Our Crisis of Stewardship

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Notes on Possession, Care, and Control

Engraving From Anton Kerner von Marilaun’s Pflanzenleben (1896). The husbanding of plants is an exercise in care, largely with the absence of control.


The nonprofit sector today suffers from a crisis of stewardship, which we mistakenly conflate with ownership. This confusion is principal among the many root causes of our persistent failure to embrace resource sharing in the sector, and continuous default to scarcity thinking and competitive posturing that stand in the way of true collective action for social good. 

We wield the terms ownership and stewardship with diverse meaning and application across the sectors (government, nonprofit, and private). This makes these terms easy to distort and misapply, or at best, understand only through the haze of fleeting everyday use. As critical concepts in understanding how possession wields its power, it’s important to grapple with the differences between these two ideas and how both relate to the balance of care and control in the husbanding of resources across all sectors. Complicating our understanding of these two pathways to enacting possession are a constellation of related ideas: fiduciary responsibility, title holding, belonging, share/stakeholding, and others–all of which are used freely in ways both literal (legal) and metaphorical. For example, the careworn phrase “community ownership” in one context may refer literally to a group of people owning shares in a housing co-op, and in another, it means buy-in, alignment, or agreement with policies or actions that affect the community. Both uses are related socially and politically, but mean very different things.

Let’s try to sort some of this out, starting with the basics.


To possess is to balance care and control of resources, natural or human made (money, real estate, ideas, water, natural landscapes, etc.) in service of the interests of one or more beneficiaries. These beneficiaries are usually people, but can include all manner of sentient beings–my dogs, the fauna of our local park. Care describes a set of decisions and actions by the possessor that are focused on the heath, maintenance, or otherwise preservation of the resource for some benefit: a forest manager decides to undertake a controlled burn of a woodland to prevent more devastating fires. Control describes the power and authority (physical, legal, social, or political) the possessor has to pursue actions and exert influence over the resource: the manager has the authority to undertake the burn. 

Control and care exist in essential tension, as care may entail the giving up of control. And in exerting control, it is easy to abdicate our duty to care and create harm. In the private sector, the care and control of possession benefits (or harms) the interests of the owner(s), a defined group or entity that encloses the resources for themselves. In the nonprofit and government sectors possession benefits (or harms) the greater community, a bounded but open group–an undefined beneficiary, or “the public”.

Title Holding & Fiduciary Duty

Before examining more closely the differences between ownership and stewardship, we need to clarify how the ideas of title holding and fiduciary responsibility fit in, since they are often cited by owners and stewards as necessary parts of the job.

First, possession is legally consummated through title holding, the warranty that a thing belongs to a person, group, or entity. It is the physical document of belonging, the deed, title, or indenture, with signature or seal. We tend to conflate title holding with broader concepts of ownership, but it is important to understand title holding as a very narrow concept referring just to the legal construction of belonging. People and entities in the private sector can hold title to any kind of resource. Entities and governments in the nonprofit and government sectors can hold title to the same resources, but the nature of the relationship between the title holder and thing is very different from one sector to another: it is the difference between ownership and stewardship. 

Contrary to popular assumption, title holding is not a predicate for possession. A person or entity may possess something, with or without title. (The old saying, “Possession is 9/10 of the law.” has some truth to it.) We don’t hold title to the trees and plants in our garden, but we possess them. We may or may not hold title to the house we live in, depending on whether we rent or own, but in both cases we exercise possession (care and control) over our home. Title holding is only one aspect of possession and a rather minor and technical one at that, despite our outsized obsession with it as a core tenet of capital and wealth accumulation. 

Most importantly, title holding does not entail moral or ethical obligations to owners, current, past, or future, let alone the wider community.  All titles include some temporal dimension, whether defined in the legal terms (title is for a given period of time) or defined by the beginnings and endings of titles, when they pass from one person or entity to another. But, they don’t say anything about responsibilities to folks not listed on the title, the greater community, or the natural world. This critical limitation to title holding results in a pervasive myopia in which we only validate the interests of current owners and possibly future (private) inheritors. Modern law only protects the interest of non-title holders in narrow cases where title holder actions (or inactions) might adversely affect others. For example, we have things like zoning and anti-blight regulations for real estate, traffic laws for vehicles, etc. 

Second, like title holding, fiduciary responsibility applies across sectors, in each case serving different interests. A fiduciary is someone who manages resources on behalf of someone else, and it exists as a concept in all three sectors. Nonprofits manage resources on behalf of the public they serve, as do governments. In the private sector, the idea of fiduciary is most commonly financially defined. Investment bankers and fund managers, guided by fiduciary duty, manage funds on behalf of their clients. Private resources can also be held in trust (described below) and managed by a trustee with fiduciary responsibility. Regardless of the sector, fiduciaries are bound by a set of legal and professional principles of conduct that compel them to place the beneficiaries’ financial interests ahead of their own (implicitly private interests). Whereas in the government and nonprofit arenas fiduciary duty is exercised to the interest of the general public; in the private context, fiduciary duty is owed to the owner(s) of the money being managed. 

Fiduciary duties are largely enshrined in trust law, which has applications in both the nonprofit and private sectors. According to Wex Law, a trust “is a form of division of property rights and a fiduciary relationship, in which ownership of assets goes to a third party, known as a trustee, and the beneficial enjoyment goes to the beneficiary.” Trusts are legal forms designed to hold resources that are transferred into the trust (usually from private ownership), to be managed on behalf of and for the benefit of a beneficiary. For example, parents might put money into a trust to benefit a child. A third party, usually a banker or attorney, is named as the trustee or fiduciary to ensure that the money does indeed benefit the designated child. Trusts can also be holders of nonprofit resources and are the 19th-century predecessor of the modern nonprofit corporation. All nonprofits today hold “assets in public trust”, meaning the nonprofit board of trustees are fiduciaries over the resources, serving the interests of public beneficiaries. For this reason, all nonprofits answer to the states’ Attorney General, which is the ultimate representative of public interest.

Two Paths Diverge: Ownership & Stewardship

Balancing care and control (and with occasional title holding and fiduciary consideration), the journey of possession offers two distinct paths: stewardship and ownership.

My attempt at organizing the ideas underpinning possession, as well as the contrasting attributes of stewardship and ownership.

Ownership is the defining path of the private sector. It is always predicated on some kind of title holding, and as stated above, any fiduciary duty is owed to owners, no one else. Its main attributes are…

  • Enclosed resources – private title holding allows owners to “enclose” their assets, meant here in the economic, not physical sense. Economically “enclosed” resources are only available to and benefit owners. The process of moving resources from the public or commons realm into private hands is one of “enclosure”.
  • Short-sighted self interest – resources serve the interests of owners over all others. This is at the core of the fight over everything from climate change to the untenable cost of healthcare, which is the result of the rapacious and myopic interests of ownership. Moreover owner interest does not look back in time and can only see as far into the future as the term of ownership itself.
  • Accumulation at all cost – ownership is a deeply human addiction. Once there’s a taste, it’s a hard thirst to quench, and owned assets are used to get more assets-growth and acquisition have no ends. Money makes money. There is no such thing as enough.
  • Competition as will to live – in which money usually fails to buy happiness. As Maslow theorized, it starts with the basic creature comforts (food and shelter) and metastasizes from there. Once we have the basics, we tend to want to keep acquiring.
  • Focus on currency wealth – a world in which all owned resources, whether money, time, ideas, or things, are financially defined and valuated. Power, success, and wealth are measured exclusively in accumulated financial terms. 

In contrast, stewardship is (or should be) the native practice of the nonprofit and government sectors. Nevertheless, we see the constellation of ideas ascribed ownership dominating both the nonprofit and government sectors today, so much so that both have been essentially formed (or reformed) in the image of the private sector, to the significant degradation of their social value and purpose.

Stewardship, which is often practiced without any title holding, is predicated on a strong sense of fiduciary duty to an open or “undefined beneficiary”. A group of people tend a community garden located on land that is privately owned by an absent landlord. A nonprofit organization stewards an historic site that is titled to the local government. Other attributes include…

  • Open or commons resources – are the focus of stewards, resources that are accessible to an open group of beneficiaries, regardless of what they are: land, money, technology, ideas, foodways, etc.
  • Management for mutual benefit – not just the benefit of title holders (if such exist) but always for both the steward and a broader group of beneficiaries, such as a particular community. Stewards can be a specific person or group, but more commonly is practiced as an informal, collective effort by communities for their shared benefit. 
  • Transtemporal reach – meaning that stewardship benefits living things both present and in an unbounded future. It also often carries a sense of historical legacy or inheritance. The responsibility of stewards stretches indefinitely backward and forward in time.
  • A focus on satisficing – which is the process through which we decide individually or collectively about what is enough. (Yes, that’s not a typo, satisficing is the social science term for the study of “enoughness”.) More is not the perpetual goal. There is a sense of sufficiency, and growth for growth’s sake is not a prevailing value.
  • Motivation grounded in love – and sense of spiritual health. Stewardship is not just about the accumulation of resources to live or subsist, but the building of a life based in love of others and the world as our primary interest.
  • To the end of building care-wealth – a term coined by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, leaders in the commoning movement. Care-weath is the combination of emotional, spiritual, and material benefits we derive from practicing unconditional, mutual care for people and the planet we inhabit.

You may be asking, why can’t ownership be undertaken with values of stewardship? Isn’t that the whole point of the social capital/finance movement, private social benefit corporations and the whole “doing good while doing well” thing? Many argue yes, but I do not. The dissonances between the above forces are simply too great and the thrall and addictive nature of ownership, if present at any level, ultimately will threaten to undermine any true stewardship–often without people even knowing it’s happened. The private sector and its cult(ure) of ownership is far too pervasive and dominant to be safely integrated into stewardship without ultimately degrading the work of the steward and causing–at some point–harm in the form of financial extraction, divestment, or some other violence.

The attributes of ownership: enclosure, self-interest, resource accumulation, and growth for growth’s sake—the marquee world view of the private sector—inevitably result in an unnecessarily morbid culture of scarcity and competition when applied to the government and nonprofit sectors. These dynamics all but foreclose on any true collaboration or collective action for social good in these two sectors. If it were possible to return to a concept of government and the nonprofit sector as stewards of true commons resources, the economics of scarcity and competition might be avoided. However, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the U.S. (and to a large degree, contemporary global) government and civil society sectors were forged by the private sector to mitigate its harm and extend the social compact permitting private enclosure and extraction to continue.

It is for these reasons, and the attributes above that we would need to purge all manner of ownership thinking, values, and practices from the nonprofit and government sectors, if they are to perform their originating purpose to be true stewards of public welfare. Ownership and stewardship may be able to co-exist in proximity. But to comingle them, as we have been encouraging for much of the 21st Century, is to invite the ultimate death of stewardship.