And now for the story…..
By Max Marcus, Greenfield Reporter; January 25, 2019
Imagine a world where a community’s financial priorities routinely reflect its values.
Rather than being determined by faraway lawmakers or by single-minded corporations, a community’s economy would be managed by the people who use it. Community infrastructure, social welfare and local quality of life would all be in the hands of the people who are impacted directly by them.
That’s the idea behind Common Good, a local nonprofit organization that’s developing a system for giving communities control to fund the kinds of large-scale projects that typically require involvement of the government or big businesses.
“This gives us a hope of making the world as good as we want it to be, and to have some control over that, rather than feel like we’re victimized by our own institutions,” said Common Good Founder and Executive Director William Spademan. “This movement toward a better world, that we all know in our hearts is possible, can happen better if we have money to fund it better. That’s the missing piece we think we can provide with this system, if we work together to make this happen.”
How does it work?
Basically, Common Good works like a bank. Members deposit and withdraw money, and they get a Common Good charge card they can use to pay at participating local businesses.
But unless someone makes a withdrawal, the dollars in the central fund never move. Credit moves in circles between accounts within the “bank.”
What makes Common Good different from a typical bank is that it is owned collectively by the members. So when Common Good invests its money, its decisions are made democratically.
“We believe what we need is greater community democracy, because that’s the level where we see what’s needed, where we care enough to make that our priority, where every voice can make a difference, and where there isn’t so much big money corrupting our democratic process,” Spademan said.
Once an investment project is up and running, the business and its employees become part of the Common Good system. As long as the project earns at least as much money as it costs, the community’s “bank” recoups its investment, and no one loses any money. If the project is at all profitable, the collective fund grows, advancing the community’s ability to fund larger projects.
“Think of the investments as the community collectively owning a share of the businesses in our region,” Spademan said. “So we all have a stake in the success of our local businesses, which helps them flourish, because we want them to, and we get a share of their success.”
There are five categories for funding projects: local business development, food systems, social justice, environmental sustainability and the arts.
All members have voting power — about 320 people in the Greenfield area so far. The decisions are democratic, but there is a built-in protection of minority opinions. A project can be rejected if at least 5 percent of the community vetoes it.
“This is based on what everybody will be content with, rather than what the majority wants and the other 49 percent will hate,” Spademan said.
Putting the system in practice
So far, the system seems to be working. In 2017, Common Good of Greenfield used its investment program for the first time to fund eight projects in the area — including equipment upgrades at the pay-what-you-can Stone Soup Cafe in Greenfield, renovations at the Shea Theater Arts Center in Turners Falls, rooftop solar panels at the Ashfield Lakehouse and a worker-owned trash-composting business — worth $10,000 total.
For that first trial run, the Common Good non-profit guaranteed the $10,000 — so that no members would lose their money in case the investment projects didn’t end up paying for themselves. (In the future, when the system is fully operational, investments will be guaranteed by groups of members or individuals.)
But after the initial $10,000 dip in the collective fund following the grants, the money came back almost immediately, and then continued to generate more, Spademan said.
“This demonstrates the principal that if we make wise funding decisions locally, the Common Good system gives the same amount of money to use again the next year and the next and the next,” Spademan said.
For its second round of funding projects in the fall of 2018, Common Good did almost twice as much: $19,000 in grants, loans and investments to 14 projects in Franklin County. They include a program at Greenfield Community Acupuncture to treat people in opioid recovery; a training conference by Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution on democratic participation in rural communities; the non-profit Root Studio, a yoga-based mentorship program for teen girls in Turners Falls struggling with poverty, abuse, addiction and sexism; and monthly Community Nights at Leyden Woods, hosted by Musica Franklin.
The Compost Cooperative got a grant from Common Good last year, and a loan this year. It is a worker-owned compostable trash collection business designed to employ formerly incarcerated workers. The co-op worked with Common Good on the terms of the loan.
“They understand the landscape in Franklin County and the needs,” Compost Cooperative Founder Andrew Stachiw said of Common Good. “It’s easier for them to see how the Compost Co-op is a service to our community.”
If Common Good meets the designers’ ultimate goal for it — to sign up half the residents and businesses in Franklin and Hampshire counties — it will be able to pay $100 million a year in investments and grants, Spademan said.
“Think of it as 100 times what we did in Greenfield in 2017, twice a week,” he said.
Regardless of how much Common Good grows, Spademan said the increased funding is “going to make a splash, and people are going to notice. People might get addicted to more participatory democracy.”
Spreading the idea
Common Good has been in development, in different forms, since 2002. Originally, it worked through a checking system, but that only lasted about a year.
“It was too informal and people weren’t buying into it,” Spademan said. “It was too fringey.”
After that, the organization tried to set up its own bank. That was about to get off the ground, when the crash of 2008 came.
The current model has been in development since then. At this point there are about 320 members of Common Good of Greenfield, and about 65 businesses in the area that accept it as payment — plus about a dozen more added in the last six months since the program began expanding to Amherst and Northampton. There are two other test markets — in Goshen, Ind., and Ann Arbor, Mich., with about 400 members between them — but Greenfield’s is the furthest along. The other two haven’t yet reached the point that they can fund projects.
As the system is refined, the plan is that administrative work — the accounting, the evaluating of grant proposals — will be handled by professionals on a regional basis. Currently, the nonprofit’s four-person staff does that work for the Greenfield system.
When it’s ready, the model will be exportable to any community that wants to set up their own Common Good economy.
“Each community can go its own way,” Spademan said. “That diversity will present a richness where each one of us can learn from the others what works, while all individually using this power of money to pursue what we think is important in our own communities.”
At a certain point, when a region becomes “saturated” — when the number of people in the system reaches a critical mass so that membership is no longer increasing regularly and the flow of money into the Common Good economy slows — it becomes more viable to fund projects that aren’t designed to make money, like welfare programs to support those in need.
“We’re not in a position to do that very well yet,” Spademan said. “But ultimately, if we get to this regional level where most of the people in our region are doing this and we have hundreds of millions of dollars in the account, we can invest in that stuff, and the investing in stuff doesn’t even mean that the money leaves the community fund. It goes from one person’s Common Good account to somebody else’s. It’s going in circles.”
This fall, Common Good is hosting a conference called “The Revolution Will Be Funded” at Hampshire College to draw in local governments and community-minded businesses and nonprofits. Spademan thinks it could dramatically affect local membership. The organization expects, conservatively, to grow to 5,000 members in the next two years.
“Imagine if all of us, from the time we were born, grew up knowing we’d have enough to eat and a place to live and a job, so that we were free to pursue our dreams and contribute to society in a way that brings us joy,” Spademan said. “We see this freedom to pursue happiness as the purpose of a Common Good economy.”
To open a personal or business account with Common Good, visit new.commongood.earth/signup. For more information, call 413-628-1723 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff reporter Max Marcus started working at the Greenfield Recorder in 2018. He covers Northfield, Bernardston, Leyden and Warwick. He can be reached at: email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.