2011 Second Board Candidate Chat Follow-Up Six

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.

Sixth batch: Questions submitted to candidates at 16:05/4:05pm UTC 2 November 2011; answers due before 16:05/4:05pm UTC 3 November 2011.


I’ve been hearing a lot about volunteer retention and burnout, but I have a question about the flip side of the sustainability issue. It seems to me that one of the biggest challenges facing the OTW right now is lowering the barriers to casual participation, to the small, bite-sized things people can do to help sustain the org. Right now, submitting a bit of code or wrangling a tag requires a whole process for anyone who just wants to help a tiny bit, as they can (by contrast, contributing to Fanlore is significantly easier, and I know that committee has done a lot of work to lower barriers). Some OTW projects don’t seem like they would lend themselves as well to casual participation, but it seems like a lot of our work could benefit from this, and I feel like I’m not seeing enough focus on this from the org as a whole. I feel like we’d have less burnout if we had more people to spread the burden, in bits and pieces. What do you, as a Board candidate, think of barriers to participation in the org right now? Do you think they need to be lowered? If so, what concrete, specific plans do you plan to pursue to do this? How do you plan to acknowledge and reward casual participation without devaluing the work of the more “official” volunteers? How do you plan to balance the needs of casual contributors, volunteers, and staff?

Lucy Pearson

Making it easier to get involved is never a bad thing, and casual volunteering is a good way for people to dip in and out and a good gateway to a more sustained involvement. So, while I think we already have some good stuff in place, there is definitely value in working to remove barriers to participation.

I think this does vary hugely from project to project, and some areas lend themselves better to casual volunteering than others, so I am going to focus on the Archive project, which I know the most about. I think there are several areas in which we can make this more open to casual volunteers, and I’m happy to say that several of these are in progress in different ways. Testing is one area where we have faced challenges with volunteer retention (largely because of the nature of the work), but we have had a lot of success at drawing in ad hoc testers for particular features. This works well because we usually get people together in chat, everyone has a common goal and everyone who gets involved can feel accomplished when the code they test gets onto the real Archive. Often these events are a road in for people who decide they like it and join more formally, and since formal volunteers and staffers are also involved their contribution in training and helping the ad hoc people is also recognised and valued. I think we could do this more with testing, and we could probably use this model elsewhere in the org for short-term projects which need a big push of work at specific times.

In terms of coding, we’ve already switched from a code repository that requires people to be added as members to contribute code, to Github, which allows anyone to submit code which can then be reviewed and added into the main code branch or not, depending on whether it works for us. In theory, this should allow more ad hoc volunteering, at least for experienced coders who don’t need the other support we provide. In practice, that isn’t happening yet: I’d like to make a push to open up some of our coding docs or mirror them on Github, so that people can get the info they need to get the code up and running, and make it clearer that we welcome that kind of contribution. I know Naomi also has some cool tech ideas for how we can let more inexperienced people dip in and try the experience of coding on the Archive without having to wait to have a complete setup: I’m definitely in favour of this!

The other exciting thing that’s in progress for the AO3 is the public Support Board, which is something I’ve been helping work on on and off for a long time now. This will be publicly visible and anyone will be able to answer questions (for various technical reasons this wasn’t a model we were able to implement from the beginning). This will be great, because a lot of users can share specific knowledge – for example if they have run a challenge on the AO3 and know that feature well – but don’t necessarily want to do Support work day in, day out. The new system will let people just drop by and answer one question if they want to, and we hope it will also become a pathway to more formal volunteering, for those people who find they like the work and are getting more involved! We’re planning a badging system so people can get an immediate glow of recognition; I think that it’s already becoming clear that formal Support staffers will contribute in a more specialised way, so I hope they won’t feel devalued, and we’ll continue to recognise them in places like AO3 news posts. If it hasn’t already been completed by the new term, making sure AD&T have the support they need to get the coding and testing done will be a priority for me.

In a broader sense across the org, I think that the key is to think creatively and not to be too wedded to old systems. I know that when we switched to using Github, I found it challenging because it entailed learning a new system and a new set of commands, but it was worth it because it opens up a lot more flexibility in our working systems. So, as a Board member I’d like to encourage that flexibility, and keep the idea of more ad-hoc involvement at the forefront of my mind in conversations about supporting projects.

One last note: flexibility is also absolutely key for lowering the barriers to participation in an accessibility sense. Some people can’t use our regular tools, or can’t interact in the default ways that the org at large uses. I am absolutely committed to making sure that as an org, we work to ensure that we don’t simply turn those people away. Sometimes we can make small adjustments to our process to meet an individual’s needs, and we should always be ready to do that. Sometimes an individual needs a specific provision which doesn’t work or isn’t needed for everyone else, and if we can accommodate that we should. This is something I worked to do as AD&T chair and which I want to encourage across the org as a whole. Specifically, I am committed to listening to people in the org and out when they say ‘x doesn’t work for me’ and supporting them in making changes where possible. I don’t promise not to make mistakes – I have in the past and I will again – but I promise to listen and learn from them.

Jenny Scott-Thompson

I think some of the barriers to participation could be lowered, yes. It would need to be done carefully, to ensure we are still supporting our volunteers sufficiently – there are examples in Fanlore where people have contributed edits for years, but this has not been recognised outside of the Fanlore community, whereas similar levels of work from AO3 coders or tag wranglers get recognised by the whole OTW. I’d like to make it easier for volunteers to drift in and out without feeling guilty for being busy, and I’d like to make the difference between staff and volunteers clearer to everyone, and make sure both are valued for their different contributions.

As far as concrete steps, the AO3 already made a big step forward this year in moving to Github – this means that in theory casual coders can drift in and out, but we haven’t yet seen anyone do it. I’d like to take that another step forward by working with the Volunteers & Recruiting committee to see what steps of the coder intake process can be automated – e.g. letting people add themselves to the mailing list. I’d like to look at ways of providing developer environments to casual coders more easily – the webdevs are great, but are a fair amount of work for Systems, and other open source projects have had success with providing Virtual Machine images that coders can download and install themselves, so I’d like to explore that option.

For testers, again, I’d like people to be able to add themselves to the mailing list, and get added straight to Google Code at that point, but also revisit the discussion of letting people comment in Google Code and help out with testing without signing up.

Support’s barriers to participation will be drastically lowered when the new support board goes live, and I’m really looking forward to that – thanks to Sidra for all her hard work on it.

Most other committees either already accept casual participation – e.g. contributing an article to Symposium blog doesn’t require the full sign-up process – or have good reasons not to – such as Finance or Systems. But I would keep the option open, and discuss with those committees if people had ideas to improve things.

I’d like to explore other options to make the perceived barrier between volunteers and wider fandom lower, too, at the same time as building community – some of the discussions about transparency, such as the proposal for public forums, have touched on this. Moving the coder tutorials to a public wiki would be another step that could help.

On the other side of the equation, I’d like to help Fanlore promote frequent editors to become gardeners more often, and proactively invite people to join the committee – they’ve done this a couple of times recently, and I think it’s a great way to recruit staff, from people who are already involved.

Betsy Rosenblatt

I think the questioner is right that some projects are better suited to casual participation than others, and I love the idea of lowering the barriers to participation for tasks that might allow people to participate more casually. I don’t know, myself, which projects require a lot of dedicated time and which can be done modularly—the individual committee chairs undoubtedly have a lot more knowledge on that front—but I’d love for the organization as a whole to keep casual participation more in mind. I have one significant caveat, however: I’ve discussed before what I see as the benefits of community-building to sustainability, and I support making volunteering and committee work a community-creating, social experience whenever possible. The more we distribute tiny tasks to more people, the less sense of community and dedication to quality they may feel, and the more errors our more devoted staffers and volunteers may end up having to fix. So as a general principle, I like the idea, but before deciding on concrete plans I’d want to consult more with each committee to find out how often it’s feasible and how often it results in errors.

As for acknowledging and rewarding casual participation, I think attribution is very important. The more we can acknowledge our volunteers (casual or otherwise) the better; we can do this publicly on the blog, on the web pages for various projects, on twitter (etc.) and internally in places like the internal wiki and internal meetings (such as the all-org).

Naomi Novik

I mentioned in one of my previous answers how I recently came up with a way to let newbie coders work and get some code committed to the archive with virtually no setup at all, and an idea I’d love to see for a “Change Your Archive” day where people signed up for slots to make edits to the archive that would go live almost right away.

The Support Board I’ve mentioned a few times is also one of the really key things we need for letting people get in the front door of volunteering in an easy, no-signup-required way.

On recognition, we’ve talked from time to time in ADT about a “merit badge” system on the archive (ie little icons to show on profiles) to reward people who help out within the archive (eg wrangle tags, eventually answer support requests, do translations), which I have to say I love, and it occurs to me this could also be used for other committee members (who wanted obvs) within the archive. Aside from the happy glow of outward-facing recognition for your work, I think it would be just plain fun to “collect” badges, and also those badges would themselves serve as advertisements to the giant body of AO3 users of the fact that you CAN get involved (and each one could link to a ‘how-to-help-with-X’ page).

Nikisha Sanders

I believe that, yes, there are barriers to participation for voluntary staff (by which I mean anyone who chooses to get involved, not only those with Staff designation). The process of joining through Volcom is a necessary one, and not something I would characterize as a barrier. It’s a step we have to take as a formal organization for reasons of accountability. We need to know, and be able to report, our general staffing numbers. We also need to be able to identify who has been responsible for a given bit of work, both in the event a problem arises and to give praise for the successes.

What I do see as challenges to bringing in greater participation are things like not having a centralized public listing of volunteer openings on various projects; not having a clear list of goals and needs from every committee, or even a general work plan that’s widely available; and a lack of clear communication internally and externally with regard to what each committee does. I think we’re also stunted in our attempts to reach volunteers of any kind by not having a clear and consistent communications plan. All of these things make it harder to see where help is needed and how to give it. I absolutely think this is something we need to address.

At this moment, I only have a few concrete plans, and they are, admittedly, more wet concrete than anything. The first is to look at where I, personally, can promote OTW and opportunities for participation, and then do so. I think that’s a small bit of work we all can do, to build a general pool of voluntary staff. The second is to work with Volcom to get a better sense of what they need from the rest of us. I know that the Still Willing To Serve survey gives them information on who will be returning and who won’t, and this year the survey has been retooled to give better information on why someone might choose to stay or leave, and what projects they would like to pursue. Closely associated to SWTS is a request that goes to each committee chair about staffing & volunteer needs, asking chairs to give an idea of whether they need new people and how many. I would like to support Volcom in getting responses to both the survey and the committee chair requests. The third thing I see that I could do to help in lowering the barriers for participation would be to assist with an org-wide assessment of which projects are suited for casual contributors and support chairs and project leads in drafting calls for service for smaller projects.

I believe we need to work on better rewarding and acknowledging everyone who participates in OTW. Members get a note thanking them for joining, and Volcom thanks us for signing up and continuing to serve, but not a single time in my years with OTW have I seen the board pass on praise or gratitude or any kind of reward to my committee or any of us individually as a full body. I cannot say if this is true of every committee or not, only what I personally have seen. I’ve also seen projects that take a ton of underlying volunteer and staff work be accredited to single people. I’ve seen the whole organization dismissed that way, and it’s something I think we need to fix.

I would like to see more public acknowledgement of the people behind the work. I like the model Dreamwidth has set with their newsletters, naming the specific people involved in projects, from large to small. I think, once we get it together on the communications front, that’s something we could easily do, and should be doing in the newsletter we have now. Recognizing contributors in the org-wide meetings would be another important step. As for other incentives and forms of recognition, I’m not sure. I think it depends on what staff, volunteers, and casual contributors want, and I can only speak for myself, where a simple ‘Thanks for your work,’ would go a very long way.

Balancing the needs of three levels of staff, as well as non-contributing members, will be difficult. It is already difficult. From a board position, I think the largest piece of the work will be actively asking voluntary staff what they need and being responsive to it, whether they’re long term staff or someone coming into work for an hour. Gathering and listening to feedback, and addressing critical staffing issues as they’re brought to the board is a central responsibility of board members, and one OTW has struggled with since its founding. For myself, I want to continue working in a way that asks people what they want to do, what they need to do it, and how I can support them, and I would like to see other staff commit to doing the same, without privileging staff over volunteers over casual contributors.

Julia Beck
Response received 4 November 2011 08:41am UTC. Added to document 4 November 2011 1:03pm UTC.

Hah, oh yeah. This is a great question, because I (rather, we!) struggled a lot with finding answers for my own committees. First off, yes, I agree that generally speaking, the barriers are too high. But what makes this such a tricky issue is that it’s different for each committee. That’s why I can’t in good conscience give you any concrete measures apart from: the Board needs to initiate an evaluation process, ask each committee to poke its processes and give at least one suggestion each. (Seeing as it’s something that most committees already do, I don’t believe an initiative like that would be controversial.)

This doesn’t sound like much, I know, but I can’t stress enough how valuable it would be to have Board say “you are not only allowed, but encouraged to question this process. Yes, you, the volunteer who just got started. Yes, you, the long-term committee member who’s become used to things”. Because right now it’s more, “this is the process. Deal.”, and even if people have suggestions, they’re not sure if those are welcome, and they don’t want to be disruptive. So I see it as Board’s task to facilitate an open culture of feedback.

Okay, since you prompted me, trying my hand at a couple general, actual measures for this initiative after all: sorting the tasks in each committee according to commitment/expertise required; then set up a noticeboard with low-commitment jobs on the website where people with little time can nab something (honestly, I can come up with 4 jobs like that spontaneously for both I&O and Translation… Hmmm. Brb, writing a proposal to our Volunteers committee~)

I’m not actually all that worried about balancing the value of regular vs. one-time work. Maybe that’s naive, but there’s the fact that a committee is also a social group, and that community spirit is both a powerful motivator and a reward in itself. (Conversely, since you mentioned Fanlore, I see the lack of community-building as Fanlore’s Achilles heel at the moment.) Another reward (simultaneously, burden) exclusive to being staff is responsibility: you make/shape decisions (you deal with the fallout).

As to balancing temp volunteer/volunteer/staff needs, I’ll repeat what I said in the third set of answers: “My educated guess is that volunteers don’t differ all that much in what they want out of their OTW volunteering experience. They want their work to be acknowledged, they want it to be meaningful, and they want a degree of agency.” Agency becomes more important if you are staff, though.

With regards to acknowledgement, my quick & dirty suggestion would be to have a (opt-in!) “Thank you” section in the official newsletter (like the AO3 release notes already do), but more pragmatically, I’d ask both temp volunteers & volunteers themselves what they want (Newsletter acknowledgement? AO3 invite? handshake? Graphics? Nothing?). Actually, let me include that as a question in the internal OTW survey (see, I know why said it was a great question: very thought-provoking.)


I would like to ask both Betsy and Naomi why they seem to think their respective committees are so particularly special that they require representation on the Board – why shouldn’t that also be true just as much for, say, DevMem or Wiki or Support? Or rather, untrue for all: I assume that healthy board-chairs relationships would solve the issue of representation.

Jenny Scott-Thompson

I agree that healthy board-chair relationships solve most of the issue of representation. I’d also like to consider in the future if committees chaired by a Board member could have an alternative liaison as well, to provide a second point of contact and point of view. At the moment, we don’t have enough people to cover this, but if we have fewer committees chaired by Board members in the future, it might become possible.

I do think, however, that Board should have people with a range of skills, backgrounds and committee experience, in a broader sense. For example, I have technical experience, having worked as an AO3 coder for the past two years, and in my professional career; Lucy and Naomi both have broad familiarity with our technical needs and a great overview of coding from their respective histories as AD&T chair; Ira, who is remaining on the board, contributed design work for the AO3 and developed the Support board proposal during her time on AD&T, and is also a professional web developer in her day job; and Kristen, also staying on from the current board, has served on the OTW Webmasters team since 2008, which has kept her involved in the Drupal and CiviCRM open source communities, and well as working closely with our Systems team. Similarly, Julia, Lucy and Betsy all have different types of academic experience, and so does Francesca from the current board. Sanders has a ton of non-profit experience, which includes the kind of legal things any board needs to know, and she knows when to ask a lawyer for more information. Francesca also has an accomplished record of building alliances on legal issues with other organizations, such as the EFF. Happily, this means that whomever gets elected, we will have people on the board with overlapping experience and expertise, and we also bring a good mix of other skills. Edit 3 November 2011 03:22am UTC.

Betsy Rosenblatt

As a general matter, I believe that every nonprofit board should include at least one lawyer. Legal considerations (What rights does the org or the board have? What duties and responsibilities are borne by the board or the org as a whole? What rules govern a given situation? Are we doing something that could get us sued?) are a constant background presence—and sometimes a foreground presence—in board deliberations and decision-making. If there’s a lawyer in the room, so to speak, there’s someone looking out for these issues, who’s more likely to spot them when others might not, and who can address them in real time. Without question, the Board can (and sometimes does) ask the Legal Committee a particular question about a particular policy. But there are a thousand little moments when the Board wouldn’t even know to ask. For as long as I’ve been involved with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, it’s made a point of having an attorney serve on the Board, even though it has its own counsel that serves the purpose of our Legal Committee. The same is true for other nonprofits I’ve been involved with, such as Lambda Legal, which has many attorneys on its Board. To quote someone I respect a great deal: “a good lawyer helps her client do what it wants legally and ethically by being part of the client’s projects from the beginning,” and being on the Board would allow me not only to do that for the Board, but also for the various committees and projects; I can worry about the law stuff so they don’t have to.

So I think of the matter of having a “resident lawyer” on the Board as serving a different purpose from the Legal committee, although both are important. I do think that there’s an added benefit to having a member of the Legal committee on the Board, to serve as a bridge between the Board, which steers the organization’s legal advocacy mission as a whole, and the people who carry out that mission (the committee). It’s possible that the relationship between large-scale steering of that mission and the nitty gritty work may be closer for Legal than for other committees, since Legal splits its time between carrying out the advocacy mission as directed by the Board and carrying out the discrete project of responding to queries (much like the other committees carry out discrete projects such as operating a journal, wiki, archive, etc.). In the past, the Board has generally included a member of Legal (the chair, Rebecca Tushnet), but I wouldn’t say that makes Legal “special”; certainly, good Board/committee communication is crucial for the success of all committees, and for the success of the organization as a whole.

I want to emphasize that I support having Board members representing as many of the different committees as possible, so that we can learn from each others’ experiences. As it happens, I have more personal knowledge and experience with the org’s legal advocacy activities than with the activities of the other committees. I am really looking forward to getting more involved in the Journal, the Archive, Communications…all of the committee roles. I look forward to learning more about what a Tag Wrangler does, and how the Archive works inside. The more the Board is comprised of people who have personal experience in diverse roles, from my standpoint, the better. So while I believe that it’s beneficial to have a member of Legal on the Board of an organization that counts legal advocacy among its missions—and beneficial to have a lawyer on the Board of any nonprofit—I certainly wouldn’t want a Board of all lawyers or all legal committee members.

Naomi Novik

OK, so to start, in my experience representation on the board does make a difference for a committee that is having a tough time — to have a liaison who, even if not a past member, still actively goes to all their meetings and pitches in with the committee’s work, not in a way as to usurp the chair’s role but to be there as a conduit of the Board’s support. If all is going well, a solid chair-liaison relationship alone is fine; but if things are difficult then it really helps.

And I have to say I think most people would agree that the Archive is particularly special and important to this organization. It’s our flagship project, it’s what started the whole shebang. Major parts of this organization are only necessary because of the Archive, or depend in turn on the Archive. That is, we only really need a Development team because we need a steady cash flow to buy the expensive servers that the Archive runs on and to pay our $800/month colocation bills. We only need a Support team because there are tens of thousands of people actively using the Archive every day. Our Open Doors project can’t really get started systematically saving online archives until we get finished with the Archive’s importing features. And so on. Our other standalone projects independent of the Archive are incredibly valuable resources to fandom that I am wildly proud of, but you don’t need an organization on this scale to build or host them.

If nothing else, just imagine for a second the doomsday scenario where the Archive fails — it goes down fast or slow and takes all these hundreds of thousands of stories that people have trusted us with. Who would ever trust this organization with their work or their time or energy or money again? We could never accomplish anything else.

So I do think that it is in the best interests of not just the Archive and anyone who wants it to last, but also of the entire organization and membership, even those who don’t particularly care about the Archive itself, for the team that is building this crucial and wildly complicated project to have all the support and encouragement that the Board can give them.

Does that require representation on the Board? Not necessarily; what does matter a lot though is having someone with solid technical skills and familiar in particular with what we’re using in the archive. Otherwise, if you don’t yourself understand the technical issues facing the archive team, it’s hard to communicate them to the Board: someone on ADT has to explain them to you, your understanding is very likely going to be imperfect if it’s a complex issue, and then questions any other Board member has at that point have to do a round trip out to the committee and back. Then the Board as a whole gets even worse understanding of those technical issues since it’s a game of telephone, and the decisions it makes are likely to be imperfect.

(That isn’t just fear talking: in practice, this last year the committee did have a rough time communicating with the Board and as a result ran into a bunch of roadblocks that actively slowed us down, both in and of themselves, and in the work and stress involved in having to clear them.)

And I think having a technical voice on the Board is also important not just for ADT but for other committees — someone with tech experience can recognize problems throughout the org that have easy or good technical solutions, and make assessments on technologies and tools that we might want to use.

Related, not that Betsy can’t speak for herself, but entirely apart from liaising with Legal, it is similarly really valuable to the Board to have a lawyer in the house! If you don’t have a lawyer on the board, then the other members of the board have to be able to think about and recognize potential issues that you have to then run by Legal, and again, you’ve got a roundtrip going that delays things. If you have a lawyer on the Board who can just say RED ALERT or go ahead, it can both save a lot of time and potentially real risks for the board and the org.

(I do actually think it would be a good idea to set up a system on the Board where if there isn’t a lawyer as a Board member, one of the lawyers from the Legal team is given access to Board for this purpose under confidentiality, but we don’t have that right now; until last year Rebecca Tushnet was on the Board and kept us from blithely walking into quicksand.)

Nikisha Sanders

Even though I’m not required to answer this question, it’s one I’ve given a lot of thought to. To be perfectly honest, I was perturbed to have two candidates approaching the election with a sense of entitlement based solely on their committee membership when any one of the six of us could have legitimately made the same claim. Only two of us did, and I think that’s telling when it’s the core response when asked why they’re running for the board. The implied expectation of being held to lesser and different standards than other staff or committees seems to run counter to serving the best interests of all of us.

I don’t think, however, it’s untrue for every committee. Fincom and Devmem together would have a reasonable claim to a board spot because the role of Treasurer is tied to the board in our by-laws and, ideally, requires a financial management background. The thing is, neither committee has asserted that claim, in this or any of the prior elections. It’s something I’ve shied away from this time because I would rather be elected to the board based on voters feeling I could represent the best interests of the entire organization, not only one segment of it. I found the idea of campaigning largely on the fact that we won’t have a qualified, experienced Treasurer with a relationship to Fincom unless I’m elected distasteful and disingenuous –I’m cringing to even say it now– when there are far more qualities and experiences that a board member should have than a single, specialized area of interest.

In most cases, I do think that healthy board-chair relationships would solve the issue. In the instances where a committee feels their liaison is insufficient in representing their interests, perhaps lobbying to serve as an appointed, rather than elected, board member with limited involvement in decision making would be a better solution. There is also, I believe, the option to request a different board liaison should the relationship fail to meet the needs of the committee. Barring those options, direct communication from a committee to the whole of the board has always been available via email. In other words, there are many ways for a committee to have their interests represented other than by having a seat on the board.