Sustainable Hackerspaces FTW

Last Friday, the CEO of i3 Detroit announced his resignation, and Bucketworks in Milwaukee announced that they were raising money to help make rent (they did). Both announcements generated a lot of valuable discussion about the sustainability of hackerspaces, but there are a few important points that I believe are often overlooked when talking about sustainability.

Growth hurts sustainability. Expanding membership numbers or square footage sounds like a good thing for a hackerspace, but it also carries downsides, especially when that growth happens quickly. More members and more space means more to manage, which means a higher burden on the leaders of a space. A quick influx of new members can weaken the community because those new members take time to learn the group’s social norms (e.g. how to “be excellent,” as so many spaces encourage). It also takes time for new members to learn how to contribute back to the space, so even if they want to, they won’t at first.

At i3 Detroit, they’ve implemented a mentor system where all new members are assigned a mentor (similar to the time-tested big brother/sister system used in fraternities and sororities). Mentors are a single point of contact to help new members get acquainted with the space, its rules, and its values. It’s a new program, but it seems like a great way to tackle the instability that comes with growth, and I have high hopes for it. Have any other spaces tried this technique, or others, to combat the instability associated with rapid growth?

Fundraising is good, saving is better. Many spaces run very close to the break-even point, so when the natural oscillation of membership goes down, or they have to make an unexpected repair, they need to have a “rent party” to quickly come up with money to make ends meet. The alternative is to regularly contribute to an emergency fund. One benefit of such a fund is that even if you still need to have a fundraiser, it buys you time. That extra time opens up new possibilities, like getting more quotes on a repair, or even finding a new space. Plus, extra time makes it a lot easier to continue keeping the space running smoothly for members while dealing with financial issues, without burning out.

But spaces can save for more than just emergencies! Even nonprofit spaces can have investment savings and use interest and dividends to offset operating costs. It takes a long time to build these kinds of savings up, but once you have them, it’s that much easier to weather hard financial times, fund special programs, offer reduced dues for those in need, and so on. Many universities, for instance, use these kinds of funds, called endowments. Similarly, hackerspaces should be considering saving to buy their own buildings. I’m not aware of any that have done this, but owning rather than renting would lower monthly expenses for most spaces (even if they have to get a mortgage) and would prevent the common problem of landlords raising rent after a group has invested in repairs and improvements to their space.

Finally, hackerspaces are businesses. This is a controversial statement, but I believe that if the leaders of a hackerspace aren’t treating it like a business (keeping accurate books, financial planning, catching problems before they snowball, etc.) then they are doing a disservice to the members and setting themselves up to burn out. That said a hackerspace should not feel like a business to the members. Hackerspaces work best when members can come in and just hack, teach, and learn with a minimum of obstacles. In good hackerspaces, the administrators consistently remove those obstacles, and in great hackerspaces they do it before the members even notice them.

There is a lot of good common wisdom floating around on design patterns for hackerspaces and common traps to avoid. Now that so many hackerspaces are up and running, I’m hoping to see more attention turn to how to ways to keep them running, not just for 5 or 10 years, but for future generations.