Case studies of Cooperative Development: Free Geek
I just posted a series of reflections on the CooperationWorks! co-op development training, and I’ll wrap up here by sharing a series of case studies on different kinds of cooperatives in development. During this research, I found the array of models and issues to be fascinating — yet the challenges appear to be quite similar.
This one’s about Free Geek.
Free Geek is a worker-managed non-profit organization that recycles, refurbishes and redistributes computers and open source technology to people and organizations in need.
Launched in 2000, the original Free Geek in Portland (aka “the Mothership”) currently employs 32 paid staff members (some part-time) — and counts as many as 700 active volunteers in a given month.
There are three primary components of the Free Geek model:
Reusing computers and technology by giving them away in exchange for community service
Recycling computers that do not get reused in an environmentally responsible way.
Providing education and training in the use of computers and technology.
Mid-way through its lifespan, the original Free Geek reported that its income was largely revenue-based, from sales and recycling and disposal fees; just about a quarter of revenue was from traditional fundraising (private donations, grants, events). (The main Free Geek wiki only posts financial reports up through 2005.)
Free Geek has also ‘open sourced’ its model, providing extensive documentation and a roadmap for communities who are interested in starting their own organizations. As a result, ‘Free Geek Intergalactic’ contains as many as a dozen organizations throughout the US and Canada.
According to Oso Martin in an interview with Dowser.org, Free Geek started as a simple solution to three separate problems: “Some people have too many computers; others don’t have enough; and there is a glut of computers going to landfills. Mash those together, and the solution is Free Geek.”
Martin had been working for an organization that undertakes urban ‘placemaking’ projects, and was helping to organize Portland’s Earth Day 2000 event. During an Earth Day coalition meeting, he briefly proposed a refurbishing project for a supply of “junky, old computers” that had been donated to the organization.
Martin recalls: “the next morning the campaign director of Green House Network called me and said, ‘I told the executive director about your idea. He wants to give you a check for $250 to file for your 501(c)(3) status, and we have 50 computers at Lewis and Clark College that you can have.’”
Martin quickly came up with the Free Geek name, put up a website, and within a few days had been approached by a supportive party who provided $35,000 worth of start-up funding. He acknowledges the serendipity: “Nobody was doing computer refurbishing on such a large scale and using open-source software, and being in Portland made it a lot easier to use a community-based approach.”
Free Geek’s wiki details the timeline from there: Free Geek’s inception came at the beginning of 2000, just months before the bursting of the Dot-Com bubble yielded both economic recession and a glut of unemployed tech workers. Free Geek incorporated on April 13th and its public debut was less than two weeks later at Earth Day 2000. They opened doors on a facility in September of that year.
“In the earliest days random technically savvy volunteers built the computers we gave away, which were first disbursed in exchange for 12 hours of volunteer work. There was no standard specification for the computers, nor any systematic quality control.” As word spread, they quickly needed to expand the skilled volunteer pool while also standardizing the output, so they organized regular ‘build classes.’
Richard Seymour, whose official title at Free Geek is “That Man Behind the Curtain”, tells Jim Johnson that the staff collective was established shortly after Free Geek opened. Still, decisions were made early on by consensus. Originally, there were “periodic ‘Big Meetings’” but most people preferred to make decisions and do work in workgroups.
The Free Geek wiki mentions early struggles for survival, including uncertainty about whether they would be able to pay rent or cash checks, and the challenge of acquiring their own space. As the organization began to consider opening a storefront, charging small fees for monitors, and selling systems. This consideration was controversial, and prompted the formation of a “Council” to ensure that all participating community members could participate in the strategic decision-making processes.
Meanwhile, its model became more sophisticated as its funding pool expanded. The organization used $159,000 from Meyer Memorial Trust to boost capacity by expanding into an unused portion of its building and to develop internal staff infrastructure. According to the Portland Business Journal (“Free Geek’s open path to prosperity,” Jan 15 2004), Meyer Memorial “ realized the wide-ranging implication of reducing technology costs among the scores of nonprofits supported [by the Foundation]… Meyer Memorial now requests that technology grant applicants consult with Free Geek to determine whether lower-cost open source software might be a solution.”
Free Geek also arranges for consulting to non-profits that use open source software, helping to recruit and place consultants with organizations in need for either a fee-based or pro-bono term, depending on the organizations’ means.
Expansion to other cities
Jim Johnson quotes Richard Seymour: “When people heard about it in other parts of country and other countries, some wanted to start similar organizations, and some of them also wanted to use the name….We started out loose and Open Source, and we were a little bit informal about how we licensed and managed the use of the name.”
The Free Geek Mothership soon became more involved in the process: “As we’ve gotten older, these issues start to accumulate and we start to say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get more careful about how we do this – right now we’re in the whole process of redefining, and hopefully coming up with an approach a bit more like [the Bay Area co-op developer] Arizmendi Bakeries… being very careful about how the name is used as a new one starts up.” (See “Principles,” below.)
Today, the Free Geek Mothership is providing less and less support to new startups, but there is extensive documentation, a rigorous application process and a listserv dedicated to providing support for prospective applicants. Prospective Free Geek groups are encouraged to research and engage with the community via the startup list. (One documented proposal suggests the offer of intensive Boot Camps on site at a functioning Free Geek; funding would be needed for this sort of training.)
Addendum – by email, Richard Seymour says: “We are currently asking that new startups do not use the name Free Geek. In order to protect the value of the Free Geek trademark, we need to be in constant communication with other groups using that name, and we do not have the resources to do that at this time.”
Free Geek is an incorporated non-profit 501(c)3 organization, and its staff make more or less a livable wage in employment. As a non-profit, the organization can accept tax deductible donations of both cash and equipment. Richard Seymour elaborates by email:
There are many types of cooperatives, and to some extent Free Geek has operated a bit like a consumer coop where we try to open decision-making up to a wide variety of volunteers. It can be a challenge to find competent board members from the volunteer pool, especially as the organization grows and needs more professional guidance from its board and managers. Modeling a group like Free Geek after a worker-coop where the staff are the board is not advised since 501(c)(3) nonprofits are aimed at benefiting the public in general and worker coops are aimed at benefiting the workers specifically. This can create a number of conflicts of interest.
The Free Geek mission statement explains the reciprocal cooperative foundation at its core: “Free Geek recycles used technology to provide computers, education, internet access and job skills training to those in need in exchange for community service.”
Refurbished computers are redistributed by Free Geek in three ways: they can be purchased in its store, granted out to organizations and public agencies, or claimed in exchange for a certain number of hours of volunteers service. In turn, most of the actual manual labor at Free Geek is done by volunteers.
Kevin Cole, reporting from the Free Geek Mothership, notes that there are two different of volunteer programs: Adoption (which receives donations, assesses their utility, and breaks them down into component parts if necessary) and Build (which refurbishes computers for new lives).
The Adoption program… takes in donated computers and other electronics, breaks them down into component parts (if necessary) and classifies them as reusable, recyclable or trash. The components are boxed then sent to the warehouse for the build program or for recycling / disposal. …
After 24 hours of volunteer time in the adoption program, volunteers receive a free computer with Ubuntu installed, and a 2.5- to 3-hour class covering setup of their new computer, basic usage, and additional instructions for learning media applications. The class is designed to be friendly enough to include people who have never used a computer before. Also recipients receive one year of technical support — provided the system remains an Ubuntu system.
The Build program requires more skill: First, volunteers in the Build program begin with a 2.5- to 3-hour community-based IT class that introduces topics including:
how to identify the basic components of a computer (e.g. motherboards, hard disks and hard disk controllers, video controllers and power supplies)
the current specs for Free Geek machines (e.g. minimum acceptable memory and hard disk size)
the proper methods of handling and disposing of the previous owner’s data (e.g. destruction of hard disks, not starting computers that have not yet been erased, etc.)
Armed with that knowledge, volunteer builders then move on to Systems Evaluation where they examine hardware which has been dropped off, determining if there are any salvageable parts suitable for refurbished computers. Whenever possible, parts deemed non-refurbishable are further deconstructed for recycling. In order to “graduate” from Systems Evaluation to Quality Control (the next step), volunteers must pass their Systems Evaluation skills on to an incoming “freshman” in the Build program under the watchful eye of an instructor. In Quality Control, volunteers test computers built by other volunteers, making sure they’re ready to go out into the world. After performing QC on five machines, they are ready to move into the actual “build” phase of the Build program.
Once volunteers in the build program have successfully built five machines, they are eligible for the same benefits that are offered to the adoption program volunteers: a computer with a year of free maintenance and the setup & basic usage class.
Kevin reports an estimate of 60-100 hours for completion of the Build program.
Tours of the site and operations are available twice a day for curious parties, and new volunteers participate in orientation.
Trained volunteers are an important organizational output in and of themselves.
From Geemodo, 12.04.2006:
Not all of our volunteers are low-income, but many are,” says Shawn Furst, Free Geek’s volunteer coordinator. “By getting them computers and skills, we’re helping them take a big step up in the job world. If they go through our entire computer-building program — where they’re actually doing every step of the process — all of a sudden they’re up about seven steps.
“There are other places where you can learn the same things you can learn at Free Geek,” chimes in Kermit Jensen, a corporate high-tech veteran who’s become an indefatigable Free Geek volunteer in retirement. “But they would charge you up to $1500 a week.”
Richard Seymour writes:
We currently receive no revenue from workforce training, though we have received a small amount in the past. Other non-freegeek-but-similar groups, however, do focus more on this. InterConnection in Seattle is one. EmpowerUp in Eugene is another.
We *have* received much benefit from working with workforce training programs. Doing this provides us with volunteer labor that is more consistent than the average person wanting to work 24 hours for a free computer or learn how to build but then leave. Workforce training volunteers who do work at Free Geek receive wages from an outside agency, so they have a bigger stake in sticking around.
Community Technology Center
The Free Geek in Portland also contains a library with banks of computers available for use, alongside technical books (mostly about open source technology) which are available for check-out. And the Free Geek thrift store is open to the general public, containing full systems as well as parts available for purchase. The store also runs with volunteer labor, and volunteers earn a 20% discount after 3 hours of store work.
Literature and classes are available in both English and Spanish.
In 2008, Free Geek was awarded a contract by the Portland City Council to e-cycle up to 1,000 computers each year from the City of Portland’s public agencies. Free Geek was paid to ensure proper data erasure, and green disposal methods. This increased the volume of donated computers to Free Geek by 8%, and ultimately saves the city money. The state of Oregon also reimburses Free Geek for processing e-waste, including keyboards, mice and monitors.
Free Geek’s principles are clearly established:
Dispose of equipment in an ethical and environmentally responsible manner.
Use Free/Open Source Software wherever possible and must promote the Free Software philosophy in other ways, such as transparent collaboration with others.
Provide low- and no-cost computer technology and training to the community.
Be democratically run in a non-hierarchical way that is open and transparent to all participants in its programs.
Be a non-profit business (as legally defined in their location), must follow honest business practices and have the stated goal of advancing the common good.
Jim Johnson writes that these principles are “‘based largely on the Rochdale principles’ that provide a standard for Co-ops worldwide.”
“Early on, Free Geek committed to applying Open Source principles to their organizational model as well their software, putting many of their founding documents and policies on their website and encouraging everyone to use and adapt them. Just as Open Source software means that everyone can see exactly how it works and is free to adapt it, Free Geek’s Open Source organizational model seeks to be as open as possible about all aspects of the organization’s functioning. Even the upcoming schedule for their employees is public, detailing which staffers are doing what and when.”
That said, the principled objective of transparency can cause tension with some of the basic operations of business:
The Open Source organizational model emphasizes “transparent collaboration”, but organizations often deal with issue that genuinely require confidentiality – for example, personnel issues, contract negotiations, and sensitive customer information. “There’s a potential conflict of principles,” says Richard. “Free Geek wants to be completely transparent, but we also have to respect business confidences. Consumer co-ops have the same problem.”
The ‘Free Geek Structure’ wiki page starts off simply: “Free Geek is governed by its workers and volunteers.” Then it gets pretty complicated.
Free Geek staff includes all workers, paid interns, and key volunteers; their work is done by a designated set of groups.
There is a staff collective that includes all long-term salaried workers, and which manages standing and ad hoc committees that implement policies and advise each other’s policy-making as they pertain to work of groups.
Then there is a Core group, containing staff and key volunteers who manage the day to day operations of the organization.
Until recently, governance processes were split between a Community Council and a Board of Directors.
The Community Council was open to any Free Geek volunteer, worker or board member, and was the body that makes decisions regarding goals and policies that affect multiple areas of operation. It would meet monthly. (Participants who attended three consecutive meetings could vote; missing three consecutive meetings would lose this privilege.)
The Board of Directors’ role is to clarify policies, pursue transparency, develop fundraising strategy, ensure financial and legal responsibility, and address inter-organizational matters with other Free Geeks.
The Free Geek wiki notes that this split model was not effective:
The board was disempowered by the responsibility placed on council; the council usually did not empower participants to take leadership. The board has been too small to be functional; the council has had a lack of focus. Combining the two in a larger body may create synergies at the same time that it makes it easier for outsiders (including board candidates and the government) to understand how the organization works.
Documentation on the Free Geek Wiki suggests that deep consultation with other cooperatives and collective organizations has to some extent informed major decision-making processes.
Board of Directors
In October 2011, the Community Council’s function was merged into the Board, with an annual, facilitated ‘Town Hall’-style meeting that now elects board members and helps shape the strategic plan. The board includes volunteer representatives that are nominated by volunteers from the ‘Core’ and elected at the Town Hall meetings. Also included in this transition is a new direction by which every board seat is acquiring a specialized role and job description. The Board is responsible for training its members in their respective areas of skills and knowledge.
The Board now plays the strategic steering function, while the staff collective is responsible for management decisions.
Staff collective as management, volunteers as staff
Recently, the Free Geek model has taken another evolutionary step. Kevin Cole reports that: “The [non-collective] workers have formed a union, and as a result, the former collective members have become “management” as a result of union laws.”
Although non-collective staff make several dollars an hour less than members of the collective, pay isn’t what drove unionization, said Local 7901 President Madelyn Elder. “It’s about respect,” Elder said. Workers want more regular workplace practices and a clearer path to advancement. Now, Elder said, they’ll have a chance to negotiate that.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement has been posted on the Free Geek Wiki. These recent developments seem to have major implications for the dynamic of workplace democracy at Free Geek; further engagement is warranted.
Metrics of success
Richard Seymour shares the following indications of growth with Kevin Cole:
Active volunteer count first broke 100 in 2001, 200 in 2004, 300 in 2005, 400 in 2008, 500 in 2009, 600 in 2010 … pretty steady.
For the last two years we have been receiving about 6,000 computers per quarter. We broke 1,000 in 2003, 2,000 in 2004, 3,000 in 2005, 4,000 in 2007, and 5,000 in 2008. The 6,000 number has been pretty steady since 2010.
Sales in dollars per quarter is around $175,000 for the last full quarter. This is down from our high in 2010 ($202,000). We started at $1,000 per quarter in 2001 and worked up to $100,000 by 2008.
Looking to the Future
As we speed farther into a new era of mobile computing (known by some as a “Post-PC era”) the Free Geek model faces an uncertain future. Kevin Cole quotes program coordinator Amelia Lamb:
“Basically, a computer is easier to refurbish than a laptop, and a laptop is easier to refurbish than a tablet or smartphone. As donors give us more and more of these smaller computing devices, there is less opportunity for education and access to those devices and our current model of working with our volunteers comes under threat. We are in the process of looking at other models (e.g. focusing directly on technology recycling and sales, or directly on technology education,) but the reality of how technology developments will shape our future is not clear to us at this time.”
The organization is participating in an ongoing planning process to consider potential directions such as expanding its educational offerings and the capacity of its space as a community technology center.
Founder Oso Martin’s advice:
Give stuff away without knowing how you’re going to get paid back, and have faith that doing good work for the sake of doing good work will pay off.
You don’t necessarily need to come up with a business plan that solves the bottom line. You have to be cognizant of that, but it’s more about finding something that will cause people to want to give their energy in exchange for whatever you are giving them…
Questions / Next steps
- Have they considered a cooperative legal structure as opposed to a non-profit status? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
- By what criteria does the organization evaluate its effectiveness? Are workforce development metrics (jobs acquired by volunteers) measured?
- What are the outcomes of the recent changes in board and staff/volunteer structure? In what ways have the elements of workplace culture changed?
Johnson, Jim (2009). “Free Geek, a Computer Recycler: Testing the Limits of Reproducing Worker-Managed Enterprises.” Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) Newsletter, Volume 2, Issue 3, http://www.geo.coop/node/366
Cole, Kevin (2012). “A visit to Free Geek Portland, Or (2012.07.24),” http://www.well.com/~kjcole/Free Geek.html
Portland Business Journal, “Free Geek’s open path to prosperity,” Jan 15 2004
Dowser.org, Oso Martin Interview, August 12, 2010
Geemodo, “Free Geek using land fills to fill the digital divide,” December 04, 2006
Oregon Live, “Free Geek deal creates new homes for Portland’s old PCs,” June 06, 2008
Northwest Labor Press, “Free Geek Employees vote to join Portland CWA Local 7901,” November 19, 2010.