Aline Carrão 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 believe Board has a support role in this case. Board, or anyone from outside the relevant committee, will very rarely have a full, accurate picture of how things work, so it’s important to be careful not to make a well-meaning attempt to help that generates even more work for an already overworked committee. Not all committees work the same way, and something that might help one team may actively make someone else’s life harder. Listen to the committee’s specific needs and make sure to answer their requests promptly, be it for help, tools, or a contractor; talk to the chairs to help them create a long-term plan if necessary; but always keep in mind the actual situation of the committee.

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?

My main advice would be talk to people who have done this before, to look at what worked and what didn’t. Plenty of chairs inside the org have gone through the process of rebuilding a committee with different levels of hardship and success, and they are definitely willing and able to help someone in the same position.

Our most important resource in these cases is the knowledge of Org volunteers, and we should use it. People have been experimenting with how to recruit, how to train, and how to retain volunteers and knowledge for years, and — increasingly as time goes by — have been sharing these experiences and results and borrowing from each other’s successful initiatives. This can help jumpstart the committees that are facing problems, since a lot of the issues they will face are shared across the whole Org. Healthier committees may also be able to share volunteers to help with the rebuilding effort, too, depending on the case, which might help get the struggling committee off the ground enough to recruit for new members.

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.

While allocating financial resources, the first factor to take into consideration, in my opinion, is how much this expense would affect, directly or indirectly, the people who use our projects. So for example, servers to keep the sites running would be very high on that list; by that same logic, so would a ticketing software to help Support and Abuse work or publishing expenses for the Journal team.

Besides that, I think it’s important to consider how big an expense the requested allocation would be, and how much of an impact on the committee and the Org it would have. If something is inexpensive, will barely affect our budget and can highly improve someone’s productivity, work quality or outreach, we should definitely facilitate this request; on the other hand, it’s important to be more careful in deciding on more expensive requests, or those that won’t offer any concrete long-term benefits for the Org. Each request needs to have its cost and benefits assessed carefully along these lines.

It is also important to learn how to maximise our resources. There are a lot of companies that offer free or discounted services for nonprofits and we should take advantage of that as much as possible, investigating alternative options that might offer this kind of discount whenever we can.