Membership fees revisited

In the crowdfunding thread, Redon wrote:

since day one our hackerspace struggles with the costs we need to cover. In the beginning we have agreed not to have any charges for the members of the hackerspace for reasons that are already explained and this is something that doesn’t need to change at any cost in my opinion.

I support the crowdfunding initiative, but I’d like to revisit the issue of membership fees. Perhaps I missed it, so please remind me again, what are the “reasons that are already explained” why members shouldn’t be charged a fee?

Personally, I believe there should be a membership fee. It is vital for the long term sustainability of the OpenLabs. Crowdfunding (and even generous grants) are only one-off (or n-off, where n is not a very large number) options. After that donation-fatigue sets in, and people want to donate to/invest in new options. On the other hand, paying for something that we think is worth paying for, worth surviving, is the clearest sign of our belief in that thing. We have Lekes or Shekels or Dollars or shiny stones, and we vote with them for things we want, for the world we want to live in. Paying for something also connects us directly with what we use. When a member stops being a member (moves away, joins a different community, whatever), the member stops paying. But while the member is using the facility, as long as the member believes the facility does some good and is good for the world (and for herself/himself), the member pays for it. Just like we pay for a cup of coffee, or a computer, a pair of pants, or good software.

Yes, we need to think through different aspects, esp. that of being able to accommodate those for whom a fee would be a significant hardship (note emphasis on significant). A sliding scale for such situations would be most warranted. A crowdfunding campaign could finance scholarships for such cases, so the success of crowdfunding would dictate how many subsidized membership slots would be available. But everyone who uses the space and believes she/he benefits from it, would vote for the space by paying for it.

Please tell me your reasons against the above logic?

(In case you want to know, yes, I would pay for a membership in OpenLabs because even though I don’t live in Albania, and would almost never use OpenLabs, I believe OpenLabs is good for the world I want to see.)

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You are absolutely right in my opinion Puneet, but:

  • we have tried asking for monthly fees before and it hasn’t worked - it has been some time since the last time though;
  • do you think that people that already contribute with maintenance or other time consuming task should also pay?
  • if there are people that do not understand the value of the hackerspace in their beginnings they might be intimidated of the fact that they need to pay;
  • there are people that really can not afford covering the cost. They don’t say it but I personally can feel this sometimes event during daily interactions with them;
  • there are some technicalities with the donations (they need to be through a bank) that make the whole process not ‘management friendly’

These are the main reasons in my view. These are personal reasons :slight_smile:

R.S

Personal opinion*

R.S

This is a complicated topic, and neither can I decide its specifics here or elsewhere nor should I. Its specifics should be decided by you all, by everyone, (by most of you). But, I can help start with a few fundamental principles:

  • a thing worth having is a thing worth paying for
  • paying for something means prioritizing it over other things that you may choose not to pay for
  • there is nothing more powerful than a sense of ownership in something, a feeling that you are committed to and contributing to it
  • this is the only way to be sustainable, getting someone else to pay for it is only an interim solution
  • money is not the only way to pay for something (although some payments can only be made with money — for example, you can’t pay your electric bills with volunteer work)
  • no one should be turned away for the want of funds, but everyone who benefits from OL will be a member in that they will give back something to OL
  • there has to be a sense of solidarity, that everyone’s contribution, be it in the form of money or material or labor or all three, helps make OL what it is

Remember, I am not saying there shouldn’t be crowdfunding. In fact, a healthy OL, hopefully with a savings account with some money always available for emergencies, will result from a multi-pronged strategy: membership fees, crowdfunding, grants, donations and good old-fashioned elbow-grease by all its members.

There is much more to say, but I will stop now. I think the gist of what I am suggesting should be clear by now.

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The problem here has some similarities to the credit crisis

The credit crisis problem involved banks using short term debts to fund
long term assets, a maturity mismatch.

In the Open Labs context, membership fees do the opposite: a short term
revenue to fund a long term liability (rental contract).

Membership fees will inevitably turn some people away: if you take any
organization and create or increase a fee, the organization will be smaller.

If you have too many people, like a popular nightclub, membership fees
can become part of your economic model. But if volunteers are already
stretched, membership fees will reduce the number of people.

What may happen next is that some people might simply start meeting
somewhere else where they don’t have to pay a fee, then you end up with
two communities.

Getting back to the original problem, the long term liabilities, it is
important to look for long term revenues or partnerships, then there
won’t be the mismatch.

Regards,

Daniel

While your argument is sound overall, it doesn’t apply exactly to the OL situation. Membership fees are not a short term revenue to fund a long term liability, they are a recurring revenue stream to fund a recurring liability. A simple mechanism such as discounting the monthly fee if pre-paid for a year can easily match the periodicity of both the revenue stream and the liability.

Issues like people meeting elsewhere is a different problem. Ostensibly they are coming to OL because that is where the good people hang out, that is where the exciting events are happening, that is where interesting visitors, ahem, from Albania and abroad go. If competitive places do develop, overall it will be good for Tirana, to the extent Tirana can support them all with enough clients.

If the fee turn away a few, well, so be it. But the fee will also enable OL to become sustainable and improve its ability to offer interesting events, resources, etc. That will attract others, those who value such resources.

In any case, I have emphasized that funding is a multi-pronged strategy made up of: grants, crowdsourcing, space rentals, sales, individual donations, and membership fees. I have also underscored that money is not the only way to pay, although some payments necessarily have to be made with money.

I think the problem would be that a fee large enough to make a difference would turn many people away, in this particular context: many of the group are students or recent graduates who genuinely can’t afford much, and these people are as valued a part of the community as any other.

The other hackerspace of which I’m a member, Makespace, charges a membership fee which is generally regarded as quite large, and definitely puts some people off, but it’s a very different setup, with a lot of equipment, and a mostly non-student membership, and a different emphasis (more individual projects and fewer collective events, in proportion). I think that trying to work on that model would destroy a lot that is important in OpenLabs.

Also at Makespace, people have raised the idea of paying for membership partly by doing work for the space (i.e. a discount for doing tasks) but it was decided that it wasn’t possible to come up with a conversion rate between work done and membership fees; Makespace did employ a part-time administrator for a while, who helped to make everything more organized, but has gone back to being a pure volunteer organization again, and that now works well. Also, arrangements for paying for membership by doing work for the organization could make the tax arrangements complicated, especially, I suspect, under the new regulations for voluntary organizations.

Hi John,

I said it before and I repeat again… “In any case, I have emphasized that funding is a multi-pronged strategy made up of: grants, crowdsourcing, space rentals, sales, individual donations, and membership fees. I have also underscored that money is not the only way to pay, although some payments necessarily have to be made with money.”

I also said, and I repeat again… “no one should be turned away for the want of funds, but everyone who benefits from OL will be a member in that they will give back something to OL.”

I am well aware of the Cambridge Makespace (I believe you are talking about that) fee which was (and probably continues to be) indeed fairly high (I’ve visited that Makespace which was founded by folks I know quite well). Yes, that Makespace is also very well equipped and therefore, perhaps, its expenses and the amount of its fee are justified. It is not comparable to OL, nor would its fee structure be.

In any case, membership fee is just my suggestion and I stand by it. Such an implementation, however, would and should happen only after the community has weighed in on it. Like everything else, the community should have a say in the very plan of its own long-term viability.

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