Structure EA organizations as WSDNs?

by kbog1 min read10th May 20199 comments



In a for-profit context, worker cooperatives are firms that are owned and managed by workers. Pérotin (2012, 2015) summarizes research to show that worker cooperatives have positive impacts on both firm productivity and employee welfare; there is a lot more research showing that worker ownership is modestly better than regular capitalist ownership but I won't get into that here.

There are plausible reasons to explain why the private sector would generally refrain from adopting worker cooperatives even if worker cooperatives are better: owners and managers have a self-interest to keep capital and decision power to themselves, and people may have a pro-capitalist bias. So the rarity of this idea is not good evidence against its correctness. (Mild forms of employee ownership are fairly common, however.)

Nonprofits can't be owned, so a cooperative nonprofit would just be about worker management (i.e. democracy). This is called a Worker Self-Directed Nonprofit. I didn't find any research showing how well this idea works, though of course it seems good based on the results of for-profit worker cooperatives. If you search the phrase Worker Self-Directed Nonprofit there are various sources of (generally cheery) commentary and guidance. I'm not sure if it's been tried very much.

Workplace democracies, and WSDNs by extension, also seem to have a generally positive moral PR tint. Though a minority of people may perceive them as silly and inefficient.

Overall, experimenting with WSDN in the EA community seems like a valuable idea.

I haven't worked for an EA organization, I just wanted to throw this idea out there.

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worker cooperatives have positive impacts on both firm productivity and employee welfare; there is a lot more research showing that worker ownership is modestly better than regular capitalist ownership

This is causal language, but as far as I can tell (at least per the 2nd paper) the studies are all correlational? By default I'm very skeptical of ability to control for confounders in a correlational analysis here. Are there any studies with a more robust way to infer causation?

The 1st paper says that the studies generally do a good job of ruling out reverse causality through econometric techniques.

Don't know for management. For employee ownership some of the studies in unpack the causal stories of benefits.

How would you expect EA WSDNs to differ from current EA orgs concretely?

When it comes to worker cooperatives, I see the differences as all flowing from reducing conflicting interests. That is, in standard firms, owners are ultimately interested in profits and only instrumentally interested in working conditions while workers are ultimately interested in working conditions (broadly construed) and only instrumentally interested in profits. Worker cooperatives resolve this tension by making agents principals and principals agents.

This is an idealization, but it seems like the interests of all relevant actors in EA orgs (and nonprofits more generally?) are more aligned. The board and the workers are (at least in theory) largely (if not solely) motivated by the same do-gooding goal.

This lines up with what I've seen at EA orgs. People don't always agree on how things should be run, but they almost always share a common goal. I also expect that most EA orgs are much more flat/democratic than the average private corporation. (For example, CEA has managers and people who are managed, but in most team meetings and on Slack, seniority matters much less than your direct experience with an issue and the strength of your ideas.)

It's been my experience that while people in EA-aligned orgs usually share a common goal, disagreements about how things should be run, especially between a Board of Directors, and the paid employees of the org, is such that it is generally enough of a problem to be a point in favour of transitioning to structuring NPOs as worker cooperatives to reduce conflict between different vested interests. I believe this would be true of the non-profit sector in general, and not limited to EA. I'm not convinced EA tends to be dramatically better or worse on this front than other movements professionally based in the non-profit sector such that I'd put much stock in the testimony of any one individual on this subject.

I feel like you could easily say the reverse and argue that hierarchies are more important when workers are disinterested in contributing. Having genuinely motivated workers would make it more feasible to have worker management and capture its benefits.

My experience with organizational design is that the formal structure tends to follow not lead the informal structures that arise among the people in the organizations. Yes, over time organizations become "ossified" such that the formal structure also creates the informal structure, but this is not much the case in early and small orgs, although there are usually some exceptions to this as certain formal relationships develop early, such as the founder(s) or some other persons having authority via legal and financial control that backs their ability to influence others and hence seeds the creation of the org structure.

Overall this is to say my guess is these sorts of structures are either already naturally arising and where they don't it's because there are other incentives that push those organizations in other directions.


That's one way to explain my thinking. Another is this:

I read your post as suggesting something like "hey, what if we tried this different org structure; I think it might be better", but to actually try a different org structure you have to have people who want to relate to each other in a different way. It's typically only at large orgs with ossified structures where people are not relating to each other in the way they would like and where suggesting a change of org structure might manage to shift an equilibrium by getting everyone to re-coordinate towards something they prefer.

In a small org you probably can't make the structure much other than what it is unless you first change the people who are creating the structure to be the kind of people who would create the desired structure. That's because I expect the existing structure to already be a natural equilibrium that is roughly correlated with the kind of structure desired proportional to the amount of (official) control each person in the org has. Thus unlike in a large org there is not a hope that you can hit reset and get a different outcome by breaking the existing inadequate equilibrium.

I do not have experience with WSDNs but based on your description, the Czech Association for EA seems to have this model. The structure is such that people sign up to be members, members elect leadership and leadership reports back to the members.

The biggest difference seems to be that our members are not only employees but volunteers or general supporters.