2011 Second Board Candidate Chat Follow-Up Five

The second 2011 Board candidate chat ended with questions pending — both those submitted live by chat attendees, and a queue of emailed questions submitted by OTW members, volunteers, and staff that had grown throughout the live chat period. Those questions were delivered in batches to the candidates following the close of the chat, and they were asked to submit answers within twenty-four hours of each email so that those responses could be publicly posted. Responses are posted in the order that they were received by the OTW Elections officer.

Fifth batch: Questions submitted to candidates at 16:05/4:05pm UTC 1 November 2011; answers due before 16:05/4:05pm UTC 2 November 2011.

One:

What do you see as the role of the Board in soliciting user, member, staff and volunteer feedback? How will you prioritize this during your term as a Board Member?

Lucy Pearson

I feel that a lot of feedback should come to the Board via the committees, so it feeds up from the individual projects and their users to the Board. This is an effective means of helping give Board a focus and ensuring that committees can get stuff done on the ground – oftentimes feedback about a project can best be acted on by the volunteers and staffers who work on that specific project. However, I think it is also important to have a more direct way for the Board to get feedback about some issues, as I think the work of the Board can often feel rather remote, especially to volunteers and members who never work directly with Board members. So, I’d like to explore ways of opening up the channel between Board and all OTW stakeholders – I think that one good way of doing this would be the regular Board news posts which I would like to institute. I’ve found with the AD&T posts that they encourage people to ask questions and bring ideas: I think if Board talked more in public about what we were working on, people would be encouraged to give their thoughts and feedback.

I’d also like to explore ways of soliciting feedback for specific projects – often feedback is tricky because if you ask general questions (or a lot of questions) you get a whole lot of feedback which you don’t wind up acting on. So, I’m wary of broad-brush feedback/information gathering, but I think it can be very effective to say ‘here is the specific discussion we’re having and we have these possible courses of action’ and allow people to weigh in directly – that way you get feedback you can use and which people can see you have used.

Jenny Scott-Thompson

Some of this is already the job of other committees, and in those cases, the job of the board is to support them as needed and then keep out of the way, and also listen openly to what they find. For example, Volunteers & Recruiting committee now does a yearly survey of all staff and volunteers, including confidential feedback, Internationalization & Outreach committee is putting the finishing touches to a public survey, Fanlore and the AO3 regularly ask for user comments on their news posts, Journal have space for comments on their articles, Support and Abuse do a great job handling AO3 feedback, and Development & Membership and Webmasters and Communications get a ton of feedback via various channels. I think the Board’s role is looking at the bigger picture, taking input from all these sources and organising the strategic planning process. I’d prioritise it by making sure that the strategic planning gets all the Board support it needs, and incorporates all that feedback. I’d also consider how we can use all of this more efficiently, so that no feedback falls through a gap and gets ignored, so people can give feedback in a way that suits them, and so we don’t have too much extra work to collate feedback from more sources than necessary.

(I’ve mentioned strategic planning in other places – for those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s the term in non-profits for getting input from all stakeholders – the people mentioned in the question – on broad initiatives and goals, and then turning that with the help of the board into a plan for the next 3-5 years which can be agreed and posted publicly.)

Betsy Rosenblatt

I see soliciting feedback—either directly or indirectly, through committee-based surveys, site use analysis, or other tools—as an important responsibility of the Board, and I see that responsibility as having, in the most general sense, three aspects. The first is solicitation of internal feedback from volunteers and staffers, to maintain an open working relationship between the Board and the committees. The second is solicitation of feedback from users and members, to stay aware of the ways in which the organization as a whole is serving these constituencies and how it can improve. The third, which may seem elementary but is essential, is listening to the feedback and making decisions based on it.

Nikisha Sanders

This is a tricky question because I see it two ways. I think the board as a whole absolutely *must* seek input from users, members, staff, and volunteers in making decisions, and has a responsibility to ask for and respond to both positive and negative feedback given directly to the board. However, there are times when it isn’t appropriate for the board to have a hand in the process of gathering or responding to feedback because it’s better delegated to a given committee. The role of the board in this second instance is to back up the committee and allow the committee members or chair to take the lead.

As for how I will prioritize soliciting feedback, I think keeping lines of communication open between myself and the committee(s) to which I serve as liaison will be a hugely important factor. I intend to do that with a regularly scheduled check in over email, IM or phone as is preferred and possible, with the committee chair, and I also would like to be able to attend committee meetings as an observer if the committee is open to it so the committee chair isn’t my sole point of contact.

In reaching other parts of the org, I plan to make it clear from the beginning of my service as a board member that I, personally, welcome feedback and want to be in conversation with people about OTW. I’ve tried to do that throughout the election process so far, by the means mentioned above and by engaging in relevant comment threads, as well as by opening a post on my journals for people to ask questions and leave comments.

I think the board as a whole will have to take a proactive stance in making users, members, staff, and volunteers aware of what issues we’re handling and when. Publicly posting agendas before meetings and notes after the meetings, both with an appointed contact person for that meeting date, would be one step in doing so.

Julia Beck
Response received 4:13pm UTC 2 November 2011; added to post 4:22pm UTC 2 November 2011.

Simply put, two aspects: one is to open more avenues for conversation about the OTW, and make it easier to find them. There has already been excellent conversation about both; for example, there is a lot of conversation in private journals, but journals tend to be hard-to-find bubbles of friends (and for finding linkspams, you need to be *in* the journalsphere already). A relatively simple first step could be a opt-in directory of OTW staffers’ journals; and a bigger might be centralized external forums that provide a more level, less top-down discussion space. (To go all meta, let’s have feedback about that! What would make you more willing to talk to us?)

The second aspect is to change our communication style (both internal and external) to be more open and honest, while remaining respectful. We can implement all the avenues in the world for our members and users to talk to us; if you don’t feel you can be candid and that we will listen, you won’t use them. There is a perception that the only mode of communication we accept is squee, and while I understand and, to a degree, defend the up-beat tone of most OTW communication, it’s setting a tone barrier for feedback. Not productive.

(One thing I feel we’re already doing well is feedback rounds for in-progress projects. I loved the way the Fanlore committee solicited several rounds of heavy feedback instead of implementing their new category scheme straight away. Massive kudos to them — I know it was extremely exhausting for the committee, but worth it, and worth emulating.)

Internally, I helped advocate for internal forums and do hang out there when I can, and while I understand that not everyone can or wants to interact there (completely optional space!), I’ve been thrilled (and, admittedly, gratified) to see interesting and productive conversations between volunteers and staff that couldn’t have happened elswhere. I hope we’ll change the org-wide meeting to a more open, discussion-centered format soon.

How I’ll prioritize both aspects: by lobbying inside Board and among committees, recruiting communications-related personnel, putting in the work (draw up proposals, form work groups etc.) and by trying to lead by example. I’ve written a couple of “that thing you did was not okay, here’s why, can we talk?” emails internally, and while it was hugely, hugely stressful to do so, I really hope I can encourage people to talk to each other directly more, so that this sort of candid feedback becomes normalized (and you don’t need to be a 2+ years chair or Board
candidate to dare write them).

I understand feedback as growing out of conversation. I want us to have more, and more honest conversations both internally and externally, and I hope my ideas will help us have them.

Naomi Novik
Response received at 11:59pm UTC 3 November 2011; added to post 2:46am UTC 3 November 2011.

I’m increasingly trying to think of specific practical answers to these questions, so here is an idea: put together an OTW Board suggestion/feedback box and set aside ten minutes of every Board meeting right at the beginning to go through however many of the messages we can. For any message that invites action, decide quickly: no at least for now, need to consider more at length (add it to agenda for next Board meeting), or yes absolutely to be sent along to relevant committee.

If we respond to each such message and share this suggestion form on each blog post, I think it would really encourage a lot of creative feedback.

Two:

Julia and Jenny both mention sustainability as one of their priorities for the Board in their candidate statements, and I’ve seen the term also mentioned in other discussions of the election by both members and staff. My question for all the candidates is what do you see as the biggest challenge to sustainability within the OTW, and how will you work towards ensuring a sustainable future for the org during your time on the Board.

Lucy Pearson

One big challenge is that as a volunteer org, we can’t always easily recruit for specific skillsets. If someone suddenly leaves (which is quite likely if their day-to-day life suddenly alters in some way), you can’t guarantee that you will be able to replace them; more importantly, there’s no way of guaranteeing that someone who is awesome at the job they do will also be awesome at training someone else to do it. (This is all true for any org, of course, but extra true when people are volunteers and there’s no possibility of buying in expertise.) So, there’s the threat of someone leaving and their tasks being undone, or someone else taking on way too much to fill the gap.

I think the Board can help work for sustainability by working with committees to identify opportunities for training and mentoring. I’d like for as many people as possible to work on the basis that part of their job is training a potential successor (albeit we have to recognise there are some people for whom this model does not work). Maybe there is someone who’s not an expert at a task, but is good at teaching other people the basics and knows how to find good information. Sometimes committees just need a helping hand to see that there is a gap, perhaps because someone who was active is now less active, and once they’ve recognised that they can train and support someone to fill the gap.

The other thing Board can to is help to maintain flexibility. Sometimes a project has to be delayed or altered to fit our resources at the time – that’s not a fail, but a pragmatic decision. Sometimes a committee or an individual needs particular provisions to enable them to meet their goals, and Board can help support that flexible way of working. Reminding people that processes aren’t set in stone and that they can come up with new ideas really helps sustain the org and stops it collapsing in on itself with a mass of outdated procedures.

Jenny Scott-Thompson

Like many organisations, we have a lot of people who are very good at their jobs and don’t tend to delegate much. Of course, we also have people who are good at delegating. I think the biggest challenge is to have more of the OTW culture be about the job that needs to be done, not the person doing it, so that it can be passed on to someone else if the original person needs a break, and so that others can learn. Every person brings different things to a role, but it’s helpful to recognise when someone is doing two jobs at once, and actually that could be done by two different people in the future if we needed, or indeed when two different jobs would be more efficient if they were done by the same person. This will set us up much better for the long term.

I’ll work towards it both by demonstrating good practice in my own work, and in encouraging others to do the same. I’ll also support Volunteers & Recruiting committee in the training they run, and all the committees I liaise with in making sure that staff can move around roles if they want to.

Betsy Rosenblatt

The biggest challenge I see to sustainability within the OTW is that the OTW has a lot of moving parts, and each part requires a lot of work and attention to run smoothly. Making those parts run is a labor of love for many, but even a labor of love can start to feel like toil if it’s too demanding or under-recognized. I plan to work toward sustainability by promoting retention and programs that do not require constant attention to continue operating.

Re: Retention- Naturally, people will come and go from any organization, but I see one key to sustainability as maintaining a steady core of staffers and volunteers as much as possible. The more happy people stay with the organization, the more institutional memory it retains, and the more smoothly it runs. Each committee will know best how to manage its workload, but I see the role of the Board as setting priorities and facilitating that management in a way that doesn’t overburden workers or push them away. This requires vigilance in maintaining a manageable workload for staffers and volunteers (and proposing adjustments to staff size and project priority as necessary to maintain these things); and public recognition of the hard work and accomplishment of the scores of staffers and volunteers that make the organization function.

Re: program supervision- One key to sustainability of any organization is creating frameworks that allow projects to continue without constant attention. This doesn’t mean that any of the organization’s projects can or should be ignored—quite the opposite—but in the best world, we can focus our energy on improving our offerings, rather than maintaining them. I think some of our programs do that very well already, but I’d like to take a good look at how we can improve in making our programs “run themselves” so we can offer as much as possible without the need for an even larger battalion of volunteers.

Nikisha Sanders

The biggest challenge to sustainability I see is time. First, there’s relative time, meaning that we are a young organization in the grand scheme of advocacy organizations and fan-run projects. However, we function nearly entirely online, and internet time works differently than regular time. Everything is more immediate in a virtual environment, and situations can completely reverse course in the time it takes to grab a cup of coffee from the kitchen. I think we sometimes struggle to balance those two pieces; the speed at which we need to get things done to keep up with an online membership base and the speed at which we as an organization, with certain policies and regulations we must follow, can reasonably move.

Secondly, there’s personal time. No one in OTW gets paid for the work we’re doing, which means most of us have jobs or school to attend to. Some people have children and/or partners at home or other family obligations, others have illnesses that limit the organizational work they can do in a day, and we all have plain old bad days from time to time. All of those things impact our ability to work on OTW projects. They also cut down the time we have to mentor other people in the organization, and when combined with the relative internet time, it makes the work of keeping OTW going from day to day a pretty large task.

The single biggest thing I can think to do individually is to be realistic in what I set out to accomplish in comparison to the time I have, and to encourage and enable others to do the same. We also have to be willing and able to make time to take a good, hard look at where we are in our work for OTW and where we want to be in the future. As an organization, I think we have to do the same things on a bigger scale; recognize where we are, identify where we want to go, and be honest with ourselves about how long or short a time it may take to get there.

I’ve already been working toward those goals by having conversations with board, staff, volunteers and members about their current involvement and what they would like to see themselves and the organization doing in the next few years. I’ve indicated in other answers that I intend to continue those conversations and, hopefully, introduce a more formalized space for committee chairs to engage similar dialogue. It’s a priority for me to keep building connections on an individual basis and to be able to make introductions between people who have shared interests in areas of OTW work so no one has to take on a project in isolation and so no idea is discarded based solely on a fear of a lack of support.

I also understand that Internationalization & Outreach is working on a survey that will give us a better idea of what interests and ideas there are about the future of OTW, and I have already had several conversations with Julia about how those results can form the foundation for a strategic plan for the organization. The strategic plan itself would serve as a road map for the next several years, identifying organizational goals and objectives from every committee with input from current and past members, staff, volunteers, board members, and those actively engaging our projects like TWC and AO3. Having a clear and fully articulated idea of where we’re going will let us better set priorities and make use of the time and volunteers we have, and hopefully minimize the amount of burn out people experience. I am completely committed to seeing this happen during my time on the board, or to, at the very least, have the process well underway.

Julia Beck
Response received 4:13pm UTC 2 November 2011; added to post 4:22pm UTC 2 November 2011.

Hmmm, the single biggest challenge. It depends on the project, honestly, so I need to pick two interconnected challenges: the first is making our potential volunteer pool larger, that is, getting the word out about the OTW to communities who are skeptical about OTW, or don’t know us at all yet (i.e., communication & outreach). The second is making the OTW the sort of environment where people stay, not leave in frustration because they run into invisible barriers, or get tangled up in up in opaque structures. I talked about outreach in the first batch of questions (http://elections.transformativeworks.org/2011-second-board-candidate-chat-follow-one) and to my answer re. feedback above, because I honestly believe that communication is key here (both talking to the public, and for volunteers talking amongst themselves).

Naomi Novik
Response received at 11:59pm UTC 3 November 2011; added to post 2:46am UTC 3 November 2011.

I think the biggest challenge to our sustainability (though one I am confident we can meet) right now is that the archive is growing really fast. Our colocation bill is already $800 a month and our awesome new servers that we bought last year are already getting lonely and looking around for company, which is also going to drive up the monthly fee. Our coders, support, testers, and wranglers team is facing more and more demand. And the danger is, we outgrow our resources and we don’t raise enough money and recruit enough help to keep things running smoothly, and get into a crisis mode where we don’t have enough time or money or help to do the broader coding work that’s needed to address problems fundamentally, and instead are constantly playing catch-up and jumping from one disaster to the next.

What we really need to do is marshal the Archive user base. If you’re reading this, you know about the OTW and get that the OTW funds the Archive, and so if you care about the archive you care about the org. But most AO3 users don’t even know the name OTW for the most part. We’ve been more focused on making the archive awesome than tooting our own horn 🙂 and I think that’s been the right priority and what we needed to do for people to get — because a lot of people initially didn’t — that THIS is what we’re doing. We’re not trying to take over fandom, we’re building really awesome stuff! For you! and you! and you! And the success of the archive means we’ve done a good job.

But now we need to:

– get up clear and obvious fundraising and volunteering links and get the banner that is in the works up for our next fundraising drive;

– let people know from the moment they are invited that this is funded by fans like them and we really need support for the archive to continue to thrive;

– get the Support board up to distribute the work of our beleaguered support team, and to be a pipeline into support, wrangling, testing, and coding.

And from there we have to get creative. AO3-themed swag may be a good thing for us to get into as a complement to the OTW membership drive swag? But those are the really obvious and clear ones.

Three:

Many candidates are talking about transparency and the need for better communication. I am a casual user of the AO3 and have no idea what these buzzwords mean in a ‘real world’ context, why they’re important to someone like me, and what the candidates are actually planning to change.

Lucy Pearson

Essentially, I want people at all levels to have more idea about what the org is doing, and I want them to have the chance to comment on that. To take the AO3 as an example – I think it is very useful for people to know what we are working on, why some features are built and some fixes are made, but others aren’t, and how we make those decisions. If I were an AO3 user donating money to the OTW, it would be important to me to know that, for example, our recent bout of 502 errors was due to problems configuring the servers and the database and not, say, because a rogue committee member spent the money for new servers on currant buns! Likewise, if I were a tag wrangler it would be important to me to know that coders were working on a new tag feature, because it might have implications for what I was doing. I know that day-to-day, many people don’t want to read all the details of what the whole org does – they might have more interest in one specific project, but not be too fussed about the others. However, it’s important that if they do have questions, that information is there for them to find, or there is a clear way for them to ask the question.

My one big thing I want to do towards this is to do regular public posts about what the Board is up to, so that members can see what these people they voted for are actually doing, and to encourage and support committees to talk more in public about what they do. I think this is a pretty huge project, actually – I’ve put a lot of work into developing Archive communications and we still don’t cover everything I’d like – but I think it will be useful for everyone. And also, it’s fun! Transparency isn’t (or shouldn’t be) some onerous duty – a lot of the time it’s a sheer joy to be able to talk publicly about what awesome things are going on!

Jenny Scott-Thompson

It means you’ll hear about major new features earlier, so that you don’t get big changes sprung on you as a surprise. It means we get feedback while things are still in progress and we can more easily make changes, so that once changes are complete, they can be even better! It also means that there will be more volunteers working on the AO3 behind the scenes, so the site will be better and faster, with more of the features that users like you have suggested, tags getting wrangled more quickly, and so on.

Betsy Rosenblatt

Good question! It’s easy to get caught up in buzzwords without getting to what they mean. Here’s how I see transparency and communication working for a casual user of the AO3:

– For you to get all you want out of the archive, the organization needs to be able to know what aspects of the archive work really well for you, what aspects you think can/should be improved, what you use the archive for, and what you would like the archive to do that it doesn’t yet do. Getting that information from you, using it to improve your archive experience, and making sure you know everything the archive has to offer, is the essence of communication.

– Now let’s say there’s a decision made about the AO3 that you particularly like or dislike—rules about what it allows or doesn’t allow, for example—and you want to understand why the decision came out the way it did. Being able to know how the organization came to its decision, and the reasons for the decision (so you can celebrate it or argue for change, depending on your preference!) is the essence of transparency.

– What am I actually planning to change? I think we can do an even better job of getting feedback and applying it, getting information about the OTW and its offerings into the hands of users, and making interested members feel like they are included in the organization’s deliberative processes. I don’t think these things require huge changes, but rather refinements in process and attitude.

Nikisha Sanders

I really appreciate this question because I’ve been where you are, and I continue to be in a number of contexts. One of the struggles of both non-profit work and participating in fandom is that both seem to require a whole new set of language skills and shorthand, and once you’ve got it down, you don’t notice you’re using it all the time.

To me, transparency breaks down to operating openly and simply, and better communication means making information available to anyone who seeks it, insofar as is possible without compromising confidentiality. Transparency also means being able to explain and provide rationale for making a particular decision or the way a given issue has been handled. Having written policies and procedures that are widely known and shared will help with that, but we also have to have a means of questioning and/or commenting on those decisions. That’s where better communication comes in, by making it clear who to contact about a given issue to start, and making every effort to respond with as much information as is reasonable.

Basically, I want other people to be able to easily see and understand how we’re working as an organization and on our various projects, why we’re doing things a certain way, and who is involved. If they can’t, they should be able to easily ask those questions, know they will reach the right person/people to give an answer, and receive a prompt and clear response. I would like to make sure we are documenting everything we should be, making that documentation available in appropriate locations, weeding out materials that are no longer useful, and updating things as needed. I would also like to see us be direct and concise in how we talk about the organization and our projects, without getting bogged down in specialized language that can act more as a barrier to participation than an aid to it.

For you and other casual users of AO3, or any of our other projects, all of this means OTW having the internal structure it needs to keep those projects going, even if lead staff on a project leave, take vacations, or catch flu. It also means making it easier for volunteers to participate, donors to give, and feedback to reach the right eyes and ears, giving us the means to improve the projects you value.

Julia Beck
Response received 4:13pm UTC 2 November 2011; added to post 4:22pm UTC 2 November 2011.

Transparency means that you, as a casual user, can find out what’s actually going on inside OTW, if you want to, and that you know what we did with your feedback. As a fan-driven organization, we depend on our users’ trust and involvement (we can’t think of all the ways you might want to use the archive ourselves, for example). It means that you can easily find accessible and relevant information and ways to get involved. (The recent Open Houses are good examples for measures that help improve transparency.) Right now, only a couple of people on a committee level have the sort of broad overview to know why something is happening, or not happening, and when and what is in progress, or being planned; and volunteers are often just as confused and intimidated as casual users are. (You shouldn’t have to sign up as a volunteer to get access to that sort of information, anyway.)

It doesn’t have to be important to everyone, and the admin posts and spotlights on AO3 are doing a good job of keeping users up to date and informed. That’s not true across the organization as a whole yet, so we need to do a better job to get people involved and invested by reaching out, and by actively soliciting feedback.

Naomi Novik
Response received at 11:59pm UTC 3 November 2011; added to post 2:46am UTC 3 November 2011.

Yes, there’s been a lot of that, sorry: jargon is contagious, and when someone says it in the question I tend to repeat it in the answer, even though I recognize it’s problematic and can mean different things to different people.

Here’s what I mean:

Transparency: that we provide enough information about us publicly that someone who is interested (and a lot of people have a legit interest either because they use our services or might volunteer or give us money) and willing to do some poking about and reading can figure out roughly how the org works, what we’re working on, get a sense if things are moving ahead smoothly, and on a fairly up to date basis — say monthly.

Sustainability: that we’re doing well enough at raising money and at recruiting and keeping volunteers to keep chugging along.

And these things are important to you, archive user, because that tells you you don’t need to worry that the org is going to keel over and die taking the archive you like with it. 🙂