Introducing The Democracy Collaborative – Q&A with Sarah McKinley

I see a real need for “scaled connectivity” to advance our work as part of a viable ecosystem.

In the run up to OPEN 2020 in London in June, we interviewed Sarah, Mckinley, Director for European Programs for The Democracy Collaborative and the European Representative for the Next System Project.

OSB: What is The Democracy Collaborative?

SM: The Democracy Collaborative is a 20 year old, US-based “think and do” tank. We’re a  research and design hub for the new economy. We work on theory which we put into practice via our on-the-ground projects. We have two main areas of work: Theory and policy, where we maintain a dialogue with the below to advance a radical new economy via the Next system project and our ‘engaged practice’ through which we assist and work with communities to build community wealth.

We have a number of models. We’ve worked in Cleveland for roughly 10 years where we have helped design and architect a network of co-ops through institutional design, but we’re also working in cities all over the US.

OSB: I’m a huge fan of Marjorie Kelly, her book Owning Our Future, was inspirational for me.

SM: Majorie is a Vice President of Democracy Collaborative, she’s a real thought leader.

OSB: I see she has written a new book, with your president, Ted Howard: The Making of a democratic economy. What does it cover?

SM: The new book says “yes, we need a revolution in ownership” and “yes, it’s already happening”. It explains what’s being done – and connects the projects into a larger political economic theory, with concrete examples. It weaves together the examples – and demonstrates how we need to layer in infrastructure and support – out of the margins into the mainstream.

OSB: Where are you based and what do you do at Democracy Collaborative?

SM: I’m in Brussels and I work on connecting European projects here into The Democracy Collaborative. For example, the work in Preston, which was inspired by Cleveland. Matthew Brown, the Council Leader in Preston is a Fellow with The Democracy Collaborative. We “bought him out of his day job” to keep him in Preston and facilitate learning exchanges for example, supporting the Preston Bank and a number of co-ops…. We need to add lots of support to ensure they succeed.

OSB: Preston offers a great model – I hope it is going to be replicated in more cities.

SM: Amsterdam is looking at Preston. In the UK there have been budget freezes – its impossible to raise funding in the UK. We helped seed Common Wealth – and we’re supporting Jules Peck, who is setting up a regional cooperative bank for the west of England in Bristol. We fed policy into Corbyn’s office and work with the Scottish Government, promoting community wealth building.

OSB: How is The Democracy Collaborative funded?

SM: About 75% of our funding comes from donors and foundational funding – from small foundations like The Northwest Area Foundation… all the way up to the Novo foundation (Peter Buffet – Warren’s son) – and 30% from work on the ground – consulting etc. The Next System work is funded from open ended foundational funding which we’re looking at increasing – we recognise we need to “go big or go home”… We’re trying to transition away from project funding to build scalable infrastructure to create a new economy – not tinker around the edges.

OSB: How big is The Democracy Collaborative?

SM: I’ve been with Democracy Collaborative for 8 years. When I started, we were 8, now we’re over 40 people with two offices. Our HQ is in Cleveland and our main office is in Washington DC. We have a $5m annual budget.

OSB: Thanks for explaining – you’ve really helped me understand The Democracy Collaborative. Which themes would you like to discuss at OPEN 2020?

SM: I want to talk about infrastructure and connectivity. There are lots of practitioners but how do they connect …? I see a real need for “scaled connectivity” to advance our work as part of a viable ecosystem. For example, in North Ayrshire the local authority has a £250m growth grant from the Scottish government. They want to use it to create a more democratic economy – and we want to help address how the council can use this cash to stimulate a local economy – with co-ops, via land use, bank charters etc… The models are all there, but we need to scale them and put them into practice.


If you are interested in discussing ideas around “scaled connectivity to advance our work as part of a viable ecosystem” please join us at OPEN 2020 in London on the 11th and 12th of June.

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