What are DAOs and How Do DAOs Work? An Introduction to Decentralized Autonomous Organizations

Decentralized Autonomous Organizations democratize governance by distributing decision-making powers among token holders or community members.

Blockchain technology is gradually revolutionizing several industries, with its most pronounced impact being in financial services. Even more intriguing is the intersection of this nascent technology with corporate governance. Through Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs), blockchain is challenging and transforming the traditional hierarchical decision-making frameworks.

What is a DAO?

While the concept might sound unfamiliar if you haven’t interacted with the technical or governance aspects of Decentralized Finance (DeFi) protocols, it’s quite simple. Decentralized Autonomous Organizations democratize governance by distributing decision-making powers among token holders or community members.

Think of it this way: instead of having a few select board members making decisions, power is more widely distributed to shareholders through a native governance token. A good example is the Uniswap token, UNI, which allows holders to vote on proposed protocol upgrades and fee structures. 

Simply put, Decentralized Finance (DeFi) protocols governed by a DAO enable either direct or indirect community stewardship through voting. This contrasts with existing financial institutions where decision-making is left to a few players who might not always act in the best interests of the shareholders.

The DAO – First of Many  

Although the idea of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations dates back to the ’90s, this type of governance only became popular when blockchain technology made its hallmark debut with Bitcoin. Even then, practical DAOs didn’t exist until 2016 when the first smart contract DAO was launched: The DAO.

Built on Ethereum, The DAO was designed to be a decentralized Venture Capital (VC). The project raised over $100 million in its initial token sale. More importantly, The DAO’s largest investor held less than 4% of The DAO’s tokens, while the top 100 investors only had an exposure of 46%, making it far more decentralized than traditional VCs.

However, in an unfortunate turn of events, this pioneer Decentralized Autonomous Organization was hacked, resulting in the loss of over $50 million in investor funds. It’s interesting to note that this hack led to the infamous Ethereum hard fork of 2016, after which most developers abandoned the unforked chain, known as Ethereum Classic.

Fast forward to 2023, the latest statistics by DeepDAO show there are over 18,000 DAOs, with a total of $20.2 billion held in DAO treasuries. Also noteworthy is the number of total active voters and proposal makers, which stands at over 3 million.

How Do DAOs Work? 

For DAOs to work effectively, several technical components are involved. These include smart contracts, governance tokens, consensus mechanisms, voting and the treasury where native tokens are stored. Here’s a breakdown of each component and its role in the overall operation of DAO ecosystems.

Smart Contracts

Smart contracts serve as the digital constitution for a DAO, offering a secure and transparent framework for executing actions. These contracts, encoded and stored on the blockchain, operate without human intervention. Once deployed, a DAO smart contract will perform its predetermined tasks, from managing voting processes to distributing rewards, based on specific triggers and conditions. 

By removing the need for middlemen and automating processes, smart contracts also make Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) more efficient and responsive, allowing them to adapt quickly to the needs and desires of their community.

Governance Tokens 

Governance tokens play a pivotal role in shaping a DAOs direction and operations. Holding these tokens is akin to possessing voting shares in a traditional company, granting the holder a voice in the organization’s affairs.

Governance tokens can be bought, traded, or earned; these tokens provide their holders the ability to propose amendments, express their views on critical issues through voting, or invest in promising initiatives championed by the DAO.

Furthermore, they cultivate a sense of community ownership and engagement, encouraging active participation. In essence, the more tokens one holds, the greater their sway in determining the DAO’s future path.

Consensus Mechanisms 

Central to the functioning of DAOs are consensus mechanisms, such as Proof of Work (PoW) and Proof of Stake (PoS). These aren’t just fancy technical terms; they’re the heartbeat of decision-making in decentralized settings. Think of them as the processes that bring everyone on the same page, ensuring unity in action. 

Whenever an action or decision is up for consideration within the DAO, be it validating a transaction or introducing a significant change, these mechanisms come into play to guarantee that the majority’s voice is heard and respected. 


The treasury within a DAO is a collective pool of funds, often consisting of native tokens, held and managed by the community. These funds serve as the financial backbone of the DAO and can be strategically allocated to support various projects or initiatives that the DAO chooses to endorse or invest in. 

Members vote to decide how these funds are utilized, ensuring that investments align with the DAO’s mission, values, and strategic goals. This democratic approach not only fosters a sense of collective ownership but also adds a layer of accountability and stewardship to the management of the DAO’s financial resources.

Decentralized Autonomous Organizations Voting Systems 

As for the voting mechanism in Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs), there are two main types: on-chain and off-chain voting. 

On-Chain Voting

In on-chain voting, votes are cast and recorded directly onto the blockchain. When a proposal for decision-making is submitted to the blockchain, a voting period is initiated. During this period, members of the DAO or blockchain network cast their votes directly onto the blockchain, often using governance tokens or a specific voting mechanism. Once the voting period concludes, votes are automatically tallied based on the data present on the blockchain. 

The beauty of this system is that the results are recorded on the blockchain, ensuring a transparent and immutable record of the decision. This form of voting is highly transparent, as all votes are visible and can be verified by any participant. Moreover, its decentralized nature ensures that votes cannot be tampered with. 

However, the downside might be associated costs, like gas fees on Ethereum, due to the computational resources consumed during the process.

Off-Chain Voting

Off-chain voting, as the name suggests, occurs outside the purview of the blockchain. Proposals might be first discussed on forums, chat groups, or other platforms before a vote. The voting itself is done using various external tools or platforms, which could range from a simple digital poll to a more intricate system. Once the voting concludes, the results are compiled and then shared with the community. 

Based on the results of the off-chain voting, actions might be taken on the blockchain, like the release of funds or implementation of a proposal, which might be triggered manually or through smart contracts. This method offers flexibility and allows for complex discussions and decision-making processes that might not be easily achieved on-chain. Additionally, it can help avoid the costs associated with on-chain transactions. 

However, since the voting process is off-chain, it’s not as immutable as on-chain votes. There’s also an increased dependency on trusted entities or figures within the community to ensure transparency and fairness in the process. 

Examples of DAOs 

The landscape of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) is rapidly evolving, and many examples of DAOs have sprung to life, showcasing their versatility across diverse sectors like decentralized finance (DeFi), governance, and social impact initiatives.

Decentralized Finance (DeFi)

  • MakerDAO: A shining example of DAOs driving innovation in the DeFi sector, MakerDAO manages the DAI stablecoin’s peg to the US dollar using a decentralized system of collateralized debt positions. This particular example of DAOs demonstrates the power of decentralized governance, with MKR token holders at the helm, steering critical decisions regarding the system’s operations.


  • Aragon: Among the noteworthy examples of DAOs focusing on governance, Aragon is one of the leading DAO projects. This DAO not only simplifies the creation of other DAOs but is also at the forefront of crafting pioneering governance mechanisms and digital jurisdictions. The very essence of Aragon underscores the evolution of decentralized governance models.

Social Impact Initiatives

  • Giveth: In the examples of DAOs making strides in the realm of social impact, Giveth stands out. By reinventing the charitable landscape, Giveth infuses philanthropy with unparalleled transparency. This DAO ensures that donors, through its decentralized platform, maintain visibility into how their contributions are utilized, leading to tangible and authentic societal impact.

Benefits of DAOs 

DAOs offer several benefits compared to traditional governance structures. Some of the benefits of DAOs include:

  • Decentralized Governance: DAOs distribute decision-making across members, reducing reliance on a central authority. This fosters resilience and can prevent undue influence from any single party.
  • Transparency: All transactions and decisions are recorded on a public blockchain, ensuring a transparent and verifiable record of all actions, thereby fostering trust among members.
  • Lower Operational Costs: Through the use of smart contracts, DAOs can automate many processes, potentially reducing the need for intermediaries and lowering overall operational expenses.
  • Global Collaboration: DAOs enable participation from around the world, bringing together diverse perspectives and skills that might not converge in traditional organizations.
  • Innovation and Experimentation: As a new model of organization governance, DAOs are often at the forefront of experimentation in governance, collaboration, and funding, leading to potentially innovative solutions and structures.

Challenges and Limitations of DAOs

Governance Efficiency and Scalability

As DAOs scale, they may encounter challenges in maintaining efficient governance. Here’s why:

  • Decision-making Latency: A larger and more diverse group can slow down decision-making. While every member’s voice is crucial, the logistics of achieving consensus among thousands can become cumbersome.
  • Sybil Attacks and Whales: There’s always a risk of entities holding a significant amount of tokens (often referred to as “whales”) exerting undue influence over decisions. Similarly, Sybil attacks, where an individual creates multiple identities to gain a disproportionate influence, can skew governance.
  • Complexity of Proposals: As the DAO grows and the domain becomes more intricate, the proposals also increase in complexity. This can lead to situations where members may not have the expertise or time to thoroughly understand and vote judiciously.
  • Coordination and Communication: As the number of members rises, coordinating them and ensuring transparent, effective communication can become a challenge.

Legal and Regulatory Concerns

The unique structure of DAOs also presents several legal and regulatory challenges:

  • Undefined Legal Identity: Traditional organizations have a clear legal identity, but DAOs, being decentralized entities, don’t fit neatly into existing legal frameworks. This can pose challenges in terms of entering contracts, ownership of assets, or interfacing with traditional institutions.
  • Liability Issues: If a DAO is involved in a dispute or if its decisions lead to financial loss, it’s unclear who is liable. Without a centralized body or representative, addressing these issues legally can be challenging. 
  • Regulatory Compliance: Different jurisdictions might have varying regulations concerning DAOs. What’s permissible in one country might be illegal in another. Navigating this patchwork of regulations can be daunting for DAOs operating globally.
  • Taxation: The tax implications of DAOs are still in flux. Determining tax liabilities for a decentralized entity without a fixed location or recognized legal status remains a gray area in many jurisdictions.

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