This is a modified part of a blog post first published on May 26, 2020, on TheConnectivist, a blog by Jaap van Till.

Hospitality exchange platforms help people who search for short-term accommodation find those that want to offer it for free. At its core, this is a commons-oriented mission of increasing the number of new connections between people and de-commodifying these encounters. Following the principle of generalized reciprocity, this practice forges a web of trust and a new type of economic relations between strangers at an international scale. While Couchsurfing – a platform built with the involvement of volunteers – has been overtaken and converted into a typical company lacking transparency and accountability towards its users, I want to demonstrate that such a project can thrive without representing extractive characteristics. Against the grain of “There-is-no-alternative” discourse, such a platform can be successful without focusing on profit-making. BeWelcome.org offers lessons for other endeavors promoting the Commons. Therefore, I invite you to learn about its organizational philosophy.

A French association has run the BeWelcome platform since 2007. It is an open-source project. Its origins go back to the Hospitality Club experience and volunteering. Hospitality Club was established in 2000. Around 2006, many volunteers left due to the lack of transparency, manipulation of volunteers, and some disagreements over the legal status.

No one is paid for their work with the platform BeWelcome.org. It is not the lack of finance but an organizational philosophy. Anja Kühner, Media Volunteer and former Executive Delegate at BeWelcome working as a professional economy journalist and tourist guide, explains that having paid staff could be detrimental in the long run because of the internal dynamics it would trigger: “Probably some things would go faster – like being able to pay for coders. If one coder is being paid and the volunteer is not, then the volunteer would most likely stop working for BeWelcome immediately out of the feeling for inequality. Then other things would go slower.” She clarifies, “BeWelcome will sometimes pay for items, legal fees for instance, but it will not charge for, or make money out of, the hospitality exchanges that it is set up to promote.” [1]

Most volunteers have full-time jobs, and some are retirees. The members of the 2019-2020 Board of Directors are a teacher, a businesswoman, a biologist, a retired civil servant, and a circus teacher.

A non-profit can base its operation on the work of volunteers, therefore, it is the appropriate status for such a platform. For-profit counterpart, Couchsurfing, uses volunteer work, which is questionable from the legal point of view.

The costs are funded with voluntary donations. For example, in the operation year 2020-2021, their collection goal was 1300 Euros, whereas the total operation costs amounted to 3250 Euros. They had already some money from the previous years. The donations have exceeded the last year’s objective. BeWelcome’s team almost has reached this year’s goal of 600 Euros.

Data harvesting is one of the ways platform-operating companies earn money. Due to transparency issues, it is not clear whether Couchsurfing has included it in its business model. In contrast, BeWelcome.org highlights its commitment to privacy in its ethical standards. Since November 2019, the organization has a new Privacy Policy replacing the one dating from 2012. The rule now specifies that: “BeWelcome does not set any cookies to obtain or transmit marketing or other information. The only cookies set are for the essential purpose of user authentication and to display preference settings. Use of the site will be deemed consent to these essential cookies.” Another document describing Data Rights states: “BeWelcome does not use personal data to make money, either for itself or on behalf of others.”

The platform may transfer member information to a third party, however, for a specified purpose of increasing the quality of the service. Anja Kühner gives such an example: “If BeWelcome does a member survey[,] we need to use a survey tool. Last time we did this was via Lamapoll. As we are using an external tool we have to inform our members about this in the privacy policy. The transfer of their email addresses happened for the sole purpose of sending them the poll request. We signed a contract for “commissioned data processing” which means that the data transferred can only be used for the defined purpose BeWelcome needs (like sending out emails to our members).”

Furthermore, sharing data for commercial reasons is prevented by non-profit’s statutes. A decision to sell data would require a decision by the General Assembly and Anja Kühner deems it highly difficult to pass the vote for this.

One may argue that the platform exists because the volunteers are employed in the market. Through their contributions, however, they are creating a non-market system of exchange. They benefit because they can de-commodify some parts of their travels. The better the platform works and the more people are in, the more possibility to exchange hospitality. Therefore, it is in every participants’ interest to contribute. Consistent with the idea of the Commons, one works for oneself while also working for others. A culture is built in the long run, and more commons-based initiatives can emerge due to a mentality shift and good experiences.

The example of Couchsurfing has demonstrated that a for-profit model can actually undermine the mission of hospitality exchange. The management’s centralized decisions have suppressed community building, which was the focus of the platform before the takeover. Many have complained about the erasing of location groups and replacing them with different more atomized features. The investment in marketing has also had detrimental effects because the organization did not match it with culture building activities. Many people unfamiliar with the culture of sharing may undermine the experience for hosts because of the number of requests exceeding the capacity to reply and filter through. This has led many to stopping hosting altogether. I experienced such periods as a Couchsurfing host during tourist influxes.

It seems that slow growth and consistency all the way is a better option in the long run. For example, not paying the core team would put every contributor at the same level. Someone who hosts a lot, as some people do, is also making a considerable contribution to the network. Where should one draw a line between paid and unpaid assistance? Contributing to the platform maintenance and hosting people are indispensable for enabling hospitality. Hosting can also come with inconvenience, such as dealing with a problematic guest or cleaning a lot after someone with different cleanliness standards.

The advantage of this model is that everyone can contribute as little and as much as one wants to, making the opportunity to make a contribution and participate in a collective endeavor more accessible to anyone. Hopefully, platforms like this will help to construe a new economic paradigm. It takes a joint practice.

[1] Interview answers were sent on May 20th, 2020.

Teaser photo credit: By Maniago – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4735506