Some time back, I wrote about my hopes and wishes for last year’s Board election. The reality has far surpassed my expectations. I’m impressed with how much has changed with the new set-up.
Even though ideologically, we remain just as diverse, this board is getting into much less conflict. Of course, we don’t agree on everything. But we seem to be much more capable to reach a common ground on things. This has made this Board, in my experience, much more productive than the previous one. What used to be an insurmountable hurdle, something small like switching from audio to video conferencing, was now quick, easy and straightforward.
Big part of that increased productivity, is that we have a new Chair (Allan Mustard), who takes the role much more as an active leadership role than the previous one. That is only possible because he happens to be recently retired, and willing and able to invest much more time in the role than any of the other Board members can.
We also have a new Treasurer - Guillaume was the only one to offer himself for the role, though he probably didn’t expect there to be no one else to volunteer. As he was starting the role, there was a crisis straight away: our bank kicked us out. The amount of time he has needed to invest in resolving this (and all the technical consequences of that) has been enormous, and beyond what can be expected of a volunteer. Thankfully, his free lancing was a little slow because of the corona crisis.
I also took on a new role myself: I volunteered for Secretary. Though most of the daily work is handled by Dorothea, it makes you responsible for the Local Chapters applications. This has been somewhat more work than I anticipated, and especially more exhausting than I expected. You need to get the volunteers of the other organisations to work on their application (knowing full well that running organisations is NOT why people generally like doing OSM). You need to find a consensus amongst the Board that their application is a good fit for the OSMF. And you need to find some sort of consensus in the community about the value of the application. This makes it prone to failure, especially as you may want to rush things a bit because the backlog of applications grows ever more. This feeling of not having the means (mostly simply “time”) for the task at hand is an immense energy drain for me. In the end, that makes it more likely that I actually start working on, say, a blog post about how the Board is functioning, rather than on the applications one should be working on! Even with the help of Rory and Dorothea, I still feel like the backlog is growing (note: in response to the first draft of this, Mikel offered help too).
Meanwhile the Microgrants project is running at full steam. I have joined all their meetings (weekly for a while) as a Board liaison. The first big hurdle was finding a way to ensure transparency, while also respecting the working conditions that the volunteers who run the project wish for. Next is making sure the Board and the community would be relatively happy with the result. All the while trying to keep track of issues to fix before the next round. Rather fun, but it does eat time!
The productiveness of this Board means more work for everyone. As another board member mentioned in response to the first draft, just keeping up with all the communications is exhausting. We have a chatroom which is much more active than it use to. Sign off for a few days and expect a backlog of a few hundred messages to catch up on. I “solve” this by simply not trying to follow all the conversations, but if there happen to be a few threads you care a lot about at the same time, than again, consider your time eaten.
We as a Board were fortunate to not have too many explosive situations on our hands. The biggest was probably the overload of the tile servers, and the risk an overheated infrastructure poses to the entire project. But mostly we’ve been able to work on the fundamentals of the organisation. How to set ourselves up for some necessary growth (the hiring consultation), how to deal with some of the recurrent conflicts (the iD and tagging consultation), how to grow into a globally representative organisation (the active contributor program), how to better engage our corporate members (monthly meetings) and local chapters (invite to the Board meetings). I think the current composition of the Board does a proper job in balancing all these interested parties.
But our openness to talk and our increased productivity is creating ever more work. All these consultations, all this input, all this policy making, all this practical implementation seems like much more work than there was last year. This also means much more things to criticise – this is to expected (and encouraged!). Both the tone and the merciless approach of some of the criticism of the Board, again, is exhausting.
We do have some fresh new volunteers on the Board, but to me, it feels like we are eating them. And though we are talking about some help for the sysadmins, we haven’t about more Board help. Dorothea is working at capacity already – and though the Board seems willing to give her more autonomy in her work for us, she would need to drop tasks in order to take this on. As it seems we as a Board and as a community are not ready for an executive director function, we will need to scale up our efforts. We might need someone to support Dorothea and we will need to find more volunteer help.
Burn-outs happen when you try and do the impossible for too long, instead of stepping back and saying: “hey, I might do this for a while, but we need a different approach to the issue”. I’m afraid we will eat through volunteers such as myself within a two year term. That would leave us with a Board where only these people can stay on to build experience: the recently retired; the self-employed who are willing to scale back their paid work; the single childless with a not too demanding job; the people who can do this as part of their paid job; the people who are magically immune to burn-out. If we want the Board to reflect the membership, IMHO, some change will be necessary.
The stakes are high. The value of the project is increasing on a daily basis. The OSMF needs to function as a stable and strong core in order to prevent being overpowered by a single player, or a forking or cloning of the project. I hope we can start fixing this sooner rather than later.