents some ideological disonance, if we can successfully manage the concern I voice above, then it can be a smoother bridge to a new understanding of our relationship to technology.