Sustaining organisations in the age of free

Russ Grayson
Sep 4, 2018 · 17 min read

“William: “I’m sure we can all pull together, sir.”

Vetinari: “Oh, I do hope not. Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.”
…Terry Pratchett, The Truth

“Organize, don’t agonize.”
…Nancy Pelosi

Organisers think about how to attract and retain members.

WE SEE THEM time after time, organisation after organisation — the many challenges of keeping voluntary organisations on their feet. Those who have contributed their time, energy, experience and knowledge to running them know that the challenges can cause dissagreement, interpersonal conflict and rifts.

Let’s define the organisations I talk about. They are variously known as ‘community organisations’, ‘community associations’, ‘civil society organisations’, ‘community-based organisations’, ‘voluntary community organisations’, ‘community groups’ or ‘NGOs’. Whatever they are called, they are volunteer-run organisations.

The struggle

Numerous and varied are the challenges these groups face.

The primary challenges are the related priorities of attracting and retaining members and finding sufficient funds to cover operating expenses. Soliciting donations and selling membership are the usual responses to ongoing fund raising, yet membership fees seldom generate the capital to embark on new projects. It also necessitates an unending search for new members. Focusing on attracting members can lead to too little attention on retaining them, yet membership renewal is critical to the viability of organisations. When a substantial number do not renew, organisations needs to ask themselves why. Are incentives for membership insufficient? Does the organisation address those things most important to members?

What is most important to members is an important question to ask. All too often leaders of organisations make assumptions about what members want and all too often neglect surveying members about their needs. Neglecting the question is likely to lead to a leakage of members.

Are there other factors working against people joining organisations? I was told, or I once read somewhere that younger people today are not joiners. They might support what an organisation does but few become members. The story went that they are not interested in the ongoing and often humdrum work of running organisations. They prefer a project-based model of activity for a limited time directed at achieving some tangible end. That is analogous to the working life of many people today, of fixed-term, project-based employment after which they look for the next project. I don’t know how true this is, however I have seen no argument that refutes it and I have heard comments that support it.

I put the question about why people do or do not join organisations to a friend who used to teach the Permaculture Design Certificate course, who has a long association with the design system and decades working in roles in community organisations. She said that looking back over the years there has been a high turnover of people in permaculture organisations and among those practicing permaculture outside organisations. People get enthused and do a permaculture design course, then they move on to the next thing. If true, this brings into question the high figures quoted for participation in permaculture in Australia and around the world. Are those figures documenting continuous participation or do they document numbers maintained by continuous turnover?

Recruiting members is an ongoing challenge that requires an ongoing solution. An Australian permaculture organisation recently offered the chance to win some books and a gardening tool as an incentive to join. The organisation repeated the offer a number of times. It remains to be seen how successful it will be. I suspect it is a solution that, at best, can only be offered a few times a year because it could run into the Principle of Diminishing Returns in which repeating the same thing produces fewer results over time. Repetition could drain the pool of people willing to participate in the scheme.

Attracting fee-paying members is a challenge because of competition from other community organisations also wanting to attract members and plenty of competition for attention from other areas. As in any market, this competition restrains how much organisations can ask for membership and pushes up what potential members expect from the organisation, their return on investing membership fees.

What about goodwill and altruism as membership drivers? People will join organisations they like simply to support their work without expecting any direct benefit from their membership. That is good, however I have not seen it significantly raise membership numbers or significant funds. Likewise, the practice of tithing funds.

I am going to use a couple real organisations in this piece as examples of what I talk about in attracting members and raising funds.

The age of free

Here’s the problem for many voluntary community organisations: information they would have once sold as workshops and courses to raise funds is now free.

I’m talking about two strategies used by community organisations. One offers courses and workshops on a fee-for-service basis to raise funds, attract members and popularise what it is that they are about. The other offers informal ways to learn by participating in activities. Now, in an age of free, the market for that information is being substantially fulfilled by free online resources such as we find on that great educator in the cloud, YouTube, as well as by free online offerings from other organisations and educators.

The permaculture design system provides an example. There is now enough free information about permaculture online and in books, including free online design courses, that you no longer need to do a Permaculture Design Course to fully practice permaculture. Once you did, but that was before the internet and the flood of free. People still do enroll in courses because they offer the opportunity of a short period of concentrated learning, however they do not have to join organisations to learn via informal workshops and participation.

In the age of free, an age when information about practicing something like the permaculture design system is readily available, what can permaculture organisations do to attract members?

If they continue to do what they have been doing then they should expect much the same results. Second thoughts: they should expect diminishing returns if other organisations offer much the same or better opportunities. The reason is something called competition, even when it is not deliberate. When you have two or more organisations with similar offerings within range of the same customer base, you have competition.

I watched the conversation around the question of attracting memberships as a team member of Permaculture Australia, the only NGO other than the Permaculture Research Institute with a national reach into the permaculture milieu in Australia. National reach, yes, but only to those motivated to join. The organisation has not found the hook to catch the thousands who have done a Permaculture Design Course. The Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network faces a similar challenge in attracting community garden members. Permaculture Australia attracts a limited number of memberships for altruistic reasons and a low level of funds through tithes, especially for their Permafund tax-deductible small grants scheme. Altruism, though, is a small pool soon emptied.

One reason national permaculture organisations find difficulty in attracting and keeping members is because they appear nebulous. Unless they have some clearly-defined end point for their work or a focus on a single objective achievable over the short to medium term, or a tangible product of some kind, they can appear remote from the needs of individuals. They also face difficulty because the primary allegiance within the permaculture milieu in Australia is to local and regional associations rather than national entities. People will join a local group because it offers useful tangibles like learning, in-person as well as online association with like-minded people living locally, and local actions . These physically embody the idea of permaculture practice.

Unlike local permaculture associations that offer participation in workshops and projects and attract membership with their offer of learning new skills, learning about permaculture and meeting like-minded people, Permaculture Australia and the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network offer nothing of the kind. They have to sell membership on the idea of themselves. They have no physical product to offer although Permaculture Australia does offer access to the national training scheme, Accredited Permaculture Training. How large the pool of potential members attractable on this basis might be remains unknown, but is certainly limited.

The key question that might be asked by Permaculture Australia as well as by the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network when it comes to attracting members is this: what can we offer as incentive for membership that is within our capacity to deliver?

There are answers to that but those with real potential require a lot of work by volunteers. That is not to say they cannot be done. They can. But it would take volunteer time and energy and those properties are in short supply.

Where are the answers?

I went in search of answers to the question of what voluntary organisations can offer that, in the age of free, would attract more members, increase participation and produce something saleable as a fundraiser. I ended up with a book I read some time ago by online systems and technology culture pioneer, Kevin Kelly.

Kelly describes a number of properties he says are saleable in the age of free in his book, The Inevitable. I reread the relevant chapter and realised there could be something here for poorly funded community organisations.

Let’s take a look at a strategy for organisations based on Kevin Kelly’s book, but first, let’s understand how the internet created the age of free.

A vast copy machine

The internet is a vast copying machine. The distribution of digital files, whether text, photography or video, is based on copying and transmission. This significantly reduces the distribution cost of material compared to the age of print.

The age of free rests on the ability of digital systems to make and distribute copies and to make information available that was previously accessible only through books, magazines or in-person at workshops and courses. Copyable resources are what permaculture co-founder, Bill Mollison, described as ‘resources that are unchanged by use’ — they do not diminish no matter how frequently they are used. They are also what he called ‘resources that increase with use’ because making copies multiplies the number in circulation.

Let’s take a look at book publishing to illustrate this.

Ebooks are cheaper to buy and distribute than printed copies and the reason for this is that the ebooks we buy are digital, not physical copies. We can photocopy a print edition, however the transaction cost of doing this, the time and hassle, discourage photocopying as does the legalities around it.

Both ebook and printed edition require writing, editing and graphic design. Print editions are published and the physical books distributed. When the first edition is sold out a second edition is printed and distributed providing sales have been high enough and there is ongoing demand. If those are not present the printed edition will eventually go out of circulation and become unavailable.

Digital books are different. There is only the an original file housed on a book seller’s server. When someone buys and downloads the book the total stock is not diminished because the original can be copied infinite times. It will not go out of print. Sales pay the author, publisher and distributor, such as Amazon’s Kindle books, for example. When production costs have been paid for, further copies cost little to sell, copy and distribute. New copies have what is known as ‘near-zero marginal cost’.

I had a discussion about this some years ago with UK-based publisher and seller of permaculture-related books, Maddy Harland. She said the marginal cost is not actually zero because there are ongoing costs in making the book available such as renting server capacity, online systems maintenance and human time in administering the system. That is true, however compared to printed copy production and distribution those costs are minimal and, according to tech writers, close to zero when costed over the years across large sales numbers.

Ebook publishing and distribution epitomises the dilemma community associations find themselves in when trying to offer fee-paying workshops. What they offer may already be available online free. People will still join the organisation and attend the workshop or course, however the number is likely to be fewer than would otherwise be the case. The monopoly on teaching permaculture is no longer held by permaculture associations and educators.

This leads us to ask in the age of free, in an age when things can easily be copied and freely distributed, what is it that attracts people in return for membership fees or sales?

Going by what Kelly writes it comes down to what cannot be copied. Permaculture ideas, techniques and designs are easily copied and anyone can implement them at home. There is how-to information online.

What can organisations offer that is more than what anyone can copy and download free? These are Kevin Kelly’s ‘generatives’.

Kelly’s generatives

In the pre-internet days before crowdfunding hadn’t been thought of, Australia’s Permaculture Institute, the first permaculture organisation in the country with a truly national reach, paid for the printing of its books through prepublishing sales. Those paying in advance of publishing would be the first to receive the book, usually at a discounted price. This provided immediacy and it worked. Prepublication buyers were promised immediate access on publication before the books appeared in bookshops. Their prepublication orders helped pay for printing and distribution. Combined with goodwill in helping fund publication, immediacy was saleable.

Today, organisations might offer some product, deal or opportunity before it is released on its website or before it is distributed free. This would be done in an email to members and run for only a limited time. The model has been used by online publications that offer stories first to subscribers and only after a time publish them freely on their website.

The challenge for voluntary community organisations is to find something so compelling to those who value immediacy that it would attract memberships.

The internet distributes things by copying. The same things can be value-added to attract memberships and perhaps income by personalising them.

This is done by adding something intangible to the free copy. It might be adding material that adapts the free product to specific locations or applications.

The question is how membership could be personalised. Could, for example, those living in distant parts or in difficult environments such as drylands be offered an information package on strategies for those environments in return for membership or as a paid add-on to a free resource? Could periodic updates to some basic document be offered free and exclusively to members?

The challenge here is, once people join and have a one-off resource package, what incentives will encourage them to renew membership? This is an important question that organisations face.

It is a challenge to attract members and it is often a greater challenge to retain them. An organisation with a high membership-non-renewal rate is probably not meeting member expectations and needs.

Interpretation adds meaning to something. It has to be produced by someone with specialist knowledge because it must be authoritative.

Interpretation could take the form of a subscribers or members’ newsletter analysing trends, policy, practices of other topics of relevance. It would provide insight and offer informed opinion on how things could develop and what that would mean for those engaged in the practice.

Producing interpretation such as a newsletter that contains analysis requires not only expertise in the topic but having the time to research, write and produce material on a regular basis. That is why the producer would have to be paid for their time. Interpretation is the sort of thing any organisation aiming to be an industry body would do.

In-person event have potential. Not long after the publication of David Holmgren’s Retrosuburbia book, a study circle was set up in the Victorian city of Bendigo to explore and deepen understanding of the book. The intention was to form an action circle to work on some of the ideas in the book after the study circle ended. The study circle added value to those purchasing the book (or borrowing it from the local library) by participants interpreting the content and thinking about how they could apply it. This is the sort of initiative that could be made available to organisational members to attract membership.

Later, Retrosuburbia author David Holmgren and Beck Low, who was associated with producing the book, offered paid, one-day workshops in different cities for people interested in offering retrosuburbia workshops. This interpreted the book as a teaching resource and opened opportunities for people. In doing so it also personalised the value of buying a copy.

Authenticity is to do with originality and assurance that something really is authentic and not a cheap knock-off .

David Holmgren’s signing copies of Retrosuburbia at the 2018 permaculture convergence offered authenticity as a first edition to buyers. To distinguish an online photograph or artwork as authentic a watermark can be added. Numbered and signed photographic prints or artworks certify authenticity.

How would an organisation use authenticity as an incentive for membership or to attract sales? One way would be to offer a limited, physical edition of an artwork or a photograph, numbered and signed by its creator. That could come free with membership or could be offered as a saleable item on its own.

As an incentive for membership, accessibility offers access limited to members as a reward for joining an organisation. It might be linked to ‘immediacy’ that we have already looked at.

In software development the availability of beta versions attracts those interested in early access to software or in the functions new software offers even though it comes incomplete and with bugs. How could this be reiterated for something an organisation could offer?

Offering in-depth access could be a way. A free publication could be supplemented by selling a guide for reading circles, short courses or workshops on the topics it covers. When he released Retrosuburbia, author David Holmgren could have had a study guide ready to go as an additional sale or as a free incentive for buying the book within a limited period following publication. His later in-person workshops made the book accessible as an educational resource and increased its value to those interested in teaching the topic.

Some businesses offer a free white paper through their website. The purpose is to harvest email addresses as possible sales sources for their services. A white paper, according to Wikipedia, “ is an authoritative report or guide that informs readers concisely about a complex issue and presents the issuing body’s philosophy on the matter. It is meant to help readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision.” How would an NGO or community association replicate this?

A permaculture association where the right skills were present could produce a study guide for a book and make it accessible only to members or offer it free as a membership incentive or for rejoining.

The Australian educational business, ProBlogger, offers a free online course for beginner bloggers. It is sufficient to make a start as a blogger. It also serves as a taster to its longer, in-depth, paid course. When the paid course was first released, to test it ProBlogger offered it at half its retail price to the first batch of people registering their interest. Cheap early access provided feedback that enabled the course to be tweaked and offered at full price. Win-win.

Similarly, app coders offer free basic versions of software with the option of buying or subscribing to a more capable version that includes free updates.

A mutual assistance scheme in which organisational members assist other members set up food gardens or do other things in their homes might work. Like a Victorian owner-builder scheme in the 1980s in which people built mudbrick houses, participants would assist three or so projects and then become eligible for assistance.

Another form of access, especially for any organisation wanting to grow into an industry body or to represent some practice, would be to provide access to grants, deals, jobs and useful links. Again, searching these out would be a time-consuming task for which someone should be paid.

Embodiment is meeting in person, usually around some event.

The Eastern Suburbs Sustainable Schools Network in Sydney provides a recent example. Rather than trying to attract sustainability educators to a ‘meeting’ (the word is often enough to turn people off), the ‘meetup’ dealt with organisational business and provided a tour of a historical site and instruction on engaging school children on biodiversity. Again, it was a win-win set-up, a reward for attending at the same time organisational business was dealt with. It offered reciprocity through embodiment.

The study circle mentioned in ‘accessibility’ is an example of embodiment. So were the regional get-togethers organised by the Sydney Community Gardens Network for member gardens.

Important to embodiment is conviviality. It must be fun as well as offering collaboration and sharing and learning . It must be affordable to members with the lowest incomes.

Embodiment is a great complement to online connection. It attracts only those in the region unless it is a more ambitious national conference. The biennial Australian permaculture convergences are examples of embodiment.

Patreon is an online service that simplifies the channeling of funds to bloggers and others from those appreciating their work and who want to contribute something so they can continue. We can think of Patreon as code for altruism.

The usual way organisations tap into altruism is through asking for donations. This works but it is something that can only be done periodically otherwise members will tire of the constant ask. Patreon simplifies one-off as well as continuing altruism.

Rather than mounting a campaign to raise donations, Petreon appears as an option on web page footers, so it is always there quietly and unobtrusively as a constant request. It may be something worth adapting for community-based organisations.

Another form of patronage would be between members. Were an organisation to set up an online system where members could buy and sell with each other, a kind of internal market would be created. There would be potential to adapt the cashless LETS (Local Exchange and Trading System) model, a form of mutual credit through which to trade.

Findability navigates the plethora of information we swim in. It has to do with intermediation and access.

An example are bloggers who do the research and publish a story that links to other articles on a topic. It might take the form of The Ten Best Guides to Getting Started in Permaculture, for example. It does the work of searching out information of value so that others do not have to and making it available as a reward for membership. The organisation intermediates between information and member.

Making information findable has the potential to add value to an organisation. To retain that value, the information would not be available to non-members or would become available after only some time.

Additional points

In addition to Kelly’s eight points, there are others.

What would a community organisation offer that is available only to members and that is not freely available elsewhere? This has to be something that is more or less unique and that cannot be copied and downloaded.

An example from the community gardens network was the idea of offering cheap public liability insurance for members gardens. An insurance broker was consulted and said it would be possible to do this, however the value to the organisation fell when other sources of cheap insurance cover became available from a couple other horticultural organisations in return for joining them. That demonstrated how only first-movers can take advantage of an idea that is copyable. Insurance was not something that could be made exclusive.

The biannual Australian permaculture convergences can be attended only by those with a Permaculture Design Certificate, another example of exclusivity.

Social networks provide value through network effects.

The Network Effect describes how the value of a network is proportional to the number of active nodes — members, in our instance.

The permaculture conversation is largely on Facebook because of preferential attachment — permaculture practitioners go to Facebook because their colleagues are there. Unfortunately, Facebook is no place for in-depth conversation.

The network effect has potential to create interpersonal bonds between members of an organisation or practice and, were an online conversation space to be set up and its use stimulated by an organisation, there would be the possibility of creating greater cohesion within the organisation and, perhaps, generating ideas to boost membership.

From idling to movement

Competition for attention, for membership and for funding remains a challenge for voluntary organisations. No more so than now that the internet makes it possible for many organisations to publicly seek those things.

The question for organisational leadership is this: in five years time, will your organisation be involved in innovative new projects or will it still be struggling to do what it is already doing?

The answer is contingent on the availability of imagination and know-how as well as on the organisational leadership’s willingness to change. Kevin Kelly’s generatives might just provide the edge needed to push the organisation from idling to movement.


Ideas for and stories about a new version of the…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store