Ways to value work

I was challenged this week to put my work onto a commercial basis. “If you can’t define where the salary will come from, you will come to resent all the volunteer work you are doing”.

I pushed back, “maybe the model is a startup one, the reward will come in due course but I need to work hard and for free at the moment”. [I have looked into a business model canvas for my work and I knew as I said it that I didn’t even have a rigorous business model, so I was bluffing about this being my model].

Which made me think about other models.

Social entrepreneurship sits with a foot in two camps. The social sector has a tradition of delivering services that Government and donors value. The sector is being encouraged to look at alternative ‘business streams’ of revenue. One recent article complained that most social entrepreneurs ended up looking at the government grant system, while another (albeit American) celebrated the high profit social business – a phenomenon Michael Porter calls shared value. Lets not confuse these – the profitable model delivers market value in a socially positive way and their virtuous approach begets more customers. I suspect the struggling-to-profit model is producing value that is harder to put a $$ figure on.

Writing a book is somewhat entrepreneurial, in that it involves risk of time spent and uncertain reward. But the product is not innovative and the reward is not based on success through stunning growth. The model can be simply a promise. If the final years-of-work-product is valuable enough, you are promised in income from it in due course.

Enspiral is a freelance community built around an abundance of high paying work so that everyone can comfortably earn enough and unlock a substantial amount of discretionary unpaid time, ‘more people working on stuff that matters’

The Open Source community explore ways to support those who give more to the community – donations, big corporate funders, employers being asked to recognise time spent on open source etc. So to an extent it appears a “sponsor” based arrangement where smaller contributors essentially sponsor projects through their discretionary time.

And there is probably a good reason I have been daydreaming about Universal Basic Income. Many of those volunteers who provide the backbone for community organisations (like mine, CORENA) are retirees. Essentially, you can unlock plenty of good work from peeps if you take away the need to earn money.

I would love to see stronger systems to value discretionary effort. Community credits perhaps? At its heart, I am motivated to work hard and to give above-and-beyond when it is something I care about. The peer-to-peer community and the commoners are actively having these discussions. If we contribute to the creation of value, how can we ensure the value continues to benefit the community rather than being extracted? How much reward should entrepreneurs get for the risk they take in the commons environment? How do volunteer contributions and $$ earned work smoothly together? Does trading value undermine the joys of giving value and is this a negative or positive impact?

So we have some models emerging:

  • Salaries – traditional and established organisations and businesses
  • Risk / Reward – be it a traditional business model where you can get a bank loan, a startup innovation where you need venture capital and be it your own time and effort at risk (creative work) or in need of significant capital.
  • Patron – individuals or family members fund you because they value you or your work
  • Crowdfunding – you sell ideas, the promise of future products or the goodness of an idea to many people – little risk for each.

(At this stage we are starting to move away from marketable value into the world of services that are valuable but can’t always be cashed in. We could see them as public goods or common/community goods and at a mini level, families negotiate these all the times in a form of a gift economy where we all benefit from caring for each other but some members of the family do more of the work, for the benefit of the whole.)

  • Philanthropy/charity – someone made money elsewhere and gives back. The foundations are more likely to make strategic infrastructure investments while individuals support direct services with money and time contributions.
  • Open Source -people donate time because they can afford to. The whole is better than the sum of its individual parts, some people start getting paid to continue spending time but the open principle ensure all the product remains in the Commons (imperfectly because many benefit commercially from this commons too).
  • Enspiral hybrid model – similar to above but the earn/donate balance is explicit and controlled by the individual (supported by the Enspiral community)

But what if the work you are doing is genuinely delivering a public or common good?

  • The charity models above
  • Government and NGO delivery
  • Government grants – government policy determines its value. Social, environment and arts sectors struggle to come out from underneath this support structure.
  • Social bonds – a great attempt to convince government to recognise future costs and therefore fund current activities that reduce those costs (eg preventing incarceration)
  • Universal Basic Income – would allow individuals to work on those things that are valuable to them, with everything from very low to very high value work delivered.

Can you think of other ways we could provide an income stream to develop public and community value?

What do you think works in the not-easy-to-fund space of driving social change?

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About Heather

I am an energy and climate change specialist with a background in industrial energy efficiency and climate change policy.
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