[hackerspaces] What form of organization does your hackerspace use?

Nick Farr (hackerspaces.org) nick at hackerspaces.org
Sun Oct 18 23:08:58 CEST 2009

Well, this is the draft of the article on the "Board" form of spaces.
I'm not exactly thrilled with it, so I hope you guys can provide some
feedback to make the post better before it goes live on Tuesday:

Note: This is the second specific installment of a five part series on
Hackerspace organization called “Hackerspaces and Money: Five

One point I glossed over is why I believe that money and
organizational forms are so intertwined when it comes to hackerspaces.
 This series could have been called, "Hackerspaces and Organizational
Forms: Five Approaches."  Admittedly, I'm not talking much about
money, how to find it, raise it or spend it.  I haven't talked much
about fundraising, accounting or project management, though I plan to
in the future.  In my observation, what happens in Hackerspaces
doesn't need to be managed or carefully organized.  Once Hackers
gather in a space, they'll begin creating and collaborating in ways
that are remarkably similar regardless of culture, language or
organizational form.  Projects and programs that happen in one space
can easily happen in other spaces, only marginally constrained by the
organizational form in practice.

I believe the "magic" that happens in Hackerspaces is universal, as
are the two necessary evils:  Money and how to manage it.  Being
physical spaces, Hackerspaces have real costs and real opportunities
for meeting those costs.  Being collaborative spaces, the procedure
for paying the bills involves some kind of relationship among the
collaborators--that relationship is what we're looking at when we
discuss organizational forms.  Failing to understand this relationship
among the collaborators makes any discussion of funding very
difficult.   At the same time, carefully understanding these
relationships as they've happened elsewhere gives future Hackerspaces
the best chance of finding the right form for their own effort.

These forms are also heavily tied to the core source of income for
each space.  The Anarchy form, for example, implies that the rents for
a space are essentially appropriated.  The Angel form implies that
they're donated.  The Owner form implies that they're taken care of by
a single participant, who generally subsidizes them.  Both the Board
and Membership forms implies that these costs are paid collectively by
the participants, most often through membership dues.  Hackerspaces,
regardless of form, can solicit donations from the public, host
classes for a fee, throw rent parties, sell shirts online, or
Club-Mate in the space.  However, each of those activities is handled
differently depending on the form.
The Board Form

The Artifactory, Kwartzlab, Collexion, and Revelation Space are all
different examples of the "Board" form.  While each space heavily
relies on its membership, each space has an involved subset of members
that makes decisions.  In a way, the "Board Form" is the least
well-defined of the five forms and most prone to combination with
other forms.  Founder Todd Wiley describes Collexion as a hybrid of
the Angel and Board forms:

    Our board consists of people from our local chamber of commerce,
universities, and higher ups at the local big-name tech companies
(Lexmark & HP).  This helps give us the legitimacy we need to raise
funds.  The board likes that they are fostering innovation, and see it
is an economic development boost, because Lexington loves brains more
than zombies do.  The board is glad to help us organize things, find
money, and host events, but most ideas come from the membership, where
there isn't a set hierarchy...By relying on outside sources we're
going to make membership as accessible as possible ($5 / month for
students).  The less barriers there are to experimenting the
better...I think it will be successful, and free up hackers to hack,
and those that are interested enough can take the reins and try to
find monies.

This series was inspired by Koen Martins, who also describes
Revelation Space as a hybrid of the Membership and Board forms:

    As you might remember, we from revspace (den haag) were in doubt
about the structure to choose. In the end we settled for the
'stichting', basically number four, mixed with elements of a
'vereniging', number 5. The board is ultimately responsible, however
we define 'participants' that have the right to install and deinstall
the board, as well as advise the board.

In many cases, a Membership space will have a Board of Directors.
However, this doesn't mean the space is taking on a Board Form,
especially when a Board is required by corporate law.

The functional power that board has is the determining factor.  If the
Board is essentially a paper tiger, with the membership in functional
control of affairs, the space is probably best suited to the
Membership form.  Punkin describes Kwartzlab as an example:

    Legally, we're Corporation Without Share Capital (Not-for-Profit),
which matches "The Board". We opted not to register as a Co-operative
(which would more closely match "The Membership"), because the laws
governing Co-operatives are more restrictive, without offering us any
useful benefits. But the Co-operative or "Membership" philosophy
closely matches our vision for the space, so we borrow heavily from it
in our bylaws, policies, and procedures...We are 100% member funded
(with all members paying the same level of  dues), which was also very
important to our initial membership. Any of the big decisions (like
how much dues will be) are subject to a member vote, and all
members-in-good-standing get an equal vote.

So, for lack of a better definition, if your space is primarily
controlled by your members, it follows the Membership form.  If the
members leave most of the decisions and money matters to a subset, it
probably follows the Board form.  Landing firmly in one category or
another is not necessarily that important, as long as the
relationships of each are well understood.  Some Membership spaces may
functionally slip back into a Board form, just like Board spaces often
migrate into Membership spaces, or use the Board form as a
bootstrapping step.

David Cake describes how the Artifactory is using the Board Form to
bootstrap their way into a Membership Hackerspace:

    Our brand new Perth space is a board elected by the membership,
and so far while the board has been doing a lot of the work and taking
the lead on a lot of the decisions, meetings with the entire members
are making most of the major decisions. So I guess we fit into the
membership category really, even though the board are making a lot of
important decisions in the process of getting us up and running.

Raymond describes how Makers Local 256 used the Board form to
bootstrap their effort:

    Makers Local 256 is a non-profit 501c3 and would be considered
"the membership" based, but I guess started out as "the board" based
since the board is the original 10 members (changing soon given new
bylaws and elections).

Makers Local 256 followed the critical mass pattern in establishing
their hackerspace, with their original 10 members fulfilling the role
of the 2+2 model.  Their unique dues model describes how a Board can
help build membership in the early stages:

    The original 10 pledged a monthly donation that they could afford
and we found a space that fit within that budget. We decided that
extending this to new membership was a good idea and so we don't have
to turn away someone who might offer a lot but might not have a lot of
money.   A monthly pledge doesn't have to be monetary but does fall
under board discretion to ensure that said pledge benefits the space.


The notable advantages of a Board space are formal organization with
less administrative overhead from the participants, as well a greater
degree of formal control vested in fewer people.  In most cases where
there isn't a hybrid form with another style of organization, the
advantages are remarkably similar to those of a Membershp
organization.  Here, I'm looking at advantages of a Board form

    * Anarchy: Board spaces are (generally) official legal structures
with explicit expectations and guidelines for operation and more
stable bases of operation.
    * Angel: Most Angel arrangements take on some kind of Board form.
As in the case with Collexion, these Angels offer advice and consult
with the organization through their board.  The advantages of having a
board include greater independence.  In the hybrid form, the advantage
of having a board generally involves a defined role for the Angels and
the ability to swap or separate Angels if need be.
    * The Owner: Sometimes an Owner space will have a small, informal
group of advisers.  However, the purpose of a Board is to have a group
of people who make decisions as a group on behalf of the stakeholders.
 In this case, the Board is somewhat accountable to its stakeholders
whereas Owners may not be as accountable.  Board spaces generally
offer greater freedom and flexibility and rarely exercise a kind of
“veto power” that Owners have by default.
    * Membership: Board run organizations tend to mediate disputes and
prevent certain routine issues from getting to the Membership level.
Generally, this means more time for members to enjoy their space.


The notable disadvantages over alternative forms are also similar to
the Membership form:

    * Anarchy: Board spaces must periodically file paperwork, support
the space through dues, stay on top of other legal requirements and
fulfill their stated obligations.  This leaves less time for projects,
hanging out, etc.
    * Angel: In the non-Angel form, Board members are often saddled
with the heavy burden of coming up with the funds to run the space,
and make tough calls on funding issues.
    * The Owner: Instead of having an owner to rely on for collecting
and paying the rent, easily making special arrangements, mitigating
disagreements among participants and having one “final say” on
matters, Board members must come to agreement on certain issues or
figure out ways to work around issues.
    * Membership: Ultimately, the Board is responsible for issues and
decisions that otherwise might have been made by the membership.
While the Board can occasionally punt, even a routine decision may run
afowl of the membership and lead to difficulties.


The Board form is good for Bootstrapping, and depending on the
environment, a next best form to the Membership model.  Hackers are
generally bad at paperwork and group dynamics, so having a Board to
take care of the administrative overhead and mediate disputes can help
ensure continuity and sustainability.  It also works well as a hybrid
with other forms, or as a means for acting as a firewall between
Angels, Owners and Members.

As always, feel free to ask questions on the Hackerspaces Discuss
list, or reach out to these spaces directly.

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