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Grass roots software provider Community Forge goes from 0-100 in six years

Swiss nonprofit Community Forge was founded in the aftermath of the 2008 banking implosion. The first mission statement was about giving communities the tools they needed, most especially the monetary tools, to become more independent and resilient. Tim Anderson, from the LETS in Geneva, had teamed up with Matthew Slater, a software developer to build a community web portal and accounting tool suitable for LETS. Having deployed in Geneva they decided to go further and publish a free software package, and offer to manage the hosting for as many groups as possible, sharing costs. They found a group of Belgian SEL who were already cooperating and were ready to invest time in partnering to develop the software for themselves and the movement. With only a few donations from these groups, they struggled to keep the web server running, to fix bugs, to upgrade without breaking things, to document and deliver training. Many members in these community groups were hostile to money and/or technology or anything which looked professional, so the only way to engage them was to give the site for free and seek donations later.

The donations did come though ranging from 20EUR one off donations to a few hundred every year from larger groups. Slater, the nomadic sole developer used much of this money for travelling, while the rest was used to bring activists together to build relationships and explore the way ahead.
All those conversations were inconclusive though, since there was only enough money to engage volunteers. Few activists wanted simply to support the mundane work of running a web service. Most wanted a context and support their own activities. One of the Belgians though, a solvent single woman with a garden and a dog who probably wouldn't call herself an activist, started to take on a support role, answering emails and managing bug reports, since neither of the founders wanted to get too involved in day to day running.

Then last year, after a particularly difficult upgrade, Slater put out the call amongst the members for more help to manage such processes. It was quickly decided that there was enough money to engage our volunteer server manager more formally, and another Belgian lady joined the support team and began rigorous testing of the software. Perhaps it is a Belgian thing, but a support team coalesced and quickly adopted formal processes, having regular online meetings, and allowing the founders to take a back seat in running the organisation.

Then this year, the French national coordination group SELidaire, started recommending Cforge to hundreds of SEL and requests for new sites started coming faster. In total 3-400 sites have been set up) but today over 100 are judged to be 'active'. Several more communities in several countries who have downloaded & translated Hamlets which is open source and are running it on their own servers.

Community Forge is a success story of grass roots organising building and deploying open source tools without receiving a penny from traditional sources, and without every having found a graphic designer. It shows women without families finding instead a role in the community, and taking on sometimes heavy responsibilities with great reliability. It shows how acts of sustained generosity, although over a period of years, can become stable social structures.

What's next? The open source components will be used to upgrade a similar, larger, older project, Community Exchange Systems. That project should produce protocols for inter-community exchange, and Community Forge looks forward to sharing more software and becoming more interoperable with other community currencies.


Matt, This is an awesome story similar to the Knowledge Commons and and where that is going. Good luck! Great meeting you.


Our organization is currently working on a project, Kandu, to co-ordinate efforts amongst subsistence farmers in South Africa to make their fresh produce surplus available in urban areas. You mention plans for protocols for inter-community exchange in upgrading the Community Exchange System, and we are very interested in exploring if our system would could leverage these protocols. Such an integration would be mutually beneficial, giving existing participants a wider variety of products to spend their earnings on, whilst historically disadvantaged farmers would get exposure to a new market. Is there a way for us to get involved in what you are doing there?

Keep well


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