Atiya Hakeem 2015 Q&A: Conflict Resolution, Group 2

According to the 2014 Strategic Planning retreat summary, Board has difficulty “recognizing the positive aspects of people they have had complex relationships with”. Do you believe this is a current problem in the OTW? What do you think can be done to create a more professional environment?

While “having difficulty recognizing the positive aspects of people one has had complex relationships with” is probably an inescapable human tendency, I think it’s easiest to overcome in an environment in which all parties involved are strongly motivated to work towards concrete goals. Even if I have had issues with someone in the past, if I need their contribution to help something important to me succeed, I will be happy to focus on the ways in which they are competent and to interact with them as smoothly as I can. Electing directors with a history of working with others to get things done, and who know and care deeply about the success of the OTW’s projects should reduce the odds of unproductive and unprofessional behavior.

Several of the Board’s minutes for their closed sessions this year had items like this: “Discussion of how to proceed in a complaint against a staffer.” Under what circumstances do you think it appropriate for the Board to file complaints against individual staffers? Do you foresee any potential problems or conflicts of interest with regards to something like this?

I feel that complaints from Board about staffers should only be considered in extreme cases, such as a staffer being abusive to a director on a personal level. Disagreeing with Board policy, for example, even vehemently or repeatedly, should not be grounds for a complaint. In order to have a healthy organization, those doing the work must be able to freely express their views and opinions about the leadership, the organization, and its goals. If they can’t, those in charge are cut off from vital information, and those under them are left feeling frustrated and voiceless. It’s therefore extremely important that policies allow staffers and volunteers to speak their mind to the Board without fearing punitive measures.

Additionally, there is an obvious and inherent conflict of interest in Board filing a complaint when the party who will judge the merits of that complaint are Board themselves. To reduce the conflict, Board complaints should adjudicated by a neutral party such as Volunteers & Recruiting or Legal, not by the directors themselves.

The Board has retained an outside lawyer on a pro bono basis to advise them on various issues, including the involuntary removal of volunteers from the Org. What impact do you think this decision has had on the Org’s culture? Do you believe this is a useful tool for conflict management? Under what circumstances do you think external legal counsel specifically retained by and for the Board alone, in opposition to other volunteers in the Org, might be an appropriate step to take?

I am extremely unhappy about the entire idea of volunteer management being done in this way. The OTW has always prided itself as being a volunteer organization, run by and for fans. The Board are supposed to be leaders to guide the Org, not dictators imposing their will on the individuals who are its lifeblood. The entire idea that Board would be in such opposition to the other volunteers in the Org that they felt the need to resort to outside legal counsel says to me that something is deeply wrong. I don’t feel there are any circumstances that would make that appropriate, and I am concerned that it is a departure from our volunteer culture that could do lasting harm.

We have in-house structures to deal with human resource issues and conflict management. If they are not adequate, we should improve them, with advice from our own legal team.

There have been repeated complaints about the behavior of Directors toward staff and volunteers who have expressed that they have no avenue for addressing this sort of behavior. While Directors may now remove each other, most of these reports indicate that the rest of the Board was either dismissive of the concerns or actually supported the abusive actions of their colleagues. What are your feelings about exploring and instituting a process by which a requisite number of chairs, staff, and/or volunteers can call for a vote of the membership to consider the removal of a Director who has engaged in unprofessional conduct, abusive behavior, or otherwise violated the organization’s Code of Conduct?

I think that implementing a procedure for to hold directors accountable for abusive conduct is essential for the health and morale of the Org. The fact that a director can literally do anything short of violating U.S. law with no consequences is a huge temptation to bad behavior. Unprofessional conduct towards staff and volunteers creates a hostile environment in which it is more difficult to get work done, leads to loss of personnel, and makes the entire organization look bad. The mere existence of a process for removal of a director for abusive behavior would serve as a check to encourage Board members to consider their actions more carefully.

This responsibility cannot rest only in the hands of Board itself, for the reasons highlighted in the question. Accountability must work both ways between Board and the rest of the Org, and a policy where a reasonable consensus of chairs/staffers/volunteers could take action would ensure that this was the case.

Atiya Hakeem 2015 Q&A: Other Questions, Group 2

Can you say something positive about three of your fellow candidates?

Yes! Matty Bowers was my first chair when I joined the Org. In the years I’ve worked for and with her I’ve found her to be unfailingly calm, practical, and level-headed. She manages with a light touch, such that one feels like one isn’t being managed at all as long as things are going well, but with help right there as soon as it’s needed. I find her extremely comfortable to work with, because when we disagree, we can productively discuss the issues involved without drama or rancor.

Aline Carrão’s enthusiasm and upbeat personality make her a pleasure to be around, possibly sometimes obscuring the fact that she’s very competent at her work.

Alex Tischer is straightforwardly blunt, overtly competent, and extremely funny. I trust her always to get things done, and I enjoy watching it happen.

I only met Katarina Harju “in person” since the campaign started, but if I were allowed a fourth comment, I’d say that getting to know her has been a definite bonus.

A lot of the current problems seem to come back to a lack of scalability, especially with the massive growth of the Archive. A) What are your short-term plans to make this growth spurt work, B) What are your long term plans to avoid this problem in the future, when there’s another massive increase (of traffic, users, and/or fanworks etc.), a.k.a what structural changes would you strive for to make the OTW, and especially the Archive more sustainable.

I could give a more interesting answer to this question as it specifically relates to AO3 with my AD&T staffer hat on, but from the Board perspective:

A) In the short term, for AO3, I would make sure that the AD&T and Systems committees were allocated the money needed to upgrade our server capacity, pay our new contractor, and obtain needed training and software, and that that money was paid out in a timely fashion.

For the Org as a whole, I would work on getting our fiscal house in order. We need to have a predictive budget each year, in order to allow us to anticipate our needs and shape our fundraising accordingly. We need responsible fiscal oversight to ensure that the money goes where it is supposed to and that the bills are paid.

B) In the long term, I think we need to work on transitioning some positions to be paid, rather than volunteer. As our projects get larger, expecting volunteers to manage them in their spare time is increasingly not feasible. I’d start with Systems, AO3 coding, and Volunteers & Recruiting, with a preference for hiring current staffers, as being people we can trust to do the work. (Our experiences in the Org with paying people from outside have, to date, been rather mixed.) I definitely don’t think we should start by paying people at the top (such as an executive director); leadership choosing to pay itself with no oversight has a great potential for abuse, and I’ve seen examples of such in other organizations.

Whenever internationalisation is brought up in relation to fandom, I often hear the argument that it’s not needed yet, since there isn’t an “insert country/language/non-English fandom” presence in the OTW/on the Archive. Personally I feel like this is a chicken/egg situation. Is the OTW/AO3 so American/English language focussed because there isn’t enough of a non-English fandom interest, or is there no interest because there’s not enough non-American/English accommodation?

A) Where do you fall on this? What should come first?

B) If the next growth spurt is of a non-English, different fandom culture nature, how will you accommodate that?

I haven’t actually heard this argument in my time in the OTW. The committees I’ve worked on have members from many countries, with many first languages, and they are very enthusiastic about internationalization. We’ve also certainly seen significant non-English fandom interest on AO3, as measured by visitor stats and the numbers of works posted in non-English languages and for non-English-language source canons.

Since I joined as a staffer, the revitalization of the Translation committee has been a major change. Their members are, not surprisingly, extremely diverse and very passionate about internationalization, and having them available to quickly and enthusiastically translate as needed both enables and motivates efforts to provide content in non-English languages. Not only have they added international diversity to the internal culture of the OTW, they have worked with AD&T, AO3 Documentation, AO3 Support, AO3 Abuse and other committees to implement items such as translated AO3 News Posts, translated content on the OTW web site, translated AO3 FAQs, and Support ticket and News Post comment replies in many languages.

Thus, my answer to A) is that I think there already is international fandom interest and that the OTW’s committees are working on better serving our international audience, and to B) is that I have great confidence that these committees, led by Translation, will be able to accommodate future increases in international interest.

Atiya Hakeem 2015 Q&A: Election Process

After a few years of uncontested elections (including one which garnered 0 candidates initially), there are now more candidates than ever before for the smallest number of seats ever up for election. To what do you attribute this sudden surge of candidates, and what would you do during your time on the Board to promote consistent contested elections for Board seats?

I had been giving serious consideration to running in the two terms previous to this one. While I was concerned at the direction the OTW’s leadership was taking and had ideas for where I wanted it to go instead, I felt then that it was more important for me to devote all my energy to my committee work, particularly while setting up Quality Assurance & Testing as a subcommittee.

This year, however, I decided that I could no longer stand back and wait for someone else to fix things. The situation with having only one person in charge of the finances and no overall fiscal policy was only getting worse, Board actions were becoming entirely opaque, the lack of representation of the OTW’s project-related committees was increasingly an issue, and the treatment of the volunteers who run the Org’s projects by directors was not improving. Many staffers and volunteers I spoke to had similar concerns to mine, so I made the decision to run, with the plan that I would try to convince others with concerns to join me.

It turned out, though, that I never had to try. Independently, other staffers had come to a similar conclusion, and stepped up to try to make things better.

(As an aside, at the time I decided to run, the change had not yet been made to reduce the number of seats to two.)

Obviously, it would be nice to have staffers wanting to run even when there is no crisis. I think that can be achieved by having a Board that is transparent, so potential candidates know what they’d be getting into; representative of varied OTW committees, so candidates can relate to Board points of view; and approachable, so OTW staffers and volunteers can get to know the directors and feel they can work with them effectively.

While the current election process is more independent than it was in previous years, it is still subject to some decisions made by the Board, which can be passed at any time without input from volunteers. It’s possible for the Board to even change the rules while an election is in progress to exclude some candidates or voters or to punish volunteers for visibly participating in the process. If elected, how would you ensure that each future election is unaffected by interests within the sitting Board?

The only way to prevent Board from having unlimited and arbitrary influence over the elections process is to change Article IX of the bylaws to remove Board’s power to unilaterally change the bylaws by a simple vote. I think this is a good idea in any case, but it’s particularly important for the elections process, as having Board interfere with elections risks calling their legitimacy into question and has the potential to make the entire OTW look bad in the eyes of our membership and the public. Changing this part of the bylaws is one of the things I intend to raise as a matter of urgency, if I am elected.

What do you think about the fact that two changes to the bylaws (reduction in size of board from seven to nine [sic], and the ability of two-thirds of the board to vote off another member with or without cause) means the board could dilute the election process? Effectively, the standing board could vote off any candidate who wins and with whom they disagree until they reach a candidate of whom they approve. Are you concerned about this?

I sincerely hope that three current incumbent directors would not consider negating the results of the election by voting off the winning candidates; it would show complete disregard for our membership, and I cannot believe that they would wish to do such a thing.

However, any bylaw change must be considered not just in terms of how we think the current Board will use it, but how it could be used or abused in future. I am extremely concerned that these changes, and in general allowing Board to change bylaws related to the elections process, are things that are extremely open to abuse by directors who wish to remain in control and suppress outside voices.

As I discuss in the question above, I think that we should protect the integrity of the elections process by removing this power from the hands of the Board.

Atiya Hakeem 2015 Q&A: Finances, Group 2

Can you describe your ideal setup for OTW finances going forward, given that many of you flagged the current situation as an issue?

I would like to see us resurrect the Finance committee (see my answer to the third question in this set for more detail).

There is currently no internal or external auditing structure checking the OTW’s bookkeeping (no legal worries, here: the Delaware state laws do not require annual auditing from nonprofits). If you join Board, is this something you would like to change? If so, how?

I think we should price external auditing, and if it seems reasonable, we should have it, possibly at more widely spread intervals, such as every two years.

While I believe our finances are not currently being responsibly or sensibly overseen, I don’t actually think any fiscal impropriety has gone on. However, auditing would be nice as a reassurance to the Org and its members, and a check against any future misconduct.

Our finances are currently being overseen by only one person with actual decisional and content-producing power, which is concerning in terms of transparency, and efficiency. If elected, how would you go about building a sound administrative Financial structure for the Organization?

I think we should return control of the Org’s finances to a Finance committee. The fact that the previous committee was allowed to die doesn’t mean that a committee isn’t a working model if resurrected with better structure (as committees such as Translation and AO3 Documentation have been). I’d start with internal recruiting; I know we have a number of qualified people within the Org. A Finance committee of multiple members would provide redundancy for completing tasks such as paying the bills, and would have more time and resources available to keep documentation and reporting up to date. In addition, having more than one set of eyes on the books reduces the risk of either intentional or accidental mismanagement. I would like to see such a committee report to Board, but be independent from it as an additional check against abuse.

I saw many concerns about finances in the candidates’ statements, but I did not see outsourcing financial oversight mentioned as a solution. I’d like to know what the candidates think about outsourcing (paying for) some responsibilities, in particular engaging a company with a background in financial services for non-profits.

I am concerned about outsourcing financial oversight on a full-time basis. First, anything of this nature is not going to be cheap. Second, our finances are simply not that complicated. Third, I think it would be easy to find a company that was not in fact competent at the task, and given previous examples of Board choices of external people to pay, I’m not confident we’d be spending our money wisely.

I’d rather we install a functioning Finance committee of volunteers with proper reporting, and prioritize spending money to pay people doing tasks that can’t be easily done on a part-time volunteer basis, and who we can effectively oversee.