Founding Document of the Council

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(NOTE: FREE GEEK has volunteer and member categories, and both kinds of people volunteer at FREE GEEK. Using "volunteer" below, I am referrring to both -- anybody who helps out at FREE GEEK, be they volunteers, members, staff, SMS contractors, or people just drifting through and lending a hand.)

Two Free Geeks

There are two FREE GEEKs. There's the official FREE GEEK, Inc. reflected in the corporate mission statement, the legal structure of the board of directors, by laws, and articles of incorporation. And there is the FREE GEEK Community that is comprised of the people who volunteer or work on a regular basis, and who (for the most part) pay little attention to the official aspect of the organization.

FREE GEEK, Inc. exists because a legal entity is an attractive convenience. It was formed by filing articles of incorporation with the State, and is governed by its bylaws which probably indicate that the board of directors has the power to hire (and fire) an executive director, that the director can hire staff, that the board makes financial and legal decisions, etc. Because of FREE GEEK, Inc. several resources have been drawn together. A tax exempt status exists. There is a budget of sorts. We have a lease on our space. We are able to do business.

The existence of these resources gave FREE GEEK enough of a center to attract a community of volunteers around it, and FREE GEEK Community allows the shell to have some real meaning. It is the community that performs the day to day work.

Free Geek Volunteer Motivations

The FREE GEEK Community has a diversity of volunteers. The current makeup includes people who are primarily motivated by:

  • Environmentalism
  • Helping the needy
  • Free or open source software promotion
  • A simple geek factor (liking to play with tech toys)
  • Getting free stuff
  • Learning job skills
  • Getting help with computer problems
  • Connect with a community of like minded folks

And of course, there are many people motivated by multiple things, either simultaneously or flip-flopping back and forth.

Mission Statements

FREE GEEK, Inc. has an official mission statement. Here is a paraphrasing of it (taken from the web site):

FREE GEEK is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that recycles used technology and provides computers, education and access to the internet in exchange for a few hours of community service.

This mission statement does not seem to conflict with the general community of volunteer motivations listed above. But neither does it reflect them all. Notably missing is the mention of free or open source software, a primary motivating factor for many of the more technically sophisticated volunteers. This leads to the observation that a secondary mission statment exists, encompassing and expanding the above statement.

An expanded and supplementary mission for the whole community might look something more like this:

The FREE GEEK Community is a group of people who volunteer and work at FREE GEEK, Inc. to recycle used technology, promote the use of free and open source software, and provide computers, education and Internet access to individuals and nonprofit organizations in exchange for community service.

Volunteer Participation

Some volunteers don't want to think about the decision making process at FREE GEEK. They just want to buckle down and get the job done. Other people highly value how decisions are made and want to make certain that FREE GEEK has a well thought out and participatory decision making structure, so the volunteer community can function efficiently with a high degree of consensus behind it. This is not so much two different camps of people as two ends of a spectrum, and often on some issues a person will be at one end of this continuum, only to find himself at the opposite end on a different issue or at a different time. Both approaches are needed for an organization like FREE GEEK to thrive.

Rough Consensus

In spite of the diversity in the volunteer community, for most situations, there is an common understanding of what activities are appropriate for FREE GEEK, and there is a go-ahead-and-do-it-if-you-want-to atmosphere.

Consequently, formal decision making is irrelevant in many cases at FREE GEEK. Decisions that might seem out of scope to some people are often tolerated unless they fly directly in the face of what is important to those same people.

As long as no one thinks that an activity is out of scope, it is allowed to happen. If no one chooses to spend time implementing a decision, it won't happen. This process mirrors closely how the Internet works on "rough consensus and working code". If someone sees a problem area, they're usually free to try and fix it. If they seem successful, people tend to join in, and a new policy is set forth. When enough people understand how these informal policies work, they become de facto standards.

In some cases, however, the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives leads to a differing of opinions about what activities are appropriate for the FREE GEEK Community.

A decision making process is needed at FREE GEEK to address areas of conflict that will arise from time to time. It needs to reflect the community of volunteers as a whole, allow for input by all interested parties, have the moral authority to create policy for the FREE GEEK Community, and allow for the current, healthy informal decision making system where appropriate (uncontroversial).

Structure of Free Geek

FREE GEEK already has several working groups, a staff, and a board of directors to handle different kinds of decision making.

The working groups have areas of responsibilties defined for them (education, administration, building, support, software, funding, distro, etc.), and since membership overlaps, some decisions are simply placed on multiple agendas and discussed until a loose working consensus is reached. Unfortunately, at times this process tends towards long and repetitive discussions that might be more pleasantly handled in a single forum.

The staff make day to day decisions and have a close ear to the large community of FREE GEEK volunteers. Because of this, staff members are often turned to when an uncomfortable decision needs to be made, even though it might be more appropriate for a larger group to make some of these decisions.

The board of directors is responsible for FREE GEEK as a legal and financial entity, but the board did not grow out of the volunteer community and does not necessarily reflect the same diversity that the volunteers do.

Big Meetings

Also, from time to time, we have called for a Big Meeting, at which major issues are discussed, but not formally decided. These have acted as a sounding board for a more nebulous decision making process. But because this happens only sporadically and involves large numbers of people, any in-depth discussion cannot easily happen in this forum.

At one Big Meeting, we discussed forming "The Group" which would be a representative body made up of people from each of the working groups. That proposal was never implemented, probably because the people who would comprise this group simply couldn't stand the idea of yet another meeting to attend.

Types of Decisions

As connected to the mission of the FREE GEEK Community, there are three types of decisions that can be made:

  1. Those that support and further some part of or all of the mission.
  2. Those that do not conflict with the mission at all (but don't support or further it either).
  3. Those that are at odds with the mission.

When a decision needs to be made, people may differ on how to classify its relation to the mission of the FREE GEEK Community. If someone thinks it conflicts directly with the mission this perspective needs to be discussed and a potentially controversial decision needs to be made.


Proposals for a Decision Making Process for the FREE GEEK Community, including a new General Council:

It is important to remember that all decision making needs to happen in a context of open communications and cooperation. People need to listen to proposals, attempt to communicate their ideas clearly, actively ask for clarifications (and give useful answers), offer up compromise proposals, and be willing to admit that someone else's idea may serve the community better. Without this spirit, no decisions will be of any use at FREE GEEK.

Here is a suggested process for current and future working groups at FREE GEEK. This process could be adapted as necessary by each group.

Fewer Meetings

Groups would meet once per month, (rather than every week or two) for decision making. Decisions needing to be made between meetings could be made via an email process. Groups could call for extra meetings as necessary. Here's a list of guidelines that each group could implement or adapt as necessary. Most of these guidelines are currently in use at one or more FREE GEEK working groups already:

  • Meetings are open to any FREE GEEK volunteer, FREE GEEK staff member, or FREE GEEK board member.
  • At each meeting, appoint a facilitator for next meeting. The facilitator's job is to call for agenda items, post the agenda to the appropriate mailing list, and keep the discussion at the meetings on topic.
  • Appoint a note taker at the beginnning of each meeting. The note taker's job is to record attendance and decisions made, and post these notes to the appropriate mailing list.
  • Meetings start at 7:00 pm.
  • Decisions cannot be made after 8:30 pm.
  • Agenda items should be posted to the appropriate mailing list by 7:00 am the day of the meeting.
  • Items can be placed on the agenda by the staff, the board of directors, any working group, or any FREE GEEK member.
  • Late items may be added to the agenda, but need unanimous approval at the outset of the meeting for discussion or action to take place.
  • Items should be declared as action items or discussion items when they are added to the agenda.
    • Action items are not discussed, but assigned to people for implementation.
    • Discussion items are discussed and then (if a decision is made) can turn into action items.
  • Regular members should have a way to get reminders a day or two in advance of meetings, probably via email.
  • Groups can establish "work meetings" where decisions are not made but action items are assigned. No discussion items are on the agenda.

Use the Mailing Lists

To allow for fewer meetings, we need a process for making decisions between meetings. Here ares some untested guidelines for doing this via an email list:

  • There are long term policy decisions and one time decisions. For instance, the funding group can discuss whether we should sell working systems in the store (long term), or decide whether to sell a specific gizmo that someone is asking for (one time).
  • There should be a formal method for posting proposals. Namely, when someone proposes something to the group, they should:
    • say that it is an official proposal
    • say whether it is long term or one time
    • define a reasonable timeline for commenting on the proposal, and when a decision needs to be made
    • call for comments
  • Each group should decide how many people must agree with a decision before it takes effect.
  • Discussion and cooperation is encouraged. Anybody on the list should be able to post "friendly amendments", conditions for supporting a proposal, and the like as a response to any proposal.
  • Groups can require that individuals need to have attended a certain number of meetings over a given period of time in order to have decision making power via email.
  • All proposals posted to the list between meetings are automatically put on the agenda for the next meeting.
  • Decisions made via email are only in effect until confirmed at the next meeting. For one time decisions, the meeting will likely be too late for any effect, but the email decision should be mentioned at the meeting to see if people still agree it was the right decision.

While all the above can be done over mailing list software, it is quite possible that other software is more suitable to the task. For instance, newsgroups might be used instead of mailing lists to accomplish the same goals. Or we could write custom software. The key questions in determining what software tools to use should be:

  • Does the software make it easier to make decisions and keep track of what decisions are being made?
  • Is the software accepted throughout FREE GEEK by all volunteers? (If some software tools are rejected by some volunteers, theyshould probably not be used.)

Establish a Council

A FREE GEEK General Council should be established to make broad policy decisions for the FREE GEEK Community. The initial makeup of the council should be drawn up by the FREE GEEK staff and agreed to by all working groups that have regular meetings.

Decision Making Process of the Council

The decision making process of the council should be based on consensus and follow the above guidelines. Additionally, decision making power should be granted to anyone who attends three council meetings in a row and revoked for anyone who misses three council meetings in a row (unless otherwise approved by the council). This makes the group self selecting, and (hopefully) reflective of the whole FREE GEEK Community.

The council should actively recruit to its ranks, members who are drawn from and reflect the whole FREE GEEK Community.

As in the above guidelines, though, anybody can attend meetings and contribute to the discussion.

Scope of the Council

Stick to thorny issues
The council should make policies on subjects that are controversial and that individuals in the community feel strongly about, even if the individuals that feel strongly are in a small minority.
Don't Do What Doesn't Need to be Done
The council should not make policies on subjects that already have the rough consensus of the FREE GEEK Community. The council should have the freedom to discuss any matter for the purpose of determining if a proposal falls into this category.
Pay Attention to Everybody
The staff, the board of directors, any working group, and any FREE GEEK member should be able to place an item on the council's agenda.
Facilitate Inter-group Decisions
The staff, the board of directors, and any working group should be able to place an item on the agenda of another working group, but if the working group that receives the item rejects or ignores the item, the council should take up discussion of the matter.
Create Working Groups as Needed
The council should be able to call for the creation of new working groups. But should only dissolve working groups if they have been inactive for a long period of time.
Maintain and Use the Mission
The council should maintain the mission of the FREE GEEK Community and use it as a reference in making decisions.
Defer to the Board on Legal Matters
The council should defer to FREE GEEK, Inc's board of directors on fiscal and other legal matters.
Defer to the Staff on Trivial Matters
The council should defer to FREE GEEK staff on non-controversial day to day matters.
Defer to the Experts when Possible
The council should defer to the working groups on matters that are non-controversial unless a working group requests council input. If a decision requires technical expertise, the council should seek that from the relevant groups and individuals within the community.