The Challenges Of Shifting Ownership: Reflections From A Recent Conference

Alternative Ownership Enterprise
March 26, 2024

By Julie Menter, Program Director, Transformative Financing Structures

I have been working full-time at Transform Finance for just over 6 months now. The time has really flown by! I have helped write our most recent report on Alternative Ownership Enterprises (AOEs), built our AOE learning hub, started working with some wonderful partners, led webinars, and more! 

Ownership is a central theme of my work, yet different people often have different understandings of what this word means. I recently reflected on this at a gathering hosted by the RadicalxChange Foundation, Dark Matter Labs and Margaret Levi's Stanford University research team: “What & How We Own: The Politics of Change''. The event surfaced some of the underlying tensions and challenges inherent in seeking to shift the status quo around ownership and explored how to go from theory to action. 

Sharing my thoughts about changing ownership of businesses during the “What & How We Own: The Politics of Change” conference (Photo credit: Gooch)

Some seek to change who owns, while others seek to change what ownership means 

Many people concerned with ownership are seeking to grow the assets of those most marginalized by our economic system. This work includes providing pathways to ownership for employees at a business, approaches to growing home ownership, allowing for community investment in real estate, and even perhaps taking ownership of our own data.

At the same time, there are those who wish to change what ownership means. Instead of ownership of assets being distributed more fairly, perhaps we should challenge our very conception of ownership. What would it mean to prioritize stewardship instead? What if instead of rights, we had responsibilities for careful and responsible management of what we own? As Pam Glode-Desrochers shared: “The land doesn’t belong to us. We belong to the land.” Her work at the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre to create FreeLand and the Land that Owns Itself project at the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights are both examples of what becomes possible with this mindset shift. 

These different perspective are present in my work on Alternative Ownership Enterprises, where some models, such as Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), focus on transferring asset-building opportunities to a company’s employees, while others, like Perpetual Purpose Trusts (PPTs), aim to redefine ownership as a means to protect a mission. In most cases, collaboration across those perspectives makes sense to foster a broader collective movement, but it's also crucial to recognize that tensions might arise from differing priorities and theories of change. The ongoing debate about whether to embrace or to shun KKR’s Ownership Works initiative, which grants workers phantom shares of the companies the private equity fund acquires, is a good example of the working tensions in the ownership space.

Shifting ownership, without shifting power, is often insufficient

Several speakers at the conference emphasized that shifting ownership is not sufficient. History is full of examples of assets being taken from the communities that controlled them, from colonization around the world, to the theft of land from indigenous communities in the United States to the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa of 1921. Strategies aimed at building political power, in addition to economic power, may prove more resilient in the long term to truly transform what and how we own. I am inspired by the examples of Push Buffalo and Richmond LAND in this area.

This also holds true within a company. In addition to building wealth for workers, some alternatively owned companies, such as Cooperatives and Employee Ownership Trusts (EOTs) also shift decision-making power to them. In addition, collective bargaining agreements and co-determination are ways to build power within companies. When we focus only on wealth creation, we may be missing another important driver of impact. 


Ownership is not just about things, it’s also about relationships

While we talk about changing the ownership of assets, we need to recognize we’re also talking about changing our relationships with each other. As mentioned above, alternative ownership leads to a different kind of governance, which can sound great in theory but be quite challenging in practice. During the conference, I led a session on the “touchy feely” side of ownership to explore these dynamics. We discussed how to build enough resilience to try new things, learn, be accountable, adjust, repair if needed and try again. Recognizing the skills required to hold participatory processes and dedicating time to develop those skills is as vital as developing new legal structures. This is why many organizations transitioning to Alternative Ownership structures enlist the help of technical assistance providers and invest significantly in change management.

Some of the notes from the “Touchy-Feely: How do we decide and own together” session

The journey to changing the status quo of ownership, though daunting, is driven by a committed community aspiring towards equity and transformation. It’s an honor to work alongside the many dedicated to this work, building a future where the economy works for everyone, not just the few.

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