• The COVID-19 crisis has prompted a surge in small activist groups keen to tackle its social impacts.
  • But the reach and growth of these groups can be hampered by barriers created by a lack of legal infrastructure.
  • That's the thinking behind 'Action Commons' - a repository of legal forms and templates for use by smaller organizations.

Crises often trigger a strong surge of volunteerism and cooperative behaviour.

In most instances, people simply want to help with acute relief – donating funds, distributing food packs, joining protests, writing open letters or launching communication campaigns. But because all these actions typically involve collaboration, there are occasions where oneness of purpose is not enough to gel disparate actors for long enough to sustain the pace of teamwork.

In those instances, it is important to find means and forms through which volunteers can forge a charter durable enough to govern their relations and codify the unity of purpose needed to see a more long-term mission through.

Because volunteerism still remains the preserve of the relatively privileged, the kind of actors that band together in response to a particular crisis also tend to be busier and more risk-averse. They tend to have more of a reputation to lose, are more cautious, and more used to operating in rule-bound settings such as corporations, sophisticated non-profits and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government agencies than the average career activist.

These circumstances give rise to a desperate need to produce something akin to Creative Commons, but geared towards non-activists who are motivated by events to join the search for social impact solutions.

Of course, people will continue to favour other virtuous channels such as donations and related philanthropic activities, such as sitting on charity boards, or participating in stable identity-based voluntary networks, like school alumni groups and religious sororities or fraternities. But where the conditions necessary for change are operationally complex and somewhat novel, existing channels for doing good simply will not suffice.

Loosely organised professionals and their affiliated organizations need to find a cooperative mechanism flexible enough to accommodate highly diverse interests but coherent enough to behave like a unitary organization in those respects that matter most: product design, effective consensus building and alignment on mission, unified external communications and branding, among others. Most of the issues here, luckily, are addressed by the fast-growing literature on movement leadership. Except, sadly, the legalities.

Finding legal forms that grant both identity flexibility and operational coherence to this new resource - the Action Commons - is extremely challenging. We learnt that when COVID-19 led to an unprecedented surge of collaborative energy across the various World Economic Forum networks within which we are active.

In many ways, the Forum is the archetypal blueprint of voluntary action in the public interest.

Many people think of the Forum as Davos; but the Annual Meeting is actually a pretty small part of the Forum's work. The vast majority of the actors in its broader ecosystem have never been to Davos; they are mostly involved in small collaborative projects dotted all over the world, with only a loose organizational umbilical cord leading back to the Forum itself.

It is these highly multitudinous and diverse, mostly grassroots, projects that need the most help in giving legal form to the collaborations that birthed them, so that each should have the means to one day transition from a small, grassroots endeavour into a mighty, world-changing initiative - a smooth transition unmarked by intra-group conflict.

Some collaborative voluntary movements and networks simply crystallise into foundations, such as those behind various open-source software projects, various cryptocurrencies and blockchain projects and ethical initiatives such as the Marine Stewardship Council, Fairtrade, and the myriad of organic food certification movements.

In some parts of the world, non-profit law and foundation-forming practice are so advanced that such transitions can be a breeze. Elsewhere, however, informality predominates, and this requires legal covenants governing collaborative relationships to emerge from first principles. Cost also matters more in some geographies than others. Finding a lawyer to sift through collaborators’ intent and their end goals, and to cobble together language for by-laws and charters takes money and time, which can be in short supply.

My colleagues and I, whilst participating in a number of COVID-19-focused voluntary response networks under the ambit of the Leadership, Ethics & Values Initiative (LEVI), a voluntary action network that grew out of the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Africa Strategy Group, soon began to realise how quickly the importance of finding appropriate legal form around our collaboration escalated as the tangibility of our mission grew.

The more it appeared that talk was being translated into action and major organizations were expressing interest, the more legal form issues took centre-stage. For example, LEVI has for the last couple of weeks been working to expand Project Bounce Back’s SME mentoring framework into a broader, more systemic and multidimensional SME support strategy. But what exactly would be the legal nature of these mentorship-plus arrangements? Would the volunteer business coaches all of a sudden find themselves in lawsuits over 'wrong advice' they may have given, or because of intellectual property entanglements?

coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications - a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.

Because LEVI’s SME activities focus on Africa, and the continent is a long way from the litigious cacophony of some western countries, it is easy to be dismissive - until you realise that the major corporations whose support can be instrumental in such projects reaching scale won’t touch anything with potential legal liability issues.

That is how, halfway through thinking up ways to help SMEs build resilience for a post-COVID world, LEVI decided to add to its growing to-do list the need to kickstart a small Action Commons comprised, for now, of a few legal templates for collaborative networks and movements aiming for social impact. These templates will simply be derivatives from those being crafted for LEVI’s own work.

Paul Okumu, LEVI’s current coordinator, likes to say that one shouldn’t sacrifice an idea’s altitude for speed. But once boots touch the ground, and real lives are at stake, it is critical that all the legal dots connect, if for nothing at all to keep the flying kite of lofty values firmly connected to the bumpy earth of practical doing. Or, as Frannie Leautier, a veteran of development practice and current LEVI chair, would more pithily put it: “Information, knowledge and ideas reside everywhere.” The real challenge is finding forms of expression in the real-world of emotionally messy collaboration.

Legal certainty won’t remove the messiness, but it can clarify how and when they can ruin everything. And often that’s enough for aspiring world-changers to take the plunge.