The Commons: Our Mission If We Choose to Accept It

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One of the foremost theorists of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, once wrote, “In democratic countries, the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one. Among the laws that rule human societies, there is one that seems more precise and clearer than all the others. In order that men remain civilized or become so, the art of associating must be developed and perfected among them in the same ratio as equality of conditions increases.” This statement assigns a centrality to nonprofit or third sector activities that should activate, sustain and guide nonprofit professionals, volunteers, donors and others.

Yet questions remain. Is nonprofit activity private or public or both? The best answer is probably something like either, neither and both. Yet undue concentration on this question has somehow relegated all nonprofit activity to the netherworld status of “not-for-profit” in the U.S. and “nongovernmental” in much of the rest of the world. These terms, with their nots and nons, actually explain very little. They are as useful as it would be for biologists to classify lettuce as “not an animal.”

So third-sector organizations are routinely described by what they are not rather than what they are. In this sense, the sector itself has only the most vague and broadly inclusive boundaries.

One reason for this negation is that the dichotomy of the private and public is not fully exhaustive, but we really don’t have generally accepted terms for the excluded category. What is needed is affirmative language that better describes who we are and what we do, as well as where we have been and where we are going.

Where do we begin such a Herculean task? My proposal is that we concentrate on the word “common,” as in common man or person, common good, common wealth and so on. It is a term that already carries a good share of the burden of desired meanings and intentions.

The commons is a set of ideas and practices anchored deep in Anglo-American history, law and culture that offers a powerful way to explain the unique mission and role of nonprofit activity. It offers an approach that highlights the special responsibilities behind the daily work of nonprofits, and poses a framework within which to approach questions of the value and effectiveness of nonprofit endeavors. We might also think of our endeavor overall as carrying the quote “We the people” forward in our democracy.

Beyond incorporation statutes and tax codes, commons theory offers a basic set of principles that should define the structure and the outcomes of nonprofits. The commons can be characterized as exhibiting five distinct attributes, or dimensions:

  1.    Free and uncoerced participation
  2.    Common or shared purpose or mission
  3.    Jointly held resources or endowment
  4.    Participation that involves a sense of mutuality
  5.    Social relations that are characterized by justice or fairness

These dimensions were first framed by Aristotle, who termed the resulting political community koinonia politike. These are essential attributes of civil society. At an organizational level, they also define the ideal type of nonprofit activity as it is envisioned in law and practice. The first three characteristics are formative of all true or authentic collective ventures, or commons. Voluntary participants (or willing stakeholders), sharing a mission and a common pool of resources, are also the minimum ingredients of all nonprofit activity. The latter two characteristics are emergents, arising out of and shaping the shared experience of participants. The trust and networks of social capital, for example, regularly arise directly from the sense of mutuality that comes from such an association with others over a period of time. By-laws, policies and procedures, and guidelines together spell out a fair and just environment in which those participants can work together.

Commons have been real, physical places as well as metaphors for nonprofit organization. They existed all over England (and other parts of Europe) prior to the enclosure movement, as well as in colonial New England, and on the open ranges of the early American West. When John Locke spoke of a “state of nature,” his view included many forest commons not yet subdivided into private properties.

In his provocative 1968 article “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin argued that farmers (or shepherds or any independent decision-makers), each with unfettered access to a common grazing area, would each rationally decide to exploit the resource to their maximum individual advantage. The inevitable result would be that, in time, the resource would be exhausted through over-grazing to the detriment of all (Hardin, 1968).

Tragedy occurs in Hardin’s commons when, to mix our metaphors, the Three Musketeers—whose rallying cry was “All for one and one for all”—declare instead, “All for me and me alone.” Contemporary adherents of markets as the solution to all problems find this a suitable rallying cry. For the rest of us, it is simply an appallingly anti-social and even, in some cases, an immoral standard. Any time such a standard is applied to a shared resource, whether it is a nonprofit program, foundation or some other shared resource, the future not only of that resource, but of the mission it embraces, is jeopardized by the autonomous and self-interested choices of individuals.

Hardin’s tragedy has found particular resonance in the environmental movement, where it has been applied to rain forests, fishing populations and even global warming. It is important to note that Hardin’s commons becomes tragic because it lacks both a state to enforce non-tragic consequences, and a third (or common) sector to enable voluntary, cooperative solutions. Because a third sector of associations, collaborations and cooperation does not exist in Hardin’s model, his self-interested individual farmers, like narrowly economic actors, lack the wit and the means to do what real farmers and shepherds, Musketeers and others almost always do when faced with similar potentially lethal threats to their pooled resources and values: create networks of relations, generate trust, and define equitable policies and procedures to allocate, without exhausting, the scarce resource.

The most widespread academic explanation for the emergence of nonprofits would be that they arise because of “failures” of the market and government— functioning as a kind of cleanup brigade. Such explanations, while descriptive of a range of very worthwhile current nonprofit activity, provide very anemic rationales for the social, political or economic roles of the “third sector” as a whole. The curiously restrictive frameworks which have the nonprofit sector as a response system for the symptoms of “government failure” and “market failure” makes sense only to those utterly convinced of the exhaustive nature of the public/private dichotomy. For proponents of statism on the one hand, and marketization on the other, the possibility of a third way whose dominant value system might guide the whole is simply never admitted.

Yet the evidence of the worth of this third way is there in plain sight for all who wish to see.

Not only do the potentialities of a powerful and even dominant third sector now exist across the globe, but, in a very real sense, collaborative, common action precedes government and the market–both historically and logically—and is essential to constituting both. In voting, we only elect candidates for selected offices. Democratic governments don’t form themselves, but are enacted within the nexus of parties, factions and interest groups, in response to popular mandates. Likewise, the electronic revolution has time and again shown the amazing complexity of creating entirely new product markets, and the key role of nonprofit trade associations, in formulating standards and other tasks that allow new markets to emerge.

To begin to explore further the concept of the commons, consider the term “common goods” and the third dimension of the commons—endowment. The endowments of common goods with which many nonprofits work are characterized by resource pools from which large groups and even the entire population benefit in some way, but no one person necessarily feels responsible or can control–resources that are non-exclusive and available to everyone, regardless of the ability to pay. Such endowments may be material and environmental—for instance, clean air or water—and the benefit can be relatively easily quantified.

Other endowments, however, may be more abstract or less clearly beneficial to all—say the preservation of a common language. On the one hand, there is the “English only” movement, which seeks enforcement of a uniform language, and, on the other, the counter efforts which seek to recognize multiple languages as enriching of the overall culture, and therefore worth including and preserving in public spaces, documents and institutions.

Both movements are protecting their endowments. Just as importantly, both movements engage people in open, public dialogue on the issue to get diverse points of view heard. Commons theory poses the distinct further possibility that if proponents of diverse views continue to associate, listen to and understand one another, eventually they will develop either the social capital (trust and networks) to work out their differences, or the frameworks of rules and policies for the just and equitable treatment of the different positions.

Problems may enter the picture when one point of view is more monied than another. And it is particularly in such circumstances that the importance of this sector lifting other voices into public dialogue becomes so important. The language that designates us as the “independent sector” flows from this. Connected to the concern about independence is the concept of the “voluntary sector.” The less dependent we are on donations, volunteers and independent resource pools, and the more we are dependent on institutional resources tied to the market and government, the more we are directed by those who have control over resources.

To make this issue current at this particular time, the question of balanced and sustained dialogue becomes ever more important as the ownership of media outlets narrows as a result of the recent diluting of FCC regulations prohibiting monopolies. In this case, the common endowment—basic to democracy—is access to information that flows from a variety of points of view. This makes the airwaves of great importance to this sector. Even more importantly, the Internet has proven to be an increasingly important resource for the free flow of ideas throughout the world.

The possibility of relinquishing endowments—to which we should all have reasonable access—is everywhere in our lives. When the museums of Iraq were raided, large pieces of that country’s national, centuries-old cultural endowment were irretrievably lost. This constituted loss of a legacy that will not be passed along to future generations.

But such private looting may constitute a lesser threat than the public looting of the coffers of commonly held resources that is now occurring. The current tendency to access resource endowments in the public domain for private “inurement,” through the processes of privatizing and deregulating such things as water, broadcast frequencies and public utilities, has all the potentials of Hardin’s tragedy.

Each one of these resource pools is a legacy that we pass along to future generations–whether they’re badly handled or well handled. In a democratic society, we act as individual stewards of legacies, but we have to act collectively to ensure that the principles we wish to see enacted are heard and acted upon. This requires association. This is the core job of this sector.

One resource pool important in all organizational contexts is the collective knowledge and experience base sometimes called human capital or the “know-how” of the people in an organization—and the social capital or the “know-who” of relationships, trust and networks. Each one of these categories of resources has no intrinsic meaning by itself. Their only increased significance in the commons is in relation to other aspirational components of Aristotle’s model: uncoerced participation, a sense of mutuality and, perhaps most critically, a commitment to ensuring justice.

The issue of justice is one of the first to be sacrificed in free market activity and–as some of the other articles in this issue point out—in government, when its legal stewardship becomes overly influenced by the political influence of a small, dominant group.

We cannot afford to also have justice be lost as a core purpose of this sector. Self-interest alone should motivate us to retain it. It increases our capacity exponentially.

When people concerned about what’s the “right” or “just” thing to be done in a given situation gather together in committees and associations, they don’t only use common resource pools for the good of themselves and others. Something else rather amazing often happens: the very act of voluntarily associating with others has powerful effects upon the participants, binding them into a social group and committing them to one another. Participants in all types of voluntary action come to identify with one another over time, and develop.

This trait is sometimes termed solidarity, or brotherhood and sisterhood, and in theology, this communion among people for common good is often imbued with a higher meaning that implies a deep sacred spirit is present and felt in the commons.

In a culture of individualism and the current misplaced belief in the omnipotence of markets, those of us committed to the third sector and problem-solving through the commons need to remind ourselves and others at every opportunity that the actual experience of mutuality is one that no single individual or organization can create. Commons occurs only when people do things together that none of them could do alone. Tocqueville’s highlighting of the importance of the science of association points up the continuing importance of knowledge of the commons, of how to successfully combine in associations, apart from family and friends and outside the state and the market. We hold this knowledge in common, and lose it only at our peril.


Mansfield, Harvey C. and Delba Winthrop. 2000. Democracy in America, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL

Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162: 1243-1248.

Lohmann, Roger A. 1992. The Commons: Perspectives on Nonprofit Organization and Voluntary Action. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Roger A. Lohmann, Ph.D., is Editor-in-Chief of Nonprofit Management and Leadership. He is also a Professor in the Division of Social Work, School of Applied Social Sciences of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at West Virginia University. He is the author of The Commons: New Perspectives on Nonprofit Organization, Voluntary Action and Philanthropy; and Breaking Even: Financial Management in Human Services; co-author of Social Administration and numerous articles and papers.

  • kbaril

    Is the graphic on this article some sort of joke? I don’t get it

    But dialogue on the commons is critical- before we loose it as a part of our community heritage- I studied Admiralty law based on common law- and the pragmatic- we’re all on this ship together- is a beacon for great negotiations and win/win social policy- Folks might want to look at common law legal cases all the way from early water law- expropriated for the highest best social benefit for all– to last week’s common law ruling in a Texas court that — air, like water, wildlife and shellfish- are to be managed for “common benefit ” and therefore people have a right to sue for clean air and climate change– thanks for the article

  • Marcello Palazzi

    Progressio Foundation, which I co-founded in 1989 in Rotterdam, called it the “civic” domain, and specifically, civic economy, civic leadership, civic governance and civic enterprise. Civic originates from the Latin civis, the citizens, ethically and philosophically, the appropriate unit to which all human action in the economic, governance, entrepreneurial and leadership spheres ought to aim at. This is not just the right thing to do, but surely it is accompanied by just rewards to the civis, as the cases of Singapore, the Scandinavian countries and a few others can prove, if we examine the last 25 years’ records.

  • Pat Nichols

    Lohman’s thoughtful piece resonated strongly on a couple of points. The notion that our sector exists to address market failures is both too anemic and too robust, it seems to me. We can’t fully satisfy the implied obligation there (sometimes it falls to government and sometimes it simply can’t be satisfied at lest in the short term).

    Also, it seems obviously true that “common” activity precedes markets and governments–both logically and historically. In fact, both are best seen as collaborative exercises. It seems to me markets are better understood as means of communication (inherently shared or common) about the transfer of goods and services. That framing sees them as limited but powerful vehicles for addressing a limited range of issues. It might help the right get over the dangerous notion, identified by Lohman, that markets represent solutions to all ills. And, it might help the left get over a reflexive aversion to markets.

  • Allan Shore

    Love this piece. Makes the case very clearly, as I often argue, as to why the social sciences are really the strongest of sciences. The power of people in common is what makes other knowledge have value, blended or not. I was thinking of something similar today when I heard about the Master Teacher effort of the Obama Administration to reward STEM instruction. To me, having physical sciences, math, technology, etc., expertise without a balance of its sociological implications makes it nothing to most people in the future where the calculations of the software will forever be beyond their visibility anyway. If we make better people we get better overall results. Awesome writing.

  • Caroline Oliver

    A great topic – so crucial to all our futures. See also this year’s BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures by Niall Ferguson on Civil and Uncivil Societies and the work of Elinor Ostrom who died this summer. In the UK we are suffering from this agenda having become very political with the current government’s rhetoric around creating a “Big Society” while reining in public finances. A very uncomfortable juxtaposition.