Incorporating Notes: On Cooperatives, Nonprofits, and Better Accountability

When we first sat down and began thinking about how we wanted to organize CoLET, we were all fairly adamant that we didn’t want to incorporate as a non-profit, and we were also hesitant about becoming a cooperative.

We’d all had experience in the coop world as well as with nonprofits, and we felt that we wanted to hold ourselves to a more rigorous standard. We’d seen cooperatives turn into the same sorts of capitalist engines that they’d supposedly been founded to challenge, and we’d also been through experiences of nonprofits drowning in grant paperwork and practically turning themselves into pretzels to fit their work into a mission outlined by foundations large and small — foundations who were ultimately backed by and pushing capitalist interests.

In dreaming and scheming about this new formation, we knew that we wanted to focus on keeping our efforts small and independent, and exploring ways to embrace impermanence. Even as we tried to build, promote, extend, and maintain systems –both technological and infrastructural — that might outlast our organization. We wanted to grow/develop  and perhaps even dissolve mindfully, while still resisting the built-in obsolescence so common in modern capitalist production.

We aren’t perfect, we don’t have all the answers, but we know that we don’t want our primary work to be preserving CoLET by any means necessary. Our aim is to try and make a radical intervention in tech spaces and a techie intervention in radical spaces all while trying to be of service to our immediate community.  The intervention is what we are interested in. If we are not effective in it, we need to know so that we can move on and try something else. If we are effective, we must still continue to iterate and make a space for people to intervene on our interventions. The term “collective” seemed to best capture what we were going for. It’s a loose gathering of likeminded people, and it brings to mind other feminist formations like the Combahee River Collective.

Why Not A Coop?

Despite their poor record as a force for social change, cooperatives still hold an appeal for many well intentioned people, who continue to look to them as a viable alternative to capitalism. Although cooperation is unquestionably a necessary part of the solution, cooperatives by themselves are insufficient to challenge the capitalist system.”  – Murray Bookchin

Most of us here at CoLET are members of one or more cooperatives, and we enjoy the camraderie and feel-goods they can provide. However, it seems that without substantial and clearly codified accountability to their communities, the best that cooperatives can provide is a nice community space or  a slightly less soul-sucking place to work, and when they are at their worst (and the worst seems to often manifest with success) they are forces for gentrification and regular vanilla capitalism.

Hmm, what is the cooperative version of “greenwashing”? Maybe “twin pines washing”?

The excerpt below is another that jumped out at us.

“Like many coops, Black Warrior requires that 5 percent of its members be present at its meetings in order to hold them. Since its member-owners are spread out over eleven counties in rural West Alabama, there hasn’t been a proper meeting—by Zippert’s estimation—in fifty years. To correct this, FSC (The Federation of Southern Cooperatives) has worked with Black Warrior members in Sumter and Greene counties to file a lawsuit against the company, alleging that the REC’s lack of democratic process defies state and federal regulations that define what constitutes a cooperative.”Bringing Power to the People: The Unlikely Case for Utility Populism (Dissent magazine)

The article above is worth a read because it also points to some of the crucial work and greater potential of cooperatives. We definitely don’t want to throw cooperatives out as institutions that can do be put into service towards liberation, but for us, for now, the hurdles associated with the unique challenges of forming a worker cooperative in New York state along with our personal reservations make us want to avoid that format.

Why Not a Non-Profit?

Central to our work is an explicitly anticapitalist stance. No one is perfect or pure, and we all have bills to pay, but taking money and ceding control to foundations funded by robber barons is against our mission and we will need to do work to further codify that. While we have and will continue to work for organizations that are funded in a myriad of ways, we will likely only do so in a service provider capacity.  INCITE! has an excellent critical rundown of the non-profit industrial complex as well as many more resources to educate yourself on its nefarious deeds and effects. I highly recommend checking it out, along with their anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.

So How to Incorporate? 

We feel the two above-mentioned models fail us either because they lack substantial accountability or that they are ultimately accountable to the wrong parties. That leaves the question of how we will incorporate and who will hold CoLET accountable. And I will be honest and say that this is something we still need to figure out. Right now it looks like we’ll be a regular-schmegular Delaware LLC. We want to do work for money so we can pay ourselves and other collaborators and have money to host nice community gatherings with good food and maybe something nice to drink. We also have bigger dreams of things that cost a lot more money, but we want to work towards it slowly, deliberately, and independently.

As for accountability, we are doing regular open meetings/reading groups in order to try and build a larger community of radical technologists. We do this with the full expectation that not all of them  can give themselves over to the day-to-day workings of the group. Can we count on that group to hold us to our word? What do they get or are they owed in return? These are questions we will continue to explore as we move forward.

I am encouraged by the municipal assembly models laid out by Murray Bookchin and others.I also want to check out Joshua Clark Davis’s newly published book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods:The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs for tales of What Went Wrong (or how liberalism and capitalism couldn’t be beaten back).  As a group that wants to be community-centered, we still need to formally decide what that means. Right now, we are all based in Crown Heights, so we are thinking about our neighborhood and the adjacent neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, and Flatbush.  There are lots of questions to pose and discuss, and while we might not have solutions to them all, we will share our progress as we earnestly ask and attempt to address them.

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3 thoughts on “Incorporating Notes: On Cooperatives, Nonprofits, and Better Accountability”

  1. Love your stuff. I’m looking at doing something similar. Some kind of arrangement where an enterprise is either managed by an incorporated society of people that are members or an LLC that has shareholding by same inc. soc.

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