Finding Fair: Running a Not-for-Profit as a Business Enterprise

June 23, 2022


When it comes to remuneration, what is considered fair?

One of the three ethics of permaculture is ‘Fair Share’. This ethic was originally conceived by Bill Mollison as ‘Limits to Population and Consumption’. It then evolved to be known as ‘Return of Surplus’, before being popularised by David Holmgren as Fair Share. 

Like all things in permaculture, there is no dogma and so this ethic is alive and continues to evolve. The definition I personally like is ‘Future Care’ as it has the potential to encompass and include all the previous definitions and go further still. 

Alas, I digress, the choice of wording is a whole other philosophical conversation in its own right that many have discussed at length, read here, here and here.

The intention of this article is to explore how the not-for-profit organisation I founded and manage, Grounded Permaculture Action Party Inc., has experienced the concept of Fair Share whilst running community events and social enterprises over the last 6 years. 

Perhaps it will stimulate a discussion within the active membership to help us grow and evolve.

Perhaps it will stimulate interest from outside parties to engage and assist us to grow and evolve.

Perhaps it will simply stimulate your thoughts and ponder on the complexities of life.

Perhaps I just need to write it down to unpack and make sense of my thoughts.


The cultural context in which our economy operates is a mix of capitalism and socialism - arguably a mixed economy by definition. Both systems have principles that are true and good, and both systems have dark aspects which are also true, but definitely not good.

In these instances, ‘ism’ denotes a system, developed and adopted by humans based on a set of values and principles. These systems are not good or bad, they are simply a framework by which we can organise our large and complex societies. Humans with all their virtue and faults, create and interact with those systems. The environmental and social consequences of those systems are simply a result of the humans, their values and associated decision-making.

An observation that I’ve noticed as I interact with the active members of Grounded, is that quite a few of them hold negative views about capitalism and are quite vocal about it. I can fully relate as my views use to be this way - however to run a successful business enterprise - whether not-for-profit or not - one must embrace the idea of capitalism.

Whilst the criticisms of capitalism are warranted, and we have witnessed immense environmental destruction and social exploitation under this system, these criticisms only offer a partial truth and often dismiss or ignore the good in capitalism. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater if you will. 

Yes, there is good capitalism. Founding principles that are fair and just. Read the capitalism link above.


When I hear feedback about how, to some, Grounded is ‘too capitalistic’, I listen, but I also take it with a grain of salt. 

I care not for the random opinions of those that do not understand the inner workings and operational activities of our organisation. I care not for the opinions of those who do not know how to run an organisation that rewards members for their innovation and entrepreneurial efforts and provides opportunities for our members to develop their right livelihoods. 

I do care about the opinions of those outside the organisation that know how to run a successful organisation. Demonstration is authority as they say. 

I do care about the opinions of those that are intimately involved and play an indispensable role in the organisation's activities - it is absolutely imperative that these people feel valued for their contributions. 

There are some that believe we should be doing all this work without money. I’ve found that in our cultural context, this level of organisation without money is limited to rainbow-style tribal organisation - which people embedded within our cultural context can only do for a limited time before burning out or depleting all their resources. This of course is possible if one goes back to completely tribal ways of living completely removed from western society altogether - but again this level of organisation is limited to the tribal red level. And while that seems like a romantic notion for many, myself included, it is not a practical reality.

The reality is that I and my community are embedded in a highly complex society that operates on multiple levels of organisation that continue to evolve. My consciousness is a reflection of that and vice versa. As I take my role of directing the Grounded organisation very seriously, I have come to understand the intricacies of the developmental perspective on human organisation. With these understandings, part of my role is to integrate best practice at every level into our organisation, even aiming beyond ‘teal’ and integrating organisational values that haven’t even been defined yet. Those who know me would have heard me go on (rant even) about what is coming with the Visionary Indigo organisational paradigm. Another thesis I am yet to publish. 

There are some that believe a not-for-profit organisation, especially a permaculture organisation, should not make any profit. Alas, those that hold these views misunderstand that the not-for-profit organisational model arose out of the ‘green’ paradigm and is simply a business structure designed for an organisation to conduct business with an altruistic aim, usually for some environmental or social good.

A healthy not-for-profit organisation should in fact make a profit. It is legally and ethically entitled to if it wishes to cover its overhead expenses, reinvest in its purpose and continue to operate. It’s what the organisation does with the profit which makes an organisation not-for-profit. Profits need to be directed to furthering the mission of the organisation, rather than distributed amongst directors, members or shareholders. 

However, it is also ethically fair, and completely legal for a not-for-profit organisation to distribute revenue to pay its members a fair and reasonable compensation for contributing goods and services to the activities that generate said revenue.

None of this goes against the legislation that governs not-for-profits, the rules of association or the permaculture ethic of Fair Share aka Future Care aka Return of Surplus - it in fact it is in full alignment with it.

In my role with Grounded Permaculture Action Party Inc., I am responsible for managing the budgets of each and every gig. Not only am I responsible for managing all the income generated, but I am also responsible for making sure the organisation covers overheads, makes a small profit, and that all members involved in generating that income get their ‘Fair Share’. 

A responsibility I take very seriously.

Over time I have come to understand that in this context, the ethic of ‘Fair Share’ is a completely subjective term… especially when it comes to money. 


Each individual's definition of ‘fair’ is subject to where they are at in their life's journey, their underlying beliefs and adopted values about the world, how much they resonate with what we do, their time-built relationship with the organisation and their own personal relationship with money. 

For some, ‘fair’ is simply the opportunity to volunteer and contribute. Money doesn’t even come into it. They are absolutely over the moon at being offered the opportunity to volunteer at one of our events or enterprises and get a huge amount of value out of the experience. They might be free-spirits in their explorative years that don’t place much value on money, or they have a well-paid but meaningless job. The experiences they have and the connections they make through our events and enterprises enrich their life experience and help build their social, experiential, intellectual, cultural and spiritual capital sufficiently enough that financial returns are not required. As a not-for-profit community organisation Grounded relies heavily on the contribution of these ‘front-line’ volunteers.

For others, more committed to the mission with a time-built trust relationship with the organisation, it is fair that we are all in this together, we share the risk and we share the rewards. These people are prepared to work for nothing if there is nothing to share, but want a fair share when there is money to go around. They appreciate transparency by having access to backend budget information. They are happy to receive whatever dollars so long as they feel valued for their contributions and everyone involved is getting a ‘fair share’ in relation to their efforts and contributions. These people have been the major contributors to all Grounded events and enterprises over the years and the organisation wouldn’t be what it is today without the incredible input of these individuals that are prepared to grow with the organisation.

For others, fair is getting a standard hourly rate. These people are locked into the world view of exchanging time for money, regardless of the value delivered or created. We very rarely do this kind of fair.

For others, they want a pre-agreed, set and quoted fee for a particular task or job regardless of the time taken to complete that task, or the amount of money available in the budget. These people might be highly skilled in their area of expertise, place a clear value on their work and have gone long down the path of carving out their means to right livelihood.

Each person's definition of ‘fair’ is valid, but as you can see it completely depends on where they are at in their life, how they view the world and the budget we have to work with and the priorities to deliver each event and enterprise successfully.


The governments of our society have very clearly legislated clear minimum wages and award rates. In Australia, it is now $21.38 an hour minimum. Industry awards are above this, however, if you are a junior, apprentice or trainee it can be much less.

For our society - these rates are what is deemed ‘fair’. However, is it fair that two workers be paid the same rate, when one is highly capable and brings much value to the operation while the other might be completely useless? 

Is it fair that an employee be paid the same award wage whether they are run-off-their-feet-without-a-moment-to-breathe for 12hrs a day, or whether it is dead quiet and they are standing around doing nothing?

Is it fair that in the above examples the employer might be making bulk profit off their labour in the former, whilst in the latter example the employer might be losing money and the business going bust… all the while the employee gets the same rate regardless?

Alas, in our society it is expected that the employer has the skills and experience necessary to manage a business that provides significant value to the community to charge for their goods and services and ride out the highs and the lows with the hope that the returns are at the very least fair for their efforts. All the responsibility falls on the employer. However, in the eyes of the critic, if they succeed they are labelled too capitalistic for generating profits, if they fail, then they are foolish and stupid for running the business into the ground and not offering value to the community.

As the success and cash flow of Grounded continues to grow - so too do the voices of the critics.

In our government-regulated system of minimum award wage, the employee is guaranteed a minimum award in relation to living costs so that they may have a decent quality of life. However one could argue that this relationship effectively disempowers the employee as there is no incentive to go above and beyond to be innovative and bring more value to the business. 

Is it fair for an employer to pay minimum wage, when that employer could be making three or even ten times that off their labour? Or the other way around when the employer has to pay that and the business is going under? What is actually fair?


Recently I got a little insight into another way to look at this conundrum in an effort to find fair. 

On one level there is replaceable work. You might be doing a task, but you are replaceable. Essentially, unskilled labour, easy (or sometimes hard and boring) work any chump could do. Serving, washing dishes, cleaning etc. Basic labour kind of stuff. This is where and why we have minimum and award wages.

On another level there is irreplaceable work. That’s when you are going above and beyond the bare minimum to really keep the business not only operating but improving. You might be on the minimum award wage for hospitality, but you’ve been doing it for years and you know how to run teams and your customer service skills are of the highest quality. These are irreplaceable hours where someone brings knowledge, skills, and experience which make them irreplaceable, at least in that moment. You still might be following orders, or directions from the boss - but you are stepping up and doing work that no one else is capable or willing to do and that adds a huge amount of value to the operation and often drives more returns and profit for the employer. This work is more valuable than the replaceable hours and should be valued as such.

Then there is the behind-the-scenes management, leadership & entrepreneurial work. A lifetime of building relationships with the right people in the right places to get the gigs, having the confidence and negotiation skills to do the deals. Possessing an intrinsic level of entrepreneurship creates the opportunity for everyone to creatively contribute and potential to earn a right livelihood. Creating something from nothing and having the courage to take the risk and put it all on the line to make it happen. Having the financial, experiential, intellectual, material and social capital to make something happen. 

As an individual capable of all three levels of work - I can confidently say that this is the rarest form as not many individuals have this capacity. Due to its scarcity and the immense value it contributes in creating the space for the other two forms of work, one could even argue it is the most valuable form of work. 


So with all this information at hand. How does one structure the budget of our events and enterprises so it is fair for all involved? All I can say is that I am continuing to learn, grow and evolve each and every time.

As our western society's centre of cultural gravity evolves to a place of individual sovereignty - I thoroughly believe it is up to each individual to negotiate their terms of engagement in truth, trust and transparency. 

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