Board's annual report for Town Hall Meeting 2011

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About this report

This report was prepared for Free Geek's first Town Hall Meeting and combines three sections of the agenda:

  • An overview of Free Geek's structure and the groups involved;
  • a description of the genesis and purpose of the Town hall meeting; and
  • the board's report on the past year's greatest challenges and successes, with goals for the future year.

The first two objectives were written out more fully; the year-in-review was presented more as bulleted lists, but speaker's notes are included here.

Free Geek as an Idea, evolving

SO - Who are we, how did we get here and what are we here for?

In the beginning was an idea. That's the mission, and is probably the idea that brought us all here today. The idea is: computers make terrible trash, being made of nasty things that don't play well when dumped. But people who use technology all the time keep getting new ones and need to do something with the old ones. And other people don't have the ability to use technology all the time, and their opportunities and quality of life can suffer. So let's bring those things together, and reuse computers so that more people can take advantage of the resources computers make available.

'It just takes a little effort to turn dangerous trash into opportunity – and that effort can be enriching, too.'

This idea attracted a bunch of people: those people were volunteers, donating their time in service of an idea. When the idea was incorporated into a nonprofit organization, it needed a board. That board was formed of volunteers (all nonprofit boards are), but for a long time they were pretty hands-off. Most of the real decision-making was being done by the people on the ground, the volunteers (and the founder, who was pretty much a volunteer).

Eventually, a small paid staff was formed to create a bit more consistency. (However chaotic you think Free Geek is now, you would not even imagine how chaotic it was then.) We worked hard, but getting a handle on the vibrant and crazy phenomenon that had sprung from Oso's idea was too big a task for just a few people, so many of the decisions were still made by volunteers and staff together, on the fly or in [[::Category:Working Groups|working groups]]. Our little band of employees decided we would be a collective, sharing responsibility equally.

The organization grew quickly! We realized that we needed something a little more centralized and broad-based to make decisions that couldn't be left to just working groups. The collective weren't interested in dictating to the volunteers who pretty much made the whole place work, and the board weren't involved enough to know what was needed. The Community Council was formed, a deliberative body made up of volunteers and employees who were interested enough to attend and participate. This body was charged with decisions that had to do with the whole organization.

Eventually, following an organizational crisis, there was a board crisis: they all resigned. The council rose to the occasion by examining what Free Geek wanted in a board and revising the bylaws to make this a reality. Council was invested with the power of selecting board members. This combined with the responsibility of setting the organization's long-term goals made the council theoretically very powerful, but there were a couple of problems.

One major problem was consistency. Because Council's membership was self-selecting and unbounded, people came and went, and it was very difficult to make sure that important things were followed up on, month to month. Another issue had to do with legitimacy. Because it was theoretically open to all volunteers, it was considered the venue for volunteer input; but even though we got some great volunteers at Council meetings, the set of volunteers who were able to attend meetings regularly and read email regularly was not necessarily representative of the greater set of hundreds of volunteers who make the organization work. So, sometimes council worked and sometimes it didn't, but luckily the idea was strong, the volunteers dedicated, and the employees took up a lot of slack.

The collective continued to grow, and eventually created various categories of employees who were not part of the collective, including subs and NPAs. These folks were also dedicated, but did not have the responsibilities or power that collective members did -- in essence, the collective became management to the non-collective staff. One major event in the past year was the decision of the non-collective staff to unionize with the Communications Workers of America. Not all non-collective staff are members of the union, so it's not accurate to refer to these folks as "the union"; this is why we use the somewhat awkward term "non-collective staff."

During the process leading up to unionization, it became clear that the collective needed more guidance in the big picture issues, which the council was not providing. We (the council) did some soul-searching, some research, some brainstorming and negotiating, and came up with a new model; this Town Hall Meeting is an important piece of it.

We are reformulating the board again, and that board will be more active than it has yet been. The new board has specific seats with specific areas of responsibility on top of the basic responsibilities of board members. Some of the seats are skills-based: Anne, for instance, has legal skills. Others will represent areas of interest that are part of our mission: we are seeking a board member to focus on the environmental aspects of our mission and ensure that they are considered in all our deliberations. Other seats will ensure that certain client groups (like the adoption volunteers, who are often only at FG for 24 hours) are considered. And finally, at least 25% of the seats will be volunteer representatives, elected by core volunteers.

The Town Hall Meeting, which will be at least annual, is a venue for introducing candidates for the volunteer representatives and kicking off the voting. But it also serves other purposes. We want people to know who the board members are! In a minute here, we'll introduce you to the current board of directors. We want people to know what is happening (one problem with Council was that we didn't give people enough background to make informed decisions -- and how could we, when membership was changing constantly?). And we want a forum for people to talk with each other about what Free Geek is and what it could be, so that the idea can stay alive and evolve. I welcome all volunteers and community members who were drawn here by this idea, and i hope that you will feel welcome to share your vision of how the next chapter will play out.

Introducing board members:

  • Laurel Hoyt
  • Jon van Oast
  • Curt Pedersen
  • Anne Glazer
  • Sayer Jones
  • Dina Dickerson
  • Kathey Sutter

The board report proper

A note on formatting: the bolded sections below were the content of the slides. The other material was speaker's notes. There is no long-form version of this section of the report. --Ideath 20:52, 2 November 2011 (UTC)

Town Hall Meeting Goals

  • Meet the board
  • Learn about the current state of things
  • Share ideas to inform vision of the future
  • Meet candidates for volunteer representative board members

10 years of results

  • Adoption program
  • Build program
  • Computer lab
  • Education program
  • Hardware Grants program
  • Internship and NPA programs
  • Thrift store and online sales

'All these programs keep technology out of landfills and in use.

Adoption program gets computers and basic training to individuals
Build program makes old computers usable and provides technical training
Computer lab makes internet access available
Education program supports adoption and build, and provides our more formal training
Hardware grants program gets computers and other technology to other nonprofits and community orgs
Internship and Nonprofit Apprentice programs provide job experience
Thrift store and online sales get inexpensive yet functional technology back in circulation
All these programs (and other projects at Free Geek) keep technology out of landfills.

This year's accomplishments

  • 10 year anniversary!
  • New governance process
  • Union contract achieved
  • Grants program growth
  • NPA program
  • Outreach improvements

Advent of union and subsequent contract should lead to greater clarity, responsiveness, and fairness in the relationship between management and non-collective staff
Outreach improvements: : Pickups, OSCON, Rotary Club, grants, Spanish Build: language extension programs

This year's challenges and struggles

The next year's priorities

  • Development and outreach
  • Responding to technology change
  • Improving workplace
  • Developing board competency
  • Improve accessibility (languages, abilities)

Development and outreach: our support in the community is wide but shallow. We cannot rely on sales to fund our mission.

As technology moves toward smaller, less repairable, less standard or consistent gadgets, reuse will be more challenging. Demand is dropping for the desktop computers that have been our mainstay. We need to stay relevant, both in our ability to reuse what is being thrown out and in our ability to provide useful technology and skills to our community.

Since we are increasing the size of our board, most of our board will be new, and we are expecting more than ever before from our board.

see Board of Directors