Natalia G 2022 Q&A: Board Work

[Note: There will be 3 Q&A posts total, covering all the topics brought up during the user-submitted Q&A period. Candidates were limited to 300 words per answer.]

What are a couple of major issues that you know the OTW Board struggles or has struggled with, and how would you personally act to avoid them if elected?

There is a very steep learning curve for newly-elected Board members, particularly ones who haven’t been in leadership positions in the past, or who aren’t very familiar with the organization’s structure and with work outside their own committees. While training is provided for new Directors, I have experienced that some people struggle with adapting to day-to-day Board work, and tend to grow disengaged over time. That is an issue because it leads to fewer people available to tackle issues and challenges as they arise. Finding ways to support struggling Directors can be hard. If elected, I would like to try to make the early stages of training more engaging, and to provide more structure to new Directors in their first year on the OTW Board, such as more checks, direction, and support, so that they learn better how to deal with the work and are less likely to disengage.

Another major issue is that the Board is structured in a way where it is not always possible to ensure the people elected will have the skills to work on projects necessary to the organization. People knowledgeable in human resources best practices and US labor law, racial sensitivity and inclusivity, and public relations, for example, are very needed in the OTW right now. One reason that long-term Board projects that require these skills don’t progress much is that the elected Board often doesn’t have people with the right skillset, and delegation of Board-only work is complicated without the structure for it. During my first term on the Board, we started working on creating new officer roles to help us find people who have these skills, and I would like to expand on ways we might be able to bring the people we need into positions where they are empowered to help.

What do you feel is the area where the OTW is currently most lacking, and what plans or ideas do you have for improvement in that area?

Our organization isn’t well prepared to work on large projects involving multiple committees. So when we want to make changes, that means a long time and plenty of stress. A couple of recent examples include reviewing our policies to better protect AO3 users from harassment, and our attempts to improve racial diversity and inclusivity in our organization. Many factors contribute to this issue, such as the need to carefully consider plans from many angles to avoid unforeseen issues, and the fact that our volunteers are spread across time zones and need to balance work on additional projects with existing responsibilities. Responsibilities may sometimes overlap, with a lack of clarity as to whose sign-off is required for which aspect, and a last-minute objection can rewind the clock months or even years.

There is no easy solution. So much of it has to do with the OTW’s structural inefficiencies and the fact that we are an all-volunteer organization. One way to relieve pressure is to recruit more people, but training also requires time and dedication. In some cases, a paid contractor could help free up volunteers, and I’d like to work with more chairs towards that. Some committees have recruited project managers to help with long-term projects, and that might also be helpful to others. Taking time to investigate a new tool or a more efficient process could help a team free up time to focus on other goals. Shifting some responsibilities to a different committee that isn’t struggling as much might give a committee some breathing space to work on larger changes. Every team is unique, and ultimately I believe we need to try and find diverse solutions and improvements, even if they seem like small steps.

The Board’s lack of executive control over all aspects of OTW operations has always severely limited its internal power. How do you think the Board should act if there are strong disagreements with a committee chair’s vision for a task or project?

I believe that in situations in which the Board disagrees with a committee about a task or project, the Board should listen to the committee chair and try to understand why they have a different vision for this project. Committee chairs are the people best prepared to make decisions that affect their teams, as they are the ones who specialize in the committee tasks, who know the most about their volunteers’ strengths and availability, and who, ultimately, will be able to define whether a project is feasible. It is important for Board members to understand this and to work with chairs to find the most appropriate solution.

There can be, however, situations where different committee chairs disagree on how best to address an issue or lead a project. In these situations, the Board may have a delicate balancing role to play in helping committees reach a productive agreement that will allow everyone to move forward.

Open and friendly communication plays an important role in solving disagreements, especially in an organization maintained entirely by volunteers as the OTW is. Board members should always keep the well-being of the organization at the forefront of any decisions and discussions. The OTW Board has very limited authority in practice and has to wield it with great care given our all-volunteer environment; one of its most important attributions is helping to maintain a healthy working atmosphere for everyone.

The board appears to be reverting back to 2015 and is once again pushing out volunteers and chairs that they don’t agree with and/or get along with. How would you support fairness and impartiality in handling personnel issues if you noticed fellow board members being neither fair nor impartial.

Under no circumstance would I ever accept any kind of inappropriate behavior from my fellow Board members. If I were to become aware of volunteers being treated unfairly by a director, I would intervene immediately. My first action would be of course to offer support and reassurance to the victim and request that the party responsible cease contact immediately. Depending on the severity of the situation, my next steps might involve Board-internal measures, escalation to the Volunteers & Recruiting team, and ultimately considering whether this person is fit to serve on the Board. I would work with my OTW leadership and the Legal team to ensure the safety of our volunteers.

Earlier this year the OTW’s volunteers got targeted in a malicious attack. What do you think should be changed to keep something like this from happening in the future?

Preventing future attacks requires a multi-pronged approach. We need to consider, among others: tools, policies, and procedures.

I believe we need to rethink all ways in which volunteer information is shared and stored in our organization tools. We cannot know that anyone targeting our volunteers in the future would act in the exact same way, and for that reason, I find it important that we continue to analyze not just how these attacks happened, but also other potential ways we are vulnerable so that we can continue to tighten our security measures.

We also need to establish clearer procedures for the next time this happens. We all hope this never happens again; but let’s prepare regardless. Let’s document how to contain it, how to investigate it, how to preserve evidence, how to respond to it, how to communicate about it, how to punish it internally if that’s ever the case—everything we learned from this terrible attack about what to do and what not to do.

Do you think OTW needs to improve external transparency? For instance I’ve seen people who think the recent appointment of a volunteer to find a Diversity Consultant means there was no work done on the subject before that appointment, which as an internal volunteer I know isn’t true.

I do think external (and internal) transparency are areas in which the OTW can definitely do better. The flow of information between the organization and our users and donors, between different committees, and even sometimes between leadership and volunteers is often very uneven, and that can cause a lot of confusion and frustration. I would like for our organization to be able to be more informative about daily ongoings in the OTW so that people understand better how we work.

In the future, I would like to see us explore different ways to improve external transparency, such as, for example, working with a public relations specialist to help us assess where our weakest points are in terms of communication, and what strategies and platforms would best suit our needs and help us keep users and members informed.

Do you think moving towards hiring employees is a key structural priority for the OTW? If not, why not? If so, what do you think is a major obstacle keeping this from happening?

Hiring paid employees is an important structural priority for our organization, as the OTW has always struggled with having a number of linchpin volunteers in important roles—only one person knows how to carry out that one specific task that’s crucial to the maintenance of the organization or one of its projects, and we haven’t managed to secure a backup for them in all these years. We need to be able to find backups for these volunteers: more people who know what every part of these tasks requires, and who can take on this workload when necessary. As our projects grow, this need becomes increasingly urgent.

There are many aspects to be considered when hiring employees, such as the need for steady revenue. Our donors have been incredibly generous so far and the OTW has very healthy reserves, but if someone’s salary depends on us, we need to diversify our sources of income so that a bad membership drive or two won’t threaten someone’s livelihood; that would be incredibly irresponsible of us.

The main obstacle, however, is organizational: we don’t have the infrastructure to hire employees. We’ve done plenty of work with contractors, but employees require a far more complex payroll and management structure that the OTW isn’t ready for. Our volunteers don’t work regular hours; changing routines so that some volunteers start to take on oversight and management of employees who do work a regular schedule will be a very challenging shift for us.

[Note: All questions from members and candidate responses appear in the form they were submitted and represent only the views of the individual who wrote them. Questions and responses are not endorsed by the Organization for Transformative Works.]