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Stewart's blog: organisational structure and being sustainable [Was: Re: [Linux-aus] Can Linux Australia survive?]

Follows is the text of my blog entry from Monday, June 20th, 2005 at
12:49pm that Jon mentioned. It can be found at

I encourage discussion here as well. (Insert standard disclaimer about
blog ramblings being just that, ramblings)

Michael Davies made a very astute comment on Saturday night (while at
the “Everyone from the South Australia Linux community (e.g. LinuxSA) is
welcome to join the Linux Australia committee for dinner and discussion
dinner” - Michael showed up, and he’s really cool - so that’s good. SA -
we were there to hear your voice! in person! as always though, you can
post to linux-aus and discuss there - but it would have been nice to see
more of you!).

We had been discussing during the day (at our face-to-face meeting) the
sustainability of the way Linux Australia is run. Michael made the
comment that currently we are taking the risk of being sustainable only
through, by sequentially burning out really good people.

One of the reasons Andrew Cowie and myself wished to continue on the LA
board this year was to ensure the future operation of the organisation
by making sure it was being organised and run in a way that made it
sustainable and be the biggest success possible. Both of us have been
involved in organisations in the past (as have many other people in the
broader community) that have suffered from individual burnout, poor
policy, top heavy (insert word i’m thinking of here) and a bunch of
other non-useful things.

We had a discussion amongst ctte where some of the following were raised
(intermixed with my personal opinion and whatever - it’s my blog
dammit! :)

      * it is a volunteer organisation - the people putting in their
        time are not employees. The situation of calling someone into a
        meeting and asking “why haven’t you done this” with a “it’s your
        job dammit” tone, just isn’t what you can do.
      * The burden of doing accounts is an unreasonable one. The
        treasurers job is one of supervising, not dealing with every
        single expense and account keeping. It’s a lot of work. We have
        two treasurers as well (one specifically looks after LCA stuff,
        and the elected one, Mark, takes care of fitting it all
        together, and all the LA stuff that goes on. Talk about a large
        amount of work - and I think my taxes and finances are a lot and
        annoying. This, I think (and expressed) is currently one of our
        biggest problems. We have been lucky with people, and Mark does
        deserve a rich life outside of work and LA treasury. It is my
        opinion that hiring help to do a lot of the financial work is
        something that is not only a good idea, but easily justifiable
        as an expense and something we should seek to make happen. I
        hope this will move forward over the next few months. Remember
        folks, if the finances are stuffed up, we don’t have an LA, and
        hence we do not have an LCA.
      * We need to run at least cost neutral - positive cash flow is a
        good thing as it means we have money we can spend on other
        projects and initiatives (there have been many great ideas that
        simply require too much volunteer effort and/or cash to do
        properly). It would also be very nice if our running costs were
        covered purely by interest on existing funds. Being in a strong
        financial position is a good thing. Being Free Software is not
        being pov and cheap. It’s about being successful and free.
      * The committee has limited time. They are busy, active people (at
        work, at life, in the FOSS world). They also deserve time to
        spend with partners, friends and sipping large alcoholic drinks
        from coconut shells on tropical islands. It is my strong beleif
        that the committee taking on the role of the Board and of the
        Executive is unsustainable and will lead to burnout of all the
        enthusiasm and see the best people stop doing things for the
        organisation. Eventually, the org will collapse. This is bad.
      * I guess this is probably no longer being short dot points (which
        i am such a fan of).
      * There is a distinct difference between Board and Executive. The
        Board is responsible for ensuring the continuation of the
        organisation. Primarily, this means ensuring that we don’t go
        broke. Approving budgets, the treasurer overseeing financial
        goings on and setting the organisation in the right direction
        for prosperity (e.g. deciding that having an LCA is the right
        thing to do and sending random people off the street to tropical
        islands is not)
      * The executive is the people who go out and do work. Task
        oriented kind of approach. This has worked really well for LCA
        organisation. Everything is task based (e.g. “We need to get a
        venue”, “we need to have a CFP”).
      * A simple way to look at it would be the LA board deciding “this
        organisation should have a LCA” and then finding people to
        EXECUTE this decision - i.e. the LCA organisers. We approve
        their budget and act as check-and-balances and other such
        responsible things. Remember, failed LCAs loosing big bucks
        translates into either much lower key future LCAs or no more
      * It is my view that very few people have a solid understanding of
        organisational structure, problems, safeguards and making an
        organisation sustainable. The fact that we have spent many, many
        hours discussing such things (and all learning a lot from each
        other in the process) - with the specific goal of making LA
        better - is something that our membership does not have. They
        have decided that it’s us who should spend the time worrying
        about such things. I have never been to a business school and
        nor do I have any desire to go to one (and, my bet is, nor does
        a lot of 
      * One day we are going to get sued (or audited, or something where
        we need to prove we are not a pack of fools). We need to have
        due diligence. This stuff is boring. It is not what people spend
        their weekends doing for fun. Accountants go skiing too
        remember, they don’t spend their spare time with spreadsheets
        and using GNUmeric for fun! There is paperwork (govt stuff, tax
        stuff, formal minutes of formal meetings, documentation of
        decisions, policies, finances etc).

There was also a interesting discussion (with several different
viewpoints) about how to ensure that the board is made up of the best
people possible. This includes having people on there with knowledge of
the organisation. There is no doubt that the new members this year will
testify to the fact that there is a lot they don’t know. They are
getting used to the roles. Just as those of us who have been on it
before did when we joined.

It would be really bad if, when someone is getting used to their role
(for example, someone with a high up position of great importance - e.g.
president, treasurer) and there suddenly is an election. It takes more
than 6 months to get into a role. An election is yearly. Members have
not had a chance to see these people in their roles - they have seen
them get used to them. As a real-world example, if Mark had not
continued in his role as treasurer (and then some!) we could, quite
potentially, have been fucked. He has been setting up a lot of
infrastructure. It’s not there yet - but it’s getting there. Personally,
I am quite partial to the idea of having only half the committee stand
for election each year. This will ensure continuity between boards and
allow people enough time to get into their role and actually be in it.

“To facilitate the enthusiasms of the linux community”

It’s a phrase we came up with in the first ctte meeting I was at. It
may, on the surface, to some, sound like marketing doublespeak. Think
about it, it’s not. It’s actaully really accurate. If we facilitate, we
win (we facilitate - i.e. oversee and fund - linux.conf.au. It works
really well). If we were to run it each year, we’d loose. If we
facilitate enthusiasm for a project, we provide a bunch of admin stuff
(and possibly funds), leaving the people with the enthusiasms to get on
with the enthusiasm.

Anyway, sorry I don’t have time to make it shorter. I hope this helps
people understand some stuff of where I’m coming from and I hope people
will correct me where I’ve written crack.

comments welcome!

Stewart Smith (stewart@flamingspork.com)

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