Ownership and Governance Big Shifts that Matter

The second area of digital civil society that warrants consideration involves questions of ownership and governance. This is particularly important in the social economy, where the defining principles include how the enterprises are governed and owned.

Most of our practices of ownership and governance come from an age when goods and money could not be endlessly and easily reproduced. Digital goods don’t work this way; they can be infinitely copied, with no degradation to the original, and thus we’ve had to invent all sorts of new rules and software to control how digital copies are made, shared, sold, and stored. Questions about the ownership of digital goods have already led to global upheaval in copyright and patent law and have changed the nature of creative industries across the board. Global alternatives for owning and sharing digital goods are now expanding to apply to digital datasets.

There is a small set of organizations that have been operating on the frontier of this digital ownership and governance shift for more than a decade. These include the Mozilla Foundation, Creative Commons, the Open Knowledge Foundation, and Wikimedia Foundation. These organizations are digital by default; the assets they manage and the public good they do revolve around the creation, distribution, and financing of solely digital goods. They are also inherently global: Wikimedia has more than 35 million volunteers in more than 90 countries, Creative Commons has 70 affiliations globally, and Mozilla’s Firefox web browser is used around the planet.

These organizations tend to spend a lot of time seeking redress or exemption from the tax or oversight authorities wherever they are based, as their operations simply don’t fit neatly into the box of U.K. charity, German foundation, or American nonprofit. They also have vast communications and engagement tools, and tend to be structured more for consensus and input than for top-down, board-driven decision-making – a necessary choice if you are working with 35 million volunteers as the Wikimedia Foundation does. I think these organizations are pointing to the future for many associations, and the challenges they face and rule-exceptions they seek now will become norms for many organizations going forward. In a world where enterprise forms have typically been defined nationally (if not at the provincial or state level), we will see more and more organizations that are inherently global in membership and ownership. The creation of a regional foundation or association structure, such as that which is being discussed in the EU, may be a first step toward a global form.

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2014.