Liberatory Technology

The transformative potential I see in Open Collective 👀(transparent money management tool)

Zahra Davidson
Transformational Governance Universe
10 min readJun 3, 2023

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I’m working on 2 projects, both using Open Collective in slightly different ways, and both highlighting the interesting potential held by Open Collective for changing how we collaborate, how we organise our governance, and how we work together.

This blog contains:

  • A little bit about both projects, for context.
  • 7 areas of transformative potential offered by Open Collective.

The 2 projects:

1/ Tranformational Governance stewarding group

Back in spring 2022 I joined the Transformational Governance stewarding group, a collective formed to explore and enact ‘Transformational Governance’, with funding from Lankelly Chase. Here’s our purpose:

Our vision is of a society in which institutions and organisations are supported and held accountable by inclusive, open, transformational governance that invites change, redistributes power, and enables everyone to thrive.

As a stewarding group we are focusing on the following activity: practicing collaborative governance in the way that we work together, creating a resourced inquiry space for those working to transform governance, and nurturing a community of people all practicing transformational governance in their own way.

Facilitators and participants of our first resourced inquiry space ‘Power Shift’

As soon as I joined the stewarding group I got involved with our finance working group. This was not a typical choice for me, but I was thinking I should go against my biases and see what I could learn.

We knew we wanted to use Open Collective (OC) to manage and distribute our grant from Lankelly Chase, because the open, transparent and collaborative approach reflected the values behind our vision, and because it felt like a great action learning opportunity for us. I was totally new to OC and had never used it before.

The way it works is that groups of people can set up a ‘collective’ on the OC platform, here’s ours. As we’re an unincorporated group we needed a ‘fiscal host’; essentially an organisation also on the platform that agrees to hold our grant in their bank account and distribute it as and when we approve payments (and without taking any control over the £ or the decisions). We decided that Huddlecraft would be our fiscal host, giving me a dual role to play in the collective (collective member and fiscal host).

We have been distributing our grant amongst our collective members who are working on the project, and more recently amongst the people and organisations taking part in Power Shift (our first resourced inquiry space).

It was quite a steep learning curve to get everything set up and working properly, but it was worth it, and we’ve now been using it for almost a year. Once we got going and I had a real, ‘felt’ sense of how it works, I started to see the potential and opportunities offered by the platform.

2/ Collective Imagination Practice Community

This year Huddlecraft has begun a collaboration with Canopy and Centre for Public Impact, to host the Collective Imagination Practice Community across 2023–24, this time funded by Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Emerging Futures Team. One aspect of our hosting activity for the year is that we have a small Practice Fund of £100k to distribute within the community. In many ways it is an experiment and we are aiming to facilitate decision making and distribution in a light-touch way, with and for the community. Of course this is easier said than done!

The Collective Imagination Practice Community assembling online

Once again it seemed like a no brainer to use Open Collective (OC), particularly as Huddlecraft was already set up to play the role of fiscal host.

Whereas with the Transformational Governance group we are sharing and distributing the grant largely to ourselves and those working on the project, with the Practice Fund the money is to be distributed to a wider community for a wider array of purposes. It is early days for this project and we’re still preparing to distribute the funds.

As hosts we are holding responsibility to set up our approach and processes, to engage the community in this, and to attempt to grow a sense of shared ownership and accountability within the community. We are forming a ‘Fund Circle’: a group of 3 members of the community, including 1 member of our hosting team, who’ll take responsibility for giving the go ahead to funding requests that meet the guidelines, and giving no gos to things that don’t.

The Practice Fund is currently open for its first requests. I’m expecting to learn very quickly over the next couple of months about what’s working and what isn’t.

The transformative potential:

Here are some of the opportunities presented by Open Collective (OC), as I currently see them.

1/ Potential to unblock power bottle necks, by decentralising financial management

OC gives you the opportunity to move the organising of finances away from a small group of specialist experts, into the centre of a collective. This feels empowering, to realise that it is actually relatively simple and we can all do it. This changes the conversation and distributes power differently.

Accumulations and blockages of power usually reflect accumulations of money and resources. Power and money move together. So, if OC allows you to unblock or distribute the management of finances, it follows that doing so can unblock or distribute power as well.

We have seen this in the Transformational Governance stewarding group. Usually you might expect to see power accumulate around the original people who secured the funding, particularly if they are holding and distributing the funds. In my opinion we have almost entirely avoided this through our use of OC. I don’t think I have any better examples of distribution of this kind of ‘source’ power.

Likewise, if a project had a fiscal host without using OC, you would probably see power start to accumulate around the fiscal host, who would need to play a larger role in approving payments and managing the money. I did wonder if this would inadvertantly start to happen as Huddlecraft stepped into this role, but fortunately I don’t think it has.

2/ Potential for ownership of a community, group or project to be more fluid — or for their to be no ownership at all

In the same way that OC can make power more fluid and distributed within a group or community, it can also help to shake up the ownership structure. OC helps the identity of the group exist separately to the individuals within it, opening up more possibility for membership and roles to shift and change whilst the overall activity continues.

Of course this is also what incorporation does: employees come and go without becoming synonimous with the organisation or owning it. But the obvious difference is that meanwhile, ownership of companies is fixed into the hands of the shareholders. OC allows things to exist without ownership. That is such a big shift in perspective.

As a founder of an incorporated organisation I find myself really craving this freedom at Huddlecraft, this feeling that ownership is more fluid and movable. Perhaps OC could enable more of this fluidity.

With the Transformational Governance stewarding group there are no owners. There is a funder and there are people within the stewarding group who were part of birthing the project. But there is potential for it to be passed on to a totally different stewarding group in the future, including none of the original members. And importantly, this shift would require no complex/boring/legal transfer of ownership processes!

It’s a glimpse into a post-ownership world, and wow! There’s a lot less bureaucracy.

With the Collective Imagination Practice Community it’s much more nascent, but it could be possible for the community to ‘own’ the community, if the current and future funders continue to facilitate that possibility.

3/ Potential to imagine — and act — beyond organisational boundaries

The Transformational Governance stewarding group is an unincorporated collective which includes individuals and organisations. Whilst there may be downsides to this, the big upside is that we have been able to operate as peers, without the need for a ‘lead organisation’ or for freelancers to only be involved as sub-contractors (automatically placing them lower in the power pecking order than organisations invovled).

This feels incredibly refreshing because it takes a lot of nonsensical, purely bureaucratic hierarchy and assumption and just puts it in the bin. A bit like starting with a blank (or blank-er) sheet of paper.

However, we can’t escape the nonsensical bureaucracy entirely. We are probably quite limited in terms of the resources that could shift into collaborations like ours. Many funders or foundations would require incorporation or other boxes to be checked. But OC is at least allowing us to demonstrate the possibilities of working in this way.

I often find myself frustrated by organisational boundaries between groups working on the same mission, who end up in competition with each other, by proxy. This can seem like such a waste and a duplication of effort. Whilst I‘m yet to test this theory, I feel sure OC holds great potential for moving this challenge forward too.

4/ Potential to enable healthy adult-adult working relationships and culture

As described above, OC makes it possible for someone to represent an organisation, and someone to be freelance, and for that relationship to be equal, instead of the organisation paying the freelancers, thereby creating a parent-child relationship.

It’s no shock that parent-child dynamics within adult-adult relationships mostly don’t add up to healthy culture. Within the Transformational Governance stewarding group I see OC as having equalised or neutralised some of these dynamics, enabling a really peer-led approach to team work.

I don’t mean to say there won’t be any power dynamics within the group, but that OC helps create good foundational conditions for the team to relate to each other as peers. In other words we have a greater chance of creating healthy culture because the game isn’t rigged against us from the start.

I’ve really enjoyed seeing how this team of 7 has worked together, co-leading the group. It doesn’t mean everyone is leading all the time, there’s space for people’s roles to ebb and flow, and perhaps it could be said that some lead more often than others. But I think this reflects the amount of capacity people have, rather than reflecting how power has accumulated.

5/ Potential for ‘hygeine’: accountability derived from public transparency instead of control

Even though it is unlikely that anyone is eagle-eyeing your OC collective all the time, there’s something about knowing that what you’re doing can be seen publicly that, naturally, ups the accountability. Integrity is encouraged, which feels healthy. There is something cleansing about feeling that the accountability comes from the fact that anyone can see how you’ve spent your money, not just your funder.

With the Collective Imagination Practice Community we will have a transparent, open record of exactly who the £100k Practice Fund has been distributed to. This is brilliant, and a little bit daunting, because there‘s nowhere to hide.

However there is also much that OC won’t make transparent for us. For example, our decision making process for who receives money and who doesn’t will not be visible unless we work to create that transparency. We’re thinking about how we can bring some visibility without incurring significantly more work, or turning what was meant to be a light touch process into an onerous one.

6/ Potential to transform approaches to funding

Both projects include a funder moving resources into a community, and allowing governance of those resources to happen within the community. Through this we can glimpse many more opportunities for funders to fund communities (whether they’re local, practice-based, distributed etc.) who are accountable to themselves, their network and/or their audience — rather than to the funder. Or at least that the balance of accountability has shifted.

This could change the role of the funder who can put more focus on distribution of larger chunks of funding, reducing the cost of their operations, and giving more opportunity for others to do the work of decision making ‘on the ground’, within the community, and (probably) with greater legitimacy.

It would be a great outcome of hosting the Collective Imagination Practice Community over the next year if we were able to provide a ‘how to’ for funders and communities that could help similar pots pop up elsewhere. Assuming good things happen as a result of this one!

It also seems that OC opens up new opportunities for multiple funders to fund the same collective or project. But I haven’t really turned this stone over yet. One for the future.

7/ An opportunity to work where the old and new system meet

It feels important to recognise that it’s not all roses and butterflies. On the surface using OC feels like operating in a new system. But this doesn’t mean we can just cancel the old system. There is duplication of effort involved, behind the scenes.

On the surface the fiscal host presents as a passive enabler of the autonomous collective. And culturally it is that way. But behind the curtain Huddlecraft’s accountant still has to account for every penny spent by the collective, as if the grant belongs to Huddlecraft, not to the collective. This is frustrating because it feels like we’re tethered to the old ways, and can only ‘perform’ the new way. (This is also why fiscal hosts need fees because there is more work involved in providing this service than meets the eye).

But whilst this is frustrating, there is potential here too. We must perform the new system before it can come into being. Using OC has really felt like a chance to work in the uncomfortable fracture between old and new! It’s a lesson in the practicalities of system change. You don’t spring from one system to another. Cycles from old to new are not painless.

I’m also interested in what the cumulative effect might be as more and more accountants are brought into contact with OC and a different way of doing things! Using OC at Huddlecraft has definitely brought a complication to our accountants that they didn’t ask for. But perhaps it’s of value that when you decide to work at this uncomfortable juncture between old and new, you must bring others along with you?

If you were interested in this blog you might be interested in an upcoming event of the same title Liberatory Technology, about cutting through the hype of emerging internet technologies.

Thanks for reading! I welcome you to comment, let me know what’s missing, pass this on to someone who would be interested, or get in touch via zahra@huddlecraft.com

Particular thanks to Sarah McAdam, our chat directly informed this post!

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