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 about.com.
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.
I really feel for TFN. The bureaucratic effort required to complete any company return is a challenge. TFN has made the effort in filing end of year June 2006 Form 990, which is available for public inspection over the Internet from the Foundation Centre. It was such a challenge that they even forgot to mention their website, which since it occurred on the first page is rather surprising. Probably a trivial oversight.
I don’t pretend to be an expert, and hey I would not want to fill in this form. I do however see one change that will have to be made in the next filing. One question is whether they have made any representations to government on political issues, which of course TFN has this year when it made a submission officially to the UK government regarding its Climate Change Bill. But that is next year’s return.
Also available for public inspection are the companies filings for the Arizona Corporate Commission.
I am absolutely sure there is nothing wrong with these. As I say anyone wishing to fill in formal documents often has to get expert advice as to what is important and what is not, and what to write in which boxes to do proper justice. But people have asked for more information regarding the financials and both of these are publicly available for that exact reason.