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On the heels of a $40 million experiment that caught mainstream media attention, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) are taking another step into mass consciousness today as Kimbal Musk – the billionaire Tesla board member and brother of fellow entrepreneur Elon Musk – is announcing the opening of membership applications for Big Green DAO, a Web 3 charity focusing on food justice.
In an interview with CoinDesk, Musk said that one of the goals of the charity is to overhaul the philanthropy industry with the use of blockchain-based tooling – a sector he believes is plagued by inefficiencies.
Big Green is also launching at a time when DAOs appear poised to follow non-fungible tokens (NFTs) as the next blockchain tech-based acronym to enter the public conversation. Search engine interest in the organizations, nominally leaderless online investment collectives that are jokingly referred to as “group chats with a bank account,” is at a multiyear high following the capers of ConstitutionDAO, a collective of 17,000 donors who raised millions in an attempt to purchase a rare print of the U.S. Constitution.
In light of the sudden scrutiny, Musk’s experiment is a daring step from a public figure risking personal and professional reputation to embrace an often sneered-upon technology, and a validation for the many developers and builders who have advanced DAO tooling in recent years.
Musk’s venture into blockchain began in earnest “a year ago,” spurred on by other billionaires – including his sibling, who was recently, and perhaps incorrectly, crowned richest man in the world – getting involved in bitcoin.
“There was Michael Saylor’s loud-and-proud investment, followed by my brother’s decision to participate at Tesla, and I’m on the board at Tesla – just as a responsible board member I had to spend more time on it,” he said in an interview.
Quickly he determined that crypto can be divided into two camps: what he calls the “speculators” and “the religious.”
“The religious are awesome,” he told CoinDesk. “They are total believers that this will decentralize the world, change governance, bring power back to the masses. It’s a beautiful conversation when you’re connected to someone religious about it.”
Nonetheless, the speculative noise – what the DAO scholar Paul Dylan-Ennis refers to as “the moat of trash” – nearly turned him off on the sector. Musk emphasized that he largely doesn’t even like investing his money in the stock market, and it was only the true believers that “kept him digging.”
“When someone is religious about something, I need to find out why. There’s some bad religions out there, but for the most part, there’s usually something underneath it all tying people together,” he said.
The thing tying people together in Web 3, according to Musk, is primarily community creation.
“It’s community like I’ve never seen it before. I’m a restaurant guy in my non-tech life, and I love that it brings people together, so that kept me interested. And the fact that it decentralizes power – that’s interesting to me. I’ve always had a healthy disrespect for the authorities,” he said.
Once Musk decided to start a Web 3 community of his own, he sought to surround himself with advisors both from the cryptosphere and from traditional finance.
While early conversations with crypto natives (including members of the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT community, whom he speaks fondly of) steered him toward projects that would create speculative assets – using an NFT drop to raise funds for charity, for instance – Musk’s initial focus for his Big Green DAO venture is on pure philanthropy.
His right-hand man in the effort is Matthew Markman, a Ph.D. candidate and a “DAO facilitator” for metaverse gaming community Decentraland, as well as a project manager and community moderator for two other projects – one of Web 3′s many prolific, assiduous polymaths.
Markman and Musk were connected via a mutual friend, Bear Kittay, a Web 3 investor and former Burning Man spokesperson. From there, the project’s network of crypto advisors grew to include Synthetix founder Kain Warwick, venture capital maven Vinny Lingham, frequent DAO contributor Priyanka Desai and ConsenSys executive Mike Kriak, among others.
Musk reports being “overwhelmed” with the “positive energy” he’s received from the crypto community.
“It’s not normal for me to have that degree of a warm welcome. The amount of people who would spend 20 hours on a whitepaper, just so my reputation wouldn’t be hurt – it’s my reputation! I thought that was very cool,” he said.
So far, the public response to Big Green DAO, whose white paper was released last week, has been overwhelmingly positive.
“In the past few days when we released it, we expected trolls to go nuts. I don’t think we got a single Twitter troll. For me, I get involved in a lot of things – cool, world-positive things – and you always get trolls. Not one,” beamed Musk.
According to Markman, the DAO’s architecture is the product of significant research, and it largely builds on preexisting models.
“I drew a lot from Decentraland DAO, I was looking at Uniswap, I was looking at Olympus DAO, I was just looking at every single DAO I could come across, their voting processes and their structures, to figure out what would work best for us,” said Markman.
The DAO leverages a multi-tier system including an executive committee and a broader voting community.
At the advice of project advisor and Ark Invest CEO Cathie Wood, the DAO took steps to ensure it could remain registered as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. This means the DAO is under the purview of a legal entity’s charter, which requires the group to focus on food justice, and the executive committee can vote down spurious proposals to ensure compliance.
When it comes to voting on grants distribution, however, power is largely in the hands of DAO members, and Markman is aiming to experiment with ranked-choice voting (which involves tinkering with DAO voting platform Snapshot’s base functionalities with a homebrewed user interface).
“The goal was to make a DAO that would have a flexible, agile process that we can’t have in our material voting systems. It’s difficult to say, change how we vote on one issue in our everyday voting, where in a DAO we can program different ways to vote for different systems,” Markman said.
One of the greatest challenges Markman anticipates is going to be initiating food justice workers in the tenets of Web 3.
“We’re going to have more surprises than you see in a lot of DAOs because we don’t have a social context going into it. We’re bringing in a lot of people who are distributed from a different space, and they’re not used to organizing online. We have to develop the social structures as we’re developing the social and governance structures,” he said.
However, the ultimate goal of the project is to enable frontline food justice workers to choose not just who gets the money, but also who gets the power in the organization.
Said Musk: “The core appeal of a DAO is a thesis: If we put the grant-making authority in the hands of the frontlines will it make a bigger impact than keeping the decision-making centralized?”
For crypto natives, Musk’s thesis has already largely been proven true.
In 2019, MolochDAO – a DAO designed to raise and distribute funds from ecosystem contributors for Ethereum infrastructure – led to a resurgence of interest in the tooling and design space in the wake of the collapse of The DAO, a 2016 cooperative investment experiment.
MolochDAO has since been repeatedly forked, leading to successful organizations such as MetaCartel and The LAO, and ultimately spurring a DAO renaissance that has continued into 2021.
More recently, the Gitcoin DAO has successfully distributed over $40 million in grants for public goods infrastructure based on community voting.
Early DAO pioneers, such as MolochDAO’s Ameen Soleimani, say that DAO infrastructure is ideal for charitable organizations because of the transparency of voting and use of funds, the lack of operational overhead, and the ability for groups to quickly reach and act on consensus.
That transparency and direct funding are exactly the qualities Big Green DAO is looking to bring to real-world philanthropy.
“The majority of funds in philanthropy end up going towards expenses with giving and accepting money. There’s so much excess waste in paying for procedures and bureaucracy,” said Markman.
Empathy without ego
Ultimately, Musk is hoping Big Green DAO can overhaul the structure of real-world philanthropy – a sector that accounts for $800 billion in annual of giving that he and Markman see as ripe for disruption.
“I’ve been to the Gates Foundation in Seattle – it’s like the United Nations. It’s the biggest building in the city. It’s got thousands of people who work there. I do think they have good intentions, but they’re spending a fortune on their overhead, and there isn’t a lot of transparency,” said Musk.
Musk noted that “it’s Bill’s money, so whatever” and that he doesn’t want to criticize the charitable work of others, but DAOs offer a leaner, alternative model.
“Why do we need an office? We’re so decentralized that we couldn’t fill one,” he said.
Markman also took aim at the “ego bloat” that comes with big-budget, big-name giving. Not only can “we can take out a lot of the middlemen,” but DAO-based charities can also decentralize away the shadow of a megadonor founder.
“The idea in the 2000s was a lean startup, and what we’re doing here is trying to create a lean organization,” said Markman.
‘It will work’
Big Green DAO’s initial efforts are scheduled to last a year and distribute over $1 million in funds. After that point, Musk and his team will pause and assess to what degrees the DAO structure has allowed the organization to reach its goals.
“We’ve given ourselves an out to say, ‘This experiment didn’t work,’ but we feel very bullish that it will work,” he said. “To be clear, this is an experiment. If this doesn’t work, we’ll go back to the drawing board and try it a different way.”
He noted that he’s committed to seeing his thesis play out, and that if the DAO fails for any reason the team will continue to tinker with the mechanics rather than abandon the tools.
According to Markman, it’s a coming-out moment for DAOs and the DAO community, which has been paving the way for projects like Big Green for years:
“We have a lot of crypto-native folks, and we have a lot of people who have never touched a wallet, never considered being here, were terrified of this space – and we’re bringing those communities together. It’s an important step in increasing adoption and adaptation of these technologies, systems, and social structures we’ve been keeping in our little echo chamber for a while.”