Our article on Freecycle’s growing pains, by Matt Weiser, elicited a torrent of passionate response, including a lengthy letter from Freecycle founder Deron Beal. Here’s a sample of the commentary, and there’s a whole lot more posted in Gristmill, our blog.

Dear Editor:

After having read your article about Freecycle, I felt compelled to write to you. I have a real issue with how some members of the press feel the need to tear down everything they come across. I do realize that both sides of the story need to be told, but I do not understand why one side — usually the downside — is almost always given more space than the other. Maybe because the naysayers like to say “nay” so much and so loudly?

I, for one, think it would have made a much more compelling story to focus on just how much the members of Freecycle are keeping out of landfills, instead of how someone wasn’t happy and left the group, only to start up his own group. I want to hear about all the items that aren’t clogging up our streams and rivers. I want to hear how someone’s life was turned around because a computer was given to them when they were homebound and without work. I want to hear how someone was burned out of their home and bombarded with goods from fellow Freecycle members, giving them everything needed to start over. I’m ready to see positive press for a change!

Freecycle and Deron Beal, as well as all of the moderators who are properly running their groups and the countless volunteers who keep the organization going, are doing a great and fantastic thing. I intend to keep reminding the press of this every chance I get.

Cara Crosby Miller

Moderator/Owner, Pine Bluff Freecycle

Pine Bluff, Ark.

 

Dear Editor:

Just a note to thank Matt Weiser for his thought-provoking and courageous article on the Freecycle network.

I happen to be the very first Freecycle moderator who ever “jumped ship.” Don’t let Deron feed you the lies that most of us were removed or asked to step down. The truth is we chose to break away from Freecycle because we didn’t like what we were seeing. Many of us were chastised or threatened for speaking up.

I took my Eugene, Ore., list of over 800 members (at that time), changed our list name, and announced that we were no longer affiliated with Freecycle. It was the best move I could have possibly made, and I have never regretted it.

Deron, however, immediately snapped up my old list name and appointed himself moderator, pointing folks to his list with a link on his national website. He then advertised for a new moderator and has used that list to “compete” with us ever since. If this sounds like someone who was only in this for the sake of recycling, or who had only good intentions for our community, then I would hate to see how someone in it purely for selfish reasons would act!

Annie

Owner/Moderator, Eugene FreeRecycle

Eugene, Ore.

 

Dear Editor:

This is a very solid and good piece of reporting. I think Matt Weiser struck a good balance between the opportunities and drawbacks of getting funding from Waste Management.

Robert J. Brulle, Ph.D.

Drexel University

Philadelphia, Penn.

Editor’s Note: Brulle was quoted in Weiser’s story.

The following letter from Freecycle founder Deron Beal is posted in unabridged form on our blog.

 

Dear Editor:

As the founder and executive director of the Freecycle Network, I applaud your desire to cover the challenges that a nonprofit organization faces in seeking underwriters/funding for its cause — particularly one like ours, with 1,250,000 members, no budget, and no staff, at least until two months ago. I do, however, feel compelled to set the record straight on some of the issues addressed in your article.

You claimed that groups are “crying ‘hypocrisy’ and leaving by the score” as a result of our receiving our first-ever substantial funding — aside from my own personal savings — from our first-ever underwriter, Waste Management and the Recycle America Alliance. That I weighed carefully the decision to accept external underwriting is very true. But that groups are “leaving by the score” couldn’t be further from the case. I can count on one hand the groups that have left, out of our several thousand local groups in over 50 countries worldwide.

Any local moderator would confirm this, as local moderators are all members of a worldwide moderator group which we use to trade thoughts and ideas with each other — no secrets here, believe me. Also, in [Matt] Weiser’s interview with me, he himself stated that the fact that groups actually were not leaving was also reflected by his own research and is certainly reflected by the exuberant growth in groups across the globe.

In regards to our trademark, you say, “Success in that endeavor has been elusive: an unrelated Florida company beat Beal to the trademark office by just a few months.” This is an “almost truth,” but tainted by misinformation. Actually we have a trademark whether or not another company applies a couple months before us for “future use.” The company in Florida that applied for future use has a snowball’s chance in Miami of being registered, based on any competent copyright and trademark lawyer’s opinion. So, actually, we are in very good shape trademark-wise and success is not at all “elusive,” but rather all but assured.

You mention that my previous day job was in “recycling and job training, run by Rise, Inc., a Minnesota-based nonprofit.” The nonprofit is called Rise, but last time I checked it was a nice, little local recycling group right here in Tucson, Ariz.

You refer to past legal issues Waste Management has had. This is where I believe the article could have sprouted some interesting wings. It’s a dilemma that multinationals and nonprofits face together. A multinational like WM knows it will be labeled “greenwasher” by supporting a cause that eliminates waste from its own landfills and reduces its own bottom line. And a nonprofit knows that will inevitably lead to articles such as your own. What does it mean for a multinational corporation to be willing to take a huge risk? This would have been an interesting article on corporate civic responsibility.

In making the difficult decision as to whether or not to accept underwriter funding, please note that I also consulted a nonprofit ethicist who does contract work for green mutual funds, and he stated that WM and the Recycle America Alliance were appropriate as funders.

I was misquoted as saying that there wasn’t time to ask the moderators if they would vote for or against such support. The fact is that, like all other fiduciary issues with all major conservation nonprofits, including Grist, those liable for the results must vote for or against binding contracts: this means the Freecycle Network’s board. All the time in the world doesn’t change that situation. What was unfortunate was that the announcement of WM’s support came out in the press without my knowledge before I was able to talk to the moderators.

As regards “control” you stated, “[L]ast summer, Beal required every local moderator to add him as an ‘owner’ with full moderator powers. Beal said this was essential, because some moderators had abandoned their groups, or failed to control spammers.” In reality I didn’t require this of anyone, nor am I an owner of any group but my own local group. Moderators felt it made sense to have a backup address as a co-owner of every real “Freecycle” group worldwide.

A further quote: “Those who refuse to add Beal as moderator have been told to stop using the Freecycle name, and in some cases, he has convinced Yahoo! to shut down groups that don’t comply.” This is simply not correct. The only local group I am a moderator of is my own local group, as explained above. There is a detailed new approval process run by other volunteer moderators and there have always been rules which are required of all groups.

And finally, a parting quote from you: “And though many former boosters are now feeling down in the dumps about Freecycle, Beal tries to remain positive.” Well, duh! As we continue to grow by leaps and bounds (we are growing by 100,000+ members a month), as we continue to keep 50 tons a day out of landfills, and as the humblest among us becomes a philanthropist/gifter, I find strength in these countless acts of beauty. We are creating a worldwide gift economy with a paid staff of one. In every program must come a little static. But I’m hearing lots of beautiful music, I assure you — no “trying” required.

By the way, I still think Grist is very cool, and urge you to reference other Grist articles about Freecycle that present a much different picture.

Sincerely,

Deron Beal

Founder & Executive Director, The Freecycle Network

Tucson, Ariz.

Matt Weiser replies:

The energetic response to my story makes it clear that Freecycle’s growing pains raise real concerns for many of its followers. My goal was merely to get people thinking about these concerns, and I must say Deron Beal was refreshingly cooperative and candid when I interviewed him.

However, several points in his letter demand a response. He is correct that we goofed on the location of Rise, Inc., an editing mistake that we promptly corrected. But he also claims that I told him during our interview that groups were not leaving Freecycle. That is not true. At that time I knew of numerous groups that had already left, and I later learned of many more. He also claims that he never told me there wasn’t time for the moderators to vote on the Waste Management sponsorship. In fact, that was his first explanation, and he only added the second (that moderators shouldn’t vote on “binding” issues at all) after further discussion.

I must also make it clear that the story is based upon contact with many moderators on both sides of the issue — not just those quoted in the story. Thanks to all involved for sharing your opinions and time.