organisational structure and being sustainable

Michael Davies made a very astute comment on Saturday night (while at the “Everyone from the South Australia Linux community (e.g. LinuxSA) is welcome to join the Linux Australia committee for dinner and discussion dinner” – Michael showed up, and he’s really cool – so that’s good. SA – we were there to hear your voice! in person! as always though, you can post to linux-aus and discuss there – but it would have been nice to see more of you!).

We had been discussing during the day (at our face-to-face meeting) the sustainability of the way Linux Australia is run. Michael made the comment that currently we are taking the risk of being sustainable only through, by sequentially burning out really good people.

One of the reasons Andrew Cowie and myself wished to continue on the LA board this year was to ensure the future operation of the organisation by making sure it was being organised and run in a way that made it sustainable and be the biggest success possible. Both of us have been involved in organisations in the past (as have many other people in the broader community) that have suffered from individual burnout, poor policy, top heavy (insert word i’m thinking of here) and a bunch of other non-useful things.

We had a discussion amongst ctte where some of the following were raised (intermixed with my personal opinion and whatever – it’s my blog dammit! :)

  • it is a volunteer organisation – the people putting in their time are not employees. The situation of calling someone into a meeting and asking “why haven’t you done this” with a “it’s your job dammit” tone, just isn’t what you can do.
  • The burden of doing accounts is an unreasonable one. The treasurers job is one of supervising, not dealing with every single expense and account keeping. It’s a lot of work. We have two treasurers as well (one specifically looks after LCA stuff, and the elected one, Mark, takes care of fitting it all together, and all the LA stuff that goes on. Talk about a large amount of work – and I think my taxes and finances are a lot and annoying. This, I think (and expressed) is currently one of our biggest problems. We have been lucky with people, and Mark does deserve a rich life outside of work and LA treasury. It is my opinion that hiring help to do a lot of the financial work is something that is not only a good idea, but easily justifiable as an expense and something we should seek to make happen. I hope this will move forward over the next few months. Remember folks, if the finances are stuffed up, we don’t have an LA, and hence we do not have an LCA.
  • We need to run at least cost neutral – positive cash flow is a good thing as it means we have money we can spend on other projects and initiatives (there have been many great ideas that simply require too much volunteer effort and/or cash to do properly). It would also be very nice if our running costs were covered purely by interest on existing funds. Being in a strong financial position is a good thing. Being Free Software is not being pov and cheap. It’s about being successful and free.
  • The committee has limited time. They are busy, active people (at work, at life, in the FOSS world). They also deserve time to spend with partners, friends and sipping large alcoholic drinks from coconut shells on tropical islands. It is my strong beleif that the committee taking on the role of the Board and of the Executive is unsustainable and will lead to burnout of all the enthusiasm and see the best people stop doing things for the organisation. Eventually, the org will collapse. This is bad.
  • I guess this is probably no longer being short dot points (which i am such a fan of).
  • There is a distinct difference between Board and Executive. The Board is responsible for ensuring the continuation of the organisation. Primarily, this means ensuring that we don’t go broke. Approving budgets, the treasurer overseeing financial goings on and setting the organisation in the right direction for prosperity (e.g. deciding that having an LCA is the right thing to do and sending random people off the street to tropical islands is not)
  • The executive is the people who go out and do work. Task oriented kind of approach. This has worked really well for LCA organisation. Everything is task based (e.g. “We need to get a venue”, “we need to have a CFP”).
  • A simple way to look at it would be the LA board deciding “this organisation should have a LCA” and then finding people to EXECUTE this decision – i.e. the LCA organisers. We approve their budget and act as check-and-balances and other such responsible things. Remember, failed LCAs loosing big bucks translates into either much lower key future LCAs or no more LCA.
  • It is my view that very few people have a solid understanding of organisational structure, problems, safeguards and making an organisation sustainable. The fact that we have spent many, many hours discussing such things (and all learning a lot from each other in the process) – with the specific goal of making LA better – is something that our membership does not have. They have decided that it’s us who should spend the time worrying about such things. I have never been to a business school and nor do I have any desire to go to one (and, my bet is, nor does a lot of
  • One day we are going to get sued (or audited, or something where we need to prove we are not a pack of fools). We need to have due diligence. This stuff is boring. It is not what people spend their weekends doing for fun. Accountants go skiing too remember, they don’t spend their spare time with spreadsheets and using GNUmeric for fun! There is paperwork (govt stuff, tax stuff, formal minutes of formal meetings, documentation of decisions, policies, finances etc).

There was also a interesting discussion (with several different viewpoints) about how to ensure that the board is made up of the best people possible. This includes having people on there with knowledge of the organisation. There is no doubt that the new members this year will testify to the fact that there is a lot they don’t know. They are getting used to the roles. Just as those of us who have been on it before did when we joined.

It would be really bad if, when someone is getting used to their role (for example, someone with a high up position of great importance – e.g. president, treasurer) and there suddenly is an election. It takes more than 6 months to get into a role. An election is yearly. Members have not had a chance to see these people in their roles – they have seen them get used to them. As a real-world example, if Mark had not continued in his role as treasurer (and then some!) we could, quite potentially, have been fucked. He has been setting up a lot of infrastructure. It’s not there yet – but it’s getting there. Personally, I am quite partial to the idea of having only half the committee stand for election each year. This will ensure continuity between boards and allow people enough time to get into their role and actually be in it.

“To facilitate the enthusiasms of the linux community”

It’s a phrase we came up with in the first ctte meeting I was at. It may, on the surface, to some, sound like marketing doublespeak. Think about it, it’s not. It’s actaully really accurate. If we facilitate, we win (we facilitate – i.e. oversee and fund – linux.conf.au. It works really well). If we were to run it each year, we’d loose. If we facilitate enthusiasm for a project, we provide a bunch of admin stuff (and possibly funds), leaving the people with the enthusiasms to get on with the enthusiasm.

Anyway, sorry I don’t have time to make it shorter. I hope this helps people understand some stuff of where I’m coming from and I hope people will correct me where I’ve written crack.

comments welcome!

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  1. Pingback: Matt’s Musings » Can WLUG Survive?

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