Matty Bowers 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?

Thankfully this isn’t as prevalent as it used to be. At heart, this is is mostly a committee issue, Board should only be involved in an advisory position. They should only take direct action in cases where a committee has completely fallen apart and needs to be rebuilt.

A few things Board can do:

  • Publicly and privately acknowledge the work committees and volunteers do.
  • Act speedily on proposals/decisions presented for approval.
  • Understand how the committee is doing and adjust expectations as needed.
  • Communicate with chairs regularly.
  • Respond to emails. Preferably promptly.
  • Cheerlead. Chairing can be a thankless job and knowing Board is on your side can make all the difference.

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?

First, breathe. I know it’s overwhelming, trust me. Remember, you are not alone – the other chairs are ready and available for help. Talk to Board and other chairs and figure out what your committee’s mission is – start small, don’t try and take on more than you can handle. Next, look at what you have. Break down what you need, step by step. List these in order of priority and start working. It’s probably going to take at least a year to get things back on track, so be patient. Don’t get frustrated if you hit speedbumps, those will happen. Again, reach out to fellow chairs – I can’t emphasize this enough. Document everything; it’s your job to make sure no one else ever gets left in the same situation. Once your committee is up and running again, celebrate. Turning a committee around is a difficult job and you deserve all the kudos in the world.

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.

One thing I learned as a teacher is that resources are only finite if you let them be. There is no end to the different ways resources can be acquired if you put your mind to it. In the OTW’s case, there are a variety of different ways Board can help ensure committees have the resources they need. For instance, there are many tools that are free or charge less for nonprofits – Board can help facilitate switching over to these new tools. These new tools can often make tasks more streamlined, therefore lightening the workload on volunteers. Board can also help better promote the OTW and it’s projects; this can lead to an increase in attention and volunteers. Traditionally nonprofit Boards often help with fundraising; they can reach out to potential donors which could help the OTW financially.

With a well managed, proactive Board, our resources don’t need to be finite – as long as we budget well, we should be able to provide our committees with everything they need..

Matty Bowers 2015 Q&A: Other Questions (Group 2)

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

I’m a bit biased, as I’ve worked with a majority of the candidates on either Abuse or Support. Picking just three people was not an easy task!

Atiya Hakeem is very dedicated about her work and the OTW. She is always one of the first to step up and volunteer for difficult tasks. I love that we can have serious debates about policies without it impacting our working relationship (or friendship!).

Alex Tischer is very passionate about the OTW. Alex has the rare ability to be both outspoken and a great listener. We’ve had Board members have the first ability, yet not the second, which has led to many problems. Alex though, is always willing to listen and consider other points of view.

Katarina Harju has done an amazing job in both Abuse and Translation. Working on Abuse can be a tough, thankless job, but Katarina always rises to the challenge. The ability to stay calm and focused in difficult situations will serve Katarina well on Board.

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.

During my tenure as Support chair, the Archive experienced quite a number of sudden growth spurts. While there may have been some inconveniences for users, the AO3-related committees have always risen to the occasion.

Several committees did need to completely change how their committees worked. In my case, neither Support nor Abuse were ready for the drastic upswing in the number of tickets that were sent in. We had to reevaluate our staffing needs, create new documentation, update old policies — basically rebuild the committees entirely. Both committees are now able to better handle huge influxes of new users.

In general, any potential new problems will impact each committee differently and likely need unique solutions. Most of the decisions and work would be handled at a committee level. As a Board member, it would be my responsibility to provide support and help the committee chairs as needed.

I will ensure it’s easier for all committees to get the help they need, whether it’s money for contractors, new tools, equipment, emergency tech support, more staff, etc. I’d also like to work towards improving the organization’s communication tools. Right now, in an emergency we can’t always quickly reach the people we need to talk to; most chat rooms are locked to committees only so we are forced to send out desperate emails and hope we are reaching someone. Improving our communication will go a long ways to improving response time and ensure problems are dealt with in a timely manner.

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 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

I’ve heard this argument and strongly disagree. There are almost 90,000 works in languages other than English on the Archive, and fans from all over the world use it. While it isn’t currently possible to translate the entire Archive interface, I have always supported the project and done my best to contribute in whatever small ways I can. When I first became Support chair I fought for us to change our policy regarding only answering tickets sent in English. The argument at the time was “We aren’t ready!” However,I knew we were never going to be ready if we didn’t start somewhere. Our wonderful Translation committee was willing and able to jump in; with their help, both Support and Abuse were able to start offering help for users in multiple languages.

Thankfully the “We aren’t ready!” opinion has changed since then. In my short tenure as AO3 Documentation lead, I helped oversee the coding and deploy of our new FAQ system which allows for translated FAQs. We now have FAQs translated into over a dozen different languages. This project was fully supported by everyone, and is only one of many features now available.

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

As mentioned above, I think that this isn’t an issue for the future: it’s already happening every day, and we’re already working every day in this direction. There is still a lot of work ahead, of course, and we’re all aware of that!

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

Both Support and Abuse are on the front-lines; we are often the first contacted when users need help or resources that are not currently available. Sometimes we help with easy issues such as adding new languages, other times users’ needs are more complicated. As a Board member, it’s my job to ensure all committees are keeping abreast of what our users need and are addressing those needs.

Matty Bowers 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?

It’s a problem in certain areas of the organization. For everyone else though, we came to the realization that if we wanted the OTW to succeed, we needed to get over the past and start working together, regardless of whether we liked each other or not.

Board can help solve this problem by taking the lead and setting a good example for the rest of the organization. Board should always act professionally towards volunteers and each other, in both formal and informal gatherings. Fostering teamwork is also a good idea; as people work together they often find common ground and realize we are all working towards the same goal – the success of the OTW.

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?

Unless a volunteer is actively threatening, blackmailing, or otherwise acting in an illegal manner towards a Board member, I do not think it’s appropriate for Board to file a complaint against a volunteer. Board holds a position of power over every volunteer; filing a complaint is not only an abuse of power it also creates a conflict of interest. Since Board is the ultimate authority, they can proceed to discipline anyone they’ve filed complaints against as they see fit. Volunteers have no recourse – there is no one they can present their case to, no one who can act on a complaint filed against a Board member. Board answers only to themselves, there are no checks on their power. They can simply ignore any and all complaints filed against one of them.

I would like to see this changed. Volunteers should have recourse should a specific Board member, or the Board as a whole, decides to inappropriately file a complaint against them. We either need to give a current committee or an outside group the power to advocate for the volunteer in cases which involve Board members.

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 think consulting with outside sources can, at times, be useful. There is value in bringing in an outside perspective, especially with experienced professionals.

That said, I do not think we should be shopping around to find outside consultants solely to back up a specific decision, especially in regards to conflicts between volunteers and Board. Outside counsel should always be a neutral party who can analyze the issue impartially; it should not be someone chosen by Board simply because they already agree with the decision Board wants to make.

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 very much support such a process. This would be an important step to improving Board’s accountability for their actions, especially those towards other volunteers.

Matty Bowers 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?

In the past, committees could not afford to lose staff to Board. Now, many of the OTW committees are thriving and losing, or sharing, key personnel will not negatively impact the committees.

This means it’s time to turn our attention to Board. As both volunteers and members are aware, the OTW is facing numerous issues which should have been dealt with long ago. It’s past time for these concerns to be addressed so can we get the organization back on track.

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 Election committee should have full authority over elections. Allowing Board to interfere, especially when a current member is running, is a clear conflict of interest.

Should Board have any questions or concerns about the election process, these should be discussed with the Election committee well before the process starts. After the election process starts, Board should be required to step back and allow it to proceed without interference.

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?

In the past few years, the OTW has struggled to find seven people willing to serve on Board, let alone nine. In the future we may want to look at expanding, but first I think we need to get a full seven people on Board. After we’ve had several terms of stable leadership we can can consider expanding our numbers, if we feel it’s needed.

Our OTW members, those who have financially supported the organization, have voices that can and should be heard. If the Board is unethical enough to deliberately circumvent a valid election, members should call them on their actions. Per the bylaws, members can remove any director from office, with or without cause, by a vote of the majority of members. While this isn’t feasible at the moment, I would like to change that.

In this particular point in time, I do not believe the Board members serving another term would abuse the new bylaws and remove a newly elected candidate. I trust that together we can work on fixing the many, many problems that have been pointed out by both staff and members.

Matty Bowers 2015 Q&A: Conflict Resolution, Group 1

Please describe your approach to conflict resolution.

It depends on the situation. A conflict between two volunteers needs to be handled differently than a conflict between committees. In general, I find it’s best to immediately sit down with all the people involved and see if we can reach a solution. Ignoring the problem only makes the situation worse.

I believe communication is critical. Both parties need to explain their point of view and be willing to listen to the other. It’s also important to define what the problem is; often there are underlying issues that one party may not even be aware of. As a mediator, I’d ask what the goal is, then help figure out how we can get there. People do need to set aside their personal feelings and be ready to compromise – there won’t always be a win-win solution.

What do you feel the Board’s role should be in staff and volunteer performance issues and/or disputes, if any? What guides your opinion on this topic?

I think the majority of the OTW’s personnel issues should be handled at the committee level. There is little reason for Board to step in; they have neither the training nor the time to deal with these sorts of issues.

I do believe Board should step in if a committee has essentially dissolved or is otherwise not fulfilling their documented responsibilities. Too often OTW chairs have had to sit by and watch other committees struggle and eventually fall apart. Attempts to help can, and have, been labeled as interference, which limits what committees can do on their own. Should Board be made aware that a committee is falling apart, they should contact the chair(s) and offer them the support needed.

Throughout the years, the Board as a whole has had a reputation for personal conflicts with some OTW chairs, staffers and volunteers, as well as among themselves. Have you ever witnessed this during your years in the OTW? What do you think might fix this?

Yes, multiple times. There is no one solution, though, that will solve the problem; ultimately people need to learn how to set aside their feelings and act professionally regardless of how they feel personally. Board members in particular need to lead by example; they should always treat both volunteers and each other with respect.

In a hypothetical situation where you believed your fellow directors were behaving with hostility towards an OTW staffer’s request due to a personal grudge, how would you react? / How would you address a fellow Director who has been disrespectful or abusive to someone else in the organization? What if they refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for their behavior?

I would instantly call them on it. It is unacceptable for a Board member to act on any grudges or personal feelings. As a Board member one is held to higher standards; we should be setting an example for the rest of the organization.

Any Board member who allows grudges to impact their OTW decisions needs to be confronted immediately. If a solution can not be found, or if the Board member continues to allow their personal feelings to influence their decisions, they should be asked to either step down from Board or recuse themselves from any future matters involving the committee or individual.

Matty Bowers 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?

Without knowing all the details of our current situation, it’s difficult to outline a comprehensive plan. I hope by now a thorough internal audit has taken place and a draft budget for 2016 has been started.

Ideally, I think we need a Finance committee who can help guide and supervise the OTW’s financial practices. They would be responsible for handling taxes, tracking and analyzing spending, ensuring we have adequate internal controls, managing accounts, and developing the annual budget. Board should work closely with the Finance committee to ensure the committee is staying on track and meeting its responsibilities.

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 would like there to be an internal audit each year to ensure our finances are being managed responsibly. I also think we should consider having an independent CPA review every three years; this review would be presented to our members and posted publicly for review.

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?

As mentioned above, I think we need a strong Finance committee who can help guide and supervise the OTW’s financial practices. This committee should have at minimum 3-5 staffers who have experience with handling finances, preferably in a nonprofit setting. These staffers would work closely with committee chairs and Board to ensure all finances are managed responsibly.

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.

Again, as mentioned above, I am very much for this idea. The OTW has reached the stage where I believe it would be beneficial to seek professional advice from trained accountants. While I don’t think we need to outsource all financial management, I do think we should have an external audit by a licensed CPA done every three years. Eventually we may need to investigate having formal external audits done more regularly, however due to the cost I don’t think they are needed as of yet.