deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
[personal profile] deborah
I've been involved with a lot of non-profits over the years, and as I watch the current round of drama around the OTW elections and code rollout, I can only think how normal, even minor, this drama seems as non-profit drama goes. I know that's cold comfort to the people who are miserable, piled upon, abused, or what-have-you, but it comforts me, because I know there's nothing unusually wrong.



I'm an on-again, off-again OTW volunteer, though currently I'm in an off period. I've been a volunteer since almost the beginning. I was a committee chair back when the archive was just a glint in the postman's eye. I worked myself into a minor breakdown and massive burnout to meet an external deadline, and have never come back as completely as I would have liked since. Burnout leaves scars. Still, I help out in multiple capacities when I have the resources to do so.

I have never seen an organization accomplish so much purely with volunteers. (Huge open source software projects and Wikipedia are the closest parallels I can think of, but even those usually have paid staff for systems administration, legal, marketing, etc.) If normal nonprofits have burnout -- and they do -- then of course the OTW's burnout rate is worse. In most nonprofits, when the volunteers start to burnout, they can take a little break knowing that the paid staff are there as a safety net.

All non-profits reach a point when the people who had the original vision and drive need to step back and let new people take over. It's a painful moment in any organization. Nothing would have happened without the original founders and their the passion that can bring an organization into being. The organization can't move forward, however, unless there's a certain amount of movement away from passion and toward the bureaucracy of running a day to day business.

A lot of the debate is about whether or not the OTW has reached that point. From over here, looking only at my tiny part of the elephant, I don't think it has.

When I worked myself into a minor breakdown, it was Naomi right up there working with me, motivating me and holding my hand at four in the morning when I had to get a page working right the hell now for legal and financial reasons. When I burnt out like an overused piece of coal, Naomi found other (completely awesome) people to fill the gaps I left, and she did it without judgment. I came back because she persuaded me to. I'm going to be expanding what I do in the organization because she tempted me into it.

My experience is only one person's, and the fact that I have found Naomi to be encouraging and proactive doesn't mean that anyone else's more negative experience isn't equally valid. But then, my experience is all I can legitimately use to judge.

(It also helps that some of the statements Naomi made in the candidate chats that others found upsetting I found exceedingly pragmatic. It's not only true that the vast majority of archive users will never be donors or members, it's a feature, not a bug. Just as the vast majority of Wikipedia users will neither be contributors nor donors, and the vast majority of public library users will neither be volunteers nor donors to the Friends of the Library.)

Anyway, for what it's worth, I endorse Naomi, Betsy Rosenblatt (because I believe that a board of directors should have at least one lawyer, and that has nothing to do with privileging one committee over another; it would be true even if there were no legal committee), and Jenny Scott-Thompson (because someone I trust told me she gets it about accessibility). I know too little about the remaining two candidates to support them or dislike them.


I do wish I had participated in one of the candidate chats, because I would have asked whether all roles are expected to be volunteer indefinitely. I don't know of any organizations who have managed to do systems administration in a completely volunteer way. Naomi, I think, understands the difficulties of why systems is so difficult to do as volunteer, and I'd like to know what she and the other candidates think about possible solutions to that problem.

In any case, everyone I've worked with at the OTW has been great: the angry people and the placid people, the burnt out people and driven people, the people who focus on the Archive as the flagship of the organization and the people who think the Archive already draws too many resources away from other projects. Like many nonprofits, the organization's biggest source of friction is that there are too many bright people who care passionately. I'm not going to downplay how very real a problem that is for sustainability. But on the other hand... Well. I think I've absorbed too much business-ese lately, because I'm thinking that if I were going to do a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats analysis of the OTW, the "too many bright people who care passionately" would be both Opportunity and Threat.




As a side note: The AO3, from the inside, does a better job of automated tests (in that it has them) and QA than most other software projects I know, and yes, Dreamwidth is nowhere near as good at the OTW at these, I saw you people over there claiming that DW does it better. I've seen inside both sausage factories. Software development is hard, yo, Anyone who thinks crappy releases never see the public has never used Windows Vista.

Date: 2011-11-14 10:13 pm (UTC)
kass: Hildegard holding up an OTW mug (hildegard)
From: [personal profile] kass
Here via a link from [personal profile] china_shop, and just wanted to say: thanks for this post.
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