October 8, 2011; Source: Sydney Morning Herald | Since 2006, CouchSurfing International has been a nonprofit dedicated to connecting like-minded travelers to meet and share cultural experiences. The social network couchsurfing.org links travelers with free accommodations across the globe. Members include not only people who want to travel and hosts willing to put them up, but also people who volunteer to meet travelers for coffee, meals, or just to give them a local perspective and show them around. In the summer of 2011 CouchSurfing announced to the public that it would no longer be a nonprofit since the organization was denied federal tax-exempt charity status.
CouchSurfing International will be a for-profit B Corporation (the “B” is for “benefit”), instead. As a B Corporation, the organization will be legally responsible for advancing the vision of a “better world” for society as well as for shareholders. Some of the CouchSurfing community was less than pleased about this shift.
When the announcement was made, groups were immediately created in response to the site’s losing nonprofit status, and online petitions were created expressing concern for members. Would members now be required to pay fees to join the website? How would this change the CouchSurfing community?
Some members were outraged enough to leave the community for similar websites, like Bewelcome.com and Hospitalityclub.org. On the petition on change.org, CS members voiced their concern:
Members did more than use the website as a free service; they invested earnest effort to create a common new set of accepted values: global hospitality, respect for cultural differences, tolerance of social choices, trust in community, open sharing of time and self in the pursuit of informal diplomacy and friendship. They promoted these ideals and were encouraged to do so by the management, who said that CouchSurfing would always remain a non-profit organization.
We believe these changes betray the relationship the organization had with its network of volunteers and members, the relationship that shaped CouchSurfing into what it is today, and are concerned that its values will not persist.
Despite backlash from infuriated members, it looks as if Couchsurfing.org has officially made the switch to for-profit status. As part of the conversion, the company was required to put its assets into a charitable fund. New Hampshire native and founder of CouchSurfing International Casey Fenton chose to give the fund to the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, which will award grants to programs that foster appreciation of different cultures.
The CEO of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Daniel Hoffer, did not comment on the total value of the fund, but said the amount transferred to the fund approaches $1 million. The company has also advanced $7.6 million in investor money.
Can the CS community still expect full transparency from CouchSurfing International in terms of management structure, ownership, and finances as a for-profit B Corporation? Couchsurfing.org has over 3 million members, and claims to have helped accommodate about 6 million traveler-host experiences. Should a social network website with a greater global initiative like CS have the right to be granted nonprofit status?—Aine Creedon