Fighting for freerecyling

The Blissful Ignorance Debate

A conversation I want is to deepen the debate around non-profit corporate status. Currently the only free recycling website that has adopted this approach is TFN. In fact the problems that this blog highlights are insinuated by many critics to be at least in part and arguably largely the fault of TFN becoming a non-profit organisation. This is interesting since any non-profit consultant will say that going non-profit is a “good” thing since it has tax advantages, provides limitation of liability and so on. You can read a reasonably good list of the so-called pros on

The two weird things are that no-one speaks against the idea of becoming a non-profit so de-facto that’s where an organisation might head. Secondly, almost to a person any of the 100’s and possibly lower 1000’s of disaffected group moderators and owners who have left TFN over the years would argue that its non-profit status has done it absolutely no favours. Why this discrepancy?

That’s what I would like right now to instigate an analysis into and following a few more comments I open the floor, either to respond here or more appropriately on say fcnext or International Freecycle Modsquad, or both since they both often exhibit radically different and free-thinking perspectives.

To help you understand my thinking let me assert what I think is wrong with being a non-profit for TFN. Being a non-profit has meant that to TFN that:

  • it has become a company and following this action it has moved it clearly away from being a grassroots movement, and
  • in so doing it has become increasing totally controlling of its member and groups as if they owned them, and
  • it has become a self-serving organisation where everyone and everything else is deemed to owe TFN something and
  • to build up company assets it has then gone down the disastrous cliff-path of trademarking and
  • it has become dependent on funds from a single partisan company for its future existence and
  • with that funding particularly arguably affecting the decisions of its most executive officer since his salary is tied to this.

Those are at least contentious statements, I agree. But what if I hypothesise and play devil’s advocate for a moment and ask, “What if TFN closed its doors totally tomorrow.”

What would happen? I would argue that it would have absolutely no effect on existing or new groups and landfill would still be avoided etc. Yes a number of groups might have a hiccup or two. But other free-recycling website directories and support would pick everything up – in an instant. Support forums already exist and are tried and tested. The rules for running groups are well documented and also tried and tested.

If there is ANY truth in that assertion then it is absolutely key to everything we think about, in my opinion concerning this debate.

If true then fundamentally it is wrong for TFN to ever to have incorporated itself. And all the debacle that has ensued through its turbulent history is because in its heart of hearts its executives, its GOAs, its NGAs, its moderators know that TFN owes infinitely more to its groups, its moderators and its members than the other way round.

Where would TFN be today without any groups, without any members? Sadly I conclude that incorporating as a non-profit simply has been a smoke-screen to make incorporation look palatable, with the boast, “we’re a non-profit so we must be good.”

Remember and this is key to my thinking. Free recycling is not like a normal traditional “charity”. It is an Internet movement full of grassroots volunteers that come out of nowhere and that requires no central resources – and to a large extent it requires no centre.

If you want the one thing at the centre that is needed – it is a directory. And why is a separate directory required? It is because Yahoo Groups directory simply does not work. Good though Yahoo Groups directory is, it is a general purpose directory system covering many other groups and needs and so cannot and does not focus on free recycling. In fact it does not even have either a free recycling or freecycle category, as any group founder knows.

With a decent directory supporting Yahoo groups functionality the 4, 5 or even 6 million members across all free-recycling groups inside and outside TFN can continue free-recycling with no knowledge of this blog, of TFN and any controversy for as long as Yahoo and similar group providers continue to do what they do so well, and all for free. If you do not believe me set of a Google news or blog alert for the word “freecycle”. Any number of news and blog articles appear daily, all created by individuals who have no allegiance to TFN per se. They are all just excited about giving and receiving items locally over Yahoo Groups. They are not going to stop just because TFN might have a problem: members are just going to carry on free-recycling in blissful ignorance.


July 23, 2007 - Posted by | freecycle, non-profit status, trademark

1 Comment »

  1. Andy,

    There are lots of groups that are non-profit corporations and are still effective and are still grassroots. Think of “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” and “Neighbourhood Watch”.

    A central organization can be very helpful to a network of groups in helping each local group to learn from the other.

    The difference here is in style of management, from what I can see. Top-down, centrally controlled, hierarchical management with non-voting structure and a small Board of Directors controlled by the Executive Director will be a problem for a grassroots network that needs a bottom-up, member driven, democratically elected Board of Directors, openness and transparency type of governance.

    It’s not the non-profit status that’s the problem. It’s the style of governance that’s been chosen (by the leadership).


    Comment by Norm Ruttan | July 23, 2007 | Reply

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