Alex Tischer 2015 Q&A: Committee Management

Many committees in the OTW, particularly those associated with the Archive, struggle with huge amounts of work combined with difficulties retaining active staff. What do you think is the Board’s role in remedying this problem?

I think it is important that Board does not attempt to micromanage the committees. In a functional committee the chairs (and to varying degrees staff and volunteers) will be aware of internal problems and very likely working on them already. Board’s role in those cases should be mainly supportive. If a committee is attempting something new to address the problem and asks Board for help or support for whatever action they are planning Board should provide the asked for level of support or help but not decide they know better and completely overhaul the plan. Board’s role should be to make sure the committees are functional and then let them do their job without interference, basically. If the committee is not functional, then Board should look at past cases where committees managed to get back on their feet and help this committee make connections with others that have improved their internal structures, to learn from them and exchange ideas.

If an OTW committee fell apart and the chair, now alone, asked you for advice on how to rebuild it, what would you tell them?

If a committee fell apart so completely that only one chair remains, my first question would not be how to rebuild the committee but to ask if it was necessary to rebuild it. Is it a committee whose work is critical to maintaining one of the projects? Or is it a committee whose work has been shifted to other committees already, ones that can handle the workload better? If it is a committee that does require rebuilding, my first advice would be to ask among the other chairs (and possibly staff and volunteers) if there were people willing to help. Finding a co-chair or at least one other person to help rebuilding would be my first step. Everything after that would depend a lot on the committee, its structure and how time-sensitive their work output is.

A number of you have expressed a desire to support the OTW’s committees and ensure they have the resources they need. However, the OTW is a volunteer-run and donation-funded organisation, and resources are finite. Please help me understand what factors you would take into account when prioritising the allocation of resources.

When allocating the resources I would obviously prioritise the user-facing projects, because those are the ones our donors give their money for. So, Legal, Journal, the Archive and Fanlore would be higher up on my list to distribute funds to than, for example, Translation, if we’re running short.

At the same time, the amount of money needed would also impact the allocation. A lot of tools are available for free or at a low cost, and if one committee decided to try something out that could benefit them with little or no expense to the OTW, I would not see it as Board’s task to hinder this.

There are of course a number of costs and resources that are large but essential. For example, servers for the Archive and Fanlore are not really up for debate. We either have what we need there or don’t, and we need to listen to Systems as soon as they request more. Other things are required for the smooth running of the org, like CMS for Volunteers & Recruiting. That should define our focus when prioritising expenses: essentials, projects’ needs, all-org needs, a healthy reserve for future expenses, and then we assess how much we can afford for everything else.