“Attribution” (taking, earning, and stealing credit) as a form of Soft Capital

Q: How do we “pay” volunteers to work on an unpaid project? 🤔

A: we give them “attribution” in exchange for their work, more commonly known as “taking credit.”

The word “credit,” in this context, refers to those who have either earned, bought, or stolen attribution for a particular endeavor.

And in this context, the words “credit” and “attribution” represent forms of “soft capital,” which is distinguished from “hard capital,” more commonly known as: money.

For the sake of reference: “soft capital” is the basis of what’s more commonly known as a “gift economy,” which is how people work below the threshold of a cash or credit-based economy.

There are some forms of soft capital that cannot be bought for any amount of money, and some are actually more valuable. One of them is: trust.

Trust (a form of soft capital) can only be earned, can never be bought, and is lost in a moment.

As a form of soft capital, “attribution” is a little different than trust in this regard: it’s possible for someone to use money (hard capital) to “buy” attribution from others, in effect: taking credit for the work of others and assigning it to themselves.

Elon Musk serves as a recent example, whom used money (“hard capital”) to purchase the title of “founder” for both PayPal and Tesla, even though both ventures were actually founded by others.

Within a transactional economy, (which is dependent upon both hard capital (money) and some forms of soft capital, such as prestige), the title of “founder” carries significant clout, which is why attribution can be monetized, whereas “trust” (as a form of soft capital) cannot.

For those outside PayPal and Tesla, the purchased title of “founder” carries the implied clout that comes with a trust in Elon’s ability to successful launch an endeavor, whereas he may not be as trusted by those who were actually inside both of those organizations while each was actually launched.

Test this for yourself:

If Elon Musk himself approached and offered you $1 billion so you’d trust him, you’d probably not trust him even a little bit, would you? If anything, you may be even more suspicious of his motives.

As you’d work to establish his basis for trust, any evaluation would have nothing to do with money, and would rather have to do with his other attributes, many of them rooted in soft capital.

As forms of soft capital (the basis of gift economy), “trust” and “attribution” share an interesting, overlapping relationship that are very pertinent to successful use within a volunteer project.


In Portland, Oregon, the Burnside Skatepark was launched (in 1990) by three unpaid volunteers on Halloween night.

Over the next three years, the growing volunteer community eventually built an ~8,000 square-foot concrete skatepark, and the entire endeavor was unpaid.

For that reason, those responsible for orchestrating a sustained effort had to resort to “soft capital” for successful implementation.

For the Burnside skatepark, “attribution” was one of the most potent expressions of soft capital that sustained this endeavor, offering skateboarders an opportunity to earn credit through sustained effort.

In practical terms, this meant that a small number of dedicated volunteers went out of their way to invite others to participate, and then “infected” them through small tokens of earned attribution in exchange for their labors, even if their contributions were relatively marginal.

This meant that one of the more experienced project leads would ask a kid to pick up a shovel, and in terms of total contribution, the kid might have helped for maybe two hours at most; a marginal contribution at most.

However, some of the project leads had the wisdom to gift these kids with attribution, inviting them to repeat the experience so they’re earned equity in the project might grow.

In casual conversation, some of the more established members of the crew would acknowledge the kid for their assistance, making sure this acknowledgement was gifted in the company of their friends.

Consider this:

It’s coming up on 32 years since the project was initiated, and today most of the day-to-day stewards were born after groundbreaking.

Many of the day-to-day stewards are therefore unaware of who precisely might have been involved during those first three critical years.

This is an important consideration.

There were a small number of lead volunteers who gifted their “attribution credits” to the community, which enabled Burnside to sustain into the next generation, and as a result, their individual investment in the project has been embraced by an authentic spirit of anonymity.

Anonymous™️ | anonymity

The word anonymity means “the condition of being anonymous,” which is to imply: “that which is nameless,” and it forms the basis of a culture where the collective is more important than the individual.

These cultures are found in 12 step recovery cultures such as Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as the hacker collective Anonymous.

Within the culture of Alcoholics Anonymous there’s the acknowledgement of a “central office,” but all authority is gifted to each distributed and autonomous meeting.

None of the meetings have a leader, per se, although they do periodically elect representatives to serve the needs of the meeting itself, and this is important:

If someone decides to step in as the leader of AA, the collective recoils to protect the authentic spirit of anonymity and attributes of its own expression of gift economy, calibrated to focus the collective upon a spirit of service.

Ideally, there are a number of stewards to selflessly maintain a culture of gifting attribution to the collective, to ensure that anyone’s individual ego doesn’t consume the project, and thereby destroying it. Within AA these are informally referred to as its “elder statespersons.”

It’s worth noting that the “informal rules” of AA’s culture of anonymity were introduced in the early 1950’s after a sustained 15-year period of viral growth, through the Great Depression and World War II.

These “12 steps and 12 traditions” were “written in the blood” of hard-earned experience, often informed by spectacular failures, and to that end: one such failure his has actually happened with the Burnside skatepark, in a couple of noteworthy examples.

For example, one skateboarder moved to Oregon, and soon afterwards entered the domain of elected politics. He began to prune people from the Burnside project and Portland skateboard activism if he perceived them to be a political risk to his own aspirations, and/or if it was his assessment that the person was not loyal to him.

In this example: the political aspirations of a single individual was built upon the stolen accomplishments of others, because he leveraged his growing social influence to marginalize those he discerned to be either threatening or disloyal.

On another occasion, one of the more dedicated team leads allowed his drug addiction to inform his decision to take his reputation to the streets, running a door-to-door campaign to local businesses and members of the community, using funds collected to “maintain Burnside” to purchase drugs.

And this has recently occurred within the hacker collective Anonymous, where an ordinary troll with very little actual hacking expertise was disingenuously promoted to the mainstream media as its founder.

The damage Anonymous culture has been substantial; the troll successfully monetized the title of “founder,” causing great damage to the essential spirit of shared attribution, anonymity, trust, and a selfless loyalty to the cause.

The point is this:

There are expressions of soft capital which transcend the ability of money to purchase an outcome, and attribution is a powerful, catalyzing force within a collective endeavor.

However, as with all expressions of capital (both money and that which makes up gift economy): “attribution” suffers a significant vulnerability — the insatiable appetite of the emotionally immature seeking to feed their ego.

And this is one of the most substantial vulnerabilities that face volunteer efforts as they steer towards a formalized expression that involves money, such as a nonprofit.

There are many projects where the volunteer spirit was effectively extinguished almost as soon as it was structured in a culture that makes use of money, and one of the most significant reasons pertains to the introduction of ego.

Volunteers may have gifted years to an endeavor only to be washed away by a small number of paid professionals hired just as soon as the effort was able to collect or earn money. I’ve just recently witnessed this dynamic within the Buy Nothing community, for example.

Obviously, there are management philosophies that can protect the essential esprit de corps of a shared endeavor, even while transitioning towards a sustained, monetized effort, and one such management philosophy is “servant leadership.”


Servant leadership can be visualized as something like an inverted organizational chart, where the most seasoned executives align themselves in support of the junior subordinates to ensure their success, sometimes even more than the monetary success of the organization.

Servant leadership can offer an excellent opportunity for more junior members of the team to step into their fullest potential, with the confidence that they are being supported by someone with substantially more experience.

However, servant leadership introduces a significantly disruptive vector to those with the emotional immaturity that invites them to steal attribution from others as they build their brand.

Specifically: there are those who are unable to distinguish between “being of service“ and “a servant.”

Because they consider themselves entitled to recognition, from a place of insecurity, they believe themselves above the demeaning experience of being “of service” to others.

And so within a culture of servant leadership, they come to believe that the senior member of the team has positioned themselves as a subordinate, incorrectly concluding that the senior team member is themselves insecure (psychological projection being another byproduct of emotional immaturity).

In this scenario, the junior member of the team begins restructuring the organization from an authoritarian stance of entitlement, rather than a spirit of service to others — essential to a culture of shared attribution and collective authenticity.

This happens in families as often as it happens within volunteer endeavors, and the result is frequently catastrophic.

This is an effective way to protect the organization from being destroyed from within: structure the teams such that they are small and mostly autonomous, which helps contain the rot of ego.

This is very similar to how Alcoholics Anonymous is structured, where the individual groups have far more actual authority than the “central office,” albeit their influence is limited to the group itself.

And in terms of an early warning system: one of the best ways to discern, detect, and to isolate the damage of these personalities is to watch for “attribution theft,” which is the stealing of credit from the collective in support of an individual.

Listen to the words that people say, listen to how they speak of collective accomplishments.

If they are inclined towards stealing credit from others in support of their own endeavors, and if they seek to cut and erase the contributions of others as they grow their personal brand, isolate them as quickly as possible, for they are a cancer to the organization.

Invest more thoroughly in a distributed organization, where much of the execution pursued by small trust circles with significant autonomy.


Attribution is a form of currency, and it therefore has its own economy, but it needs to be protected from ego.

Within current mainstream society, there’s a bias towards individualism, where accomplishments are attributed to a single individual, at the expense of the collective.

That’s not how the real world works.

It’s rare in the extreme for a single individual to accomplish anything of consequence without assistance from a network of others, many of whom were not paid for their endeavors.



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Kent Dahlgren

Product management fix-it guy. World-famous people skills. Extremely small hands. (edit) marketing lady says I’m also supposed to say “CEO of software company”