Andrea Horbinski 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?

Implementing the strategic plan should have an immediate impact in terms of rationalizing volunteer roles throughout the organization, and the Board’s role in implementing the strategic plan is not only to fulfill the tasks that the plan designates for us but also to assist committees that need direct help and support with their own tasks under the plan. Over the course of the plan’s three-year implementation timeframe, the organization as a whole will be put on a much better supported and much stronger foundation of shared policies, procedures, and documentation, and each committee and the Board itself undertaking the specific tasks mandated by the plan will also rationalize our current practices and ensure that everyone is working effectively. I also very much look forward to, as part of implementing the strategic plan, reconsidering the workload of volunteer roles throughout the organization and altering and/or better supporting them to make all roles sustainable over the long term. This is something that’s important to do for multiple reasons, but both self-interest and general ethics dictate making sure that volunteer workload is sustainable because failing that, the organization itself will not be sustainable, or worth sustaining. The current Board is also strongly in favor of making the Archive the focus of the next annual Board meeting and inviting representatives from the Archive committees in order to directly focus on how best to support our flagship project and make the workload related to it more sustainable for volunteers. In the meantime, we were very happy to approve a coding contractor to jumpstart development on the Archive, partly in order to make it easier for related committees to attract and retain volunteers over the long term.

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?

I have to say that in my experience on the Board it’s far more often been the case for committees to fall apart because of chairs vanishing rather than volunteers absconding: in most instances, the chair’s vanishing did lead to some volunteers wandering away and not returning–a circumstance that is common to volunteer organizations the world over, not just the OTW–but there were usually a few committed volunteers who were happy to start up again when contacted by a new chair, and in some cases those committed volunteers were actually the people who brought the committee’s problems to the Board’s attention in the first place. (Incidentally, the new reporting structure that the Board instituted for most committees earlier in 2015 should make this sort of silent implosion much less likely to happen without the Board or our designated representatives noticing in future.) In all these cases, however, the Board has asked a chosen individual, or sometimes two, to take on the work of rebuilding the committee in question due to that individual’s proven skills and competence in both the work of the committee and with committee management and/or volunteer mentorship in general. Our response to a chair with a vanished committee would be the same it’s been to these individuals: offering all the support they require, up to and including individual mentorship with designated directors who have experience in the relevant areas.

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.

Here’s the thing about the OTW: we are a growing and already-successful organization, and as such the proper response to “we need more money to do X for committee Y” is not to limit ourselves and our programs but to raise more money. It’s true in a philosophical sense that our resources are finite, but all my experience and the expertise of our Development & Membership committee strongly indicates that the OTW is nowhere near the limit of our capacity in terms of donations from individual supporters: it’s quite possible to ask for and to receive more money from our wonderful donors and members, particularly in light of the fact that their numbers can reasonably be expected to continue to grow as the Archive and our other projects continue to expand. The other thing is that the OTW is currently–and awesomely–totally reliant on individual donations, which is truly remarkable among non-profit organizations, but that also means that we’re currently totally funded through just one potential revenue stream. Ultimately as server-related costs continue to grow along with the organization’s overall budget we should explore additional revenue streams, and institutional funding (i.e. foundation grants) could provide an excellent alternative revenue stream to fund our projects. There definitely is not much overlap between institutional and individual donors, and maximizing both revenue streams could greatly benefit the OTW, its projects, and its mission overall.