18 February 2007

Altruism, the "Open Source" Economy, and Churches

In a recent column in Time Magazine ("Getting Rich off Those Who Work for Free"), Justin Fox discusses non-monetary motivations in the marketplace. Here's a quote from the column:
It might seem very odd to look to a long-dead Russian anarchist for business advice. But Peter Kropotkin's big idea -- that there are important human motivations beyond what he called "reckless individualism" -- is very relevant these days. That's because one of the most interesting questions in business has become how much work people will do for free.

Kropotkin was an aristocrat who, after being imprisoned for his insurrectionist activities, escaped and fled to England in 1876. He also drew the first good topographic maps of Siberia and wrote a memoir of his revolutionary days that has become a minor classic. More to the point, he proposed in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, that the survival of animal species and much of human progress depended on the tendency to help others.

That I even know of Kropotkin comes courtesy of the Wikipedia entry for the "gift economy," the current term of art for this altruistic approach. Wikipedia is, of course, a prime example of the gift economy at work. Argue about its inaccuracies all you want, but the volunteer-authored online encyclopedia is on its way to becoming (if it isn't already) the world's dominant reference resource.

Open-source, volunteer-created computer software like the Linux operating system and the Firefox Web browser have also established themselves as significant and lasting economic realities. That's not true yet in the worlds of science, news and entertainment: we're still figuring out what the role of volunteers will be, but that it will be much bigger than in the past seems obvious.
Many will point out that Unitarian Universalist churches have operated as mostly volunteer-run operations with limited paid staff contributions. And many of our small lay-led fellowships are totally volunteer-run organizations. However, church volunteer may limit their cooperative sharing to internal congregational work and not result in forming cooperative sharing networks with other congregations.

For Unitarian Universalists, we have some resources for sharing our resources with other congregations and learning from the experience of others:
Using these online resource would move Unitarian Universalism towards a cooperative "open source" sharing model where hard-earned experiences in a local congregation can benefit all.

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