Organizational Analysis and Strategy by Ian Clendening
This page kept for historical purposes. -- Mkille 21:22, 17 May 2013 (UTC)
“Helping the Needy Get Nerdy.” Such is the slogan of Free Geek Vancouver, a recent addition to the non-profit scene in the City. The idea came originally from Our Community Bicycles volunteer, David Repa, who mused that Vancouver needed a similar institution for computers. Free Geek Vancouver soon formed but the model is nothing new. For the last five years Free Geek has operated out of Portland, Oregon rooted firmly in community education and involvement, the reduction of e-waste, and open access software. The Free Geek model has since spread to include 5 cities, and as of November 2006, Vancouver too.
The organization functions by people donating their unwanted computers and parts to Free Geek where volunteers sort through the mix of electronics and assemble working computers. The refurbished computers are then installed with a Linux1 operating system, and applications such as Open Office (similar in function as Microsoft Office), Firefox internet browser, and The Gimp imaging software among many other useful tools. At this point, the working computers are granted to charitable organizations, while unusable parts are stripped down for recycling. In Portland surplus parts are sold at very reasonable rates in their thrift store which subsidizes core activities. Under the Adopt-a Computer” program a volunteer receives his/her own computer, or “Freek Boxes” (See appendix I for a description) as they are called, after completing a set amount of hours or assembling a certain number of computers.2
At the heart of the Free Geek model is a reliance upon open source software.3 Without this licensing tool the burdensome costs of proprietary software like Microsoft Windows and Word would not allow the organization to provide functional computers at their current cost of only volunteer hours. All of the applications listed above are open source alternatives to traditional, proprietary, software and as such require no fee for their use. Freek Boxes and the Free Geek model empower those segments of the community that could not otherwise afford a computer by giving them the tools and knowledge to operate a traditionally exclusionary piece of machinery.
In Vancouver, Free Geek is very much at the inception stage. Although it currently has a board of directors consisting of six members and a handful of dedicated volunteers, it has no functional home. In spite of this, Free Geek Vancouver has acquired enough donated hard ware to grow out of the apartment of founding-director David Repa spreading into a storage locker. In order to carry on without a base of operations, Free Geek has rented space from Spartacus Books and the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC) in order to raise awareness through screening movies centered around open source, hosting work-shops, and holding meetings. These activities have developed a small fund to keep the organization alive as it acquires fundamentals, such as a building in which to work, and charitable organization status .
Not only does Free Geek aim to reduce the consumer waste, but it also is set to address the “digital divide” in which marginalized segments of our society are being left further behind, not having the access or the skills to take part in the IT revolution. .
Analysis of Strengths, Weaknesses
Opportunities and Threats
At the moment Free Geek Vancouver is at a pivotal point in its organizations history. Being that Free Geek is still at its inception stages: it does not have charitable status yet; it does not have a home-base; and nor does it have access to stable and secure funding. While these problems facing Free Geek are very much those problems that face many start-up organizations, Free Geek is better positioned than most new organizations to address these issues. With a focus on transparency of operations and open accessibility built in to the greater Free Geek collective, the Vancouver extension has been able to quickly adapt a business plan, view applications for grant funding, and borrow promotional material. This has allowed the Vancouver extension to save valuable time and resources for other endeavors.
The primary challenge facing Free Geek Vancouver is its ability to properly manage its growth (See Appendix I). It is the City of Vancouver’s plan to implement a ban on e-waste from city landfills, which currently constitutes 20,000 tons per year. The city has also indicated its intention to create a city-wide wireless internet network before the 2010 Olympics. More recently, Microsoft has released its latest operating system, Vista, which is making many current computers antiquated.4 Yet in order to take advantage of these opportunities, in both supply and demand, the organization must first come up with the means to facilitate this growth. As part of a chicken and egg problem, Free Geek needs money to get acquire a home, which they feel is necessary to help them acquire charitable organization status. However, it is this status which will help them secure the very donations needed to pay for a home in the first place. Until they find a home, they are forced to rent temporary spaces to hold meetings, clinics, and get-togethers, as well as additional storage space to hold donated computer parts. In the coming months Free Geek Vancouver will have to address the problems associated with their growing pains.
In addition to the problem of financial constraints, Free Geek is also constrained by the available time of its current members to train potential volunteers. Because of the snow-ball effect in training volunteers on a non-traditional operating system who in turn train others, Free Geek’s ability to grow may be severely compromised by time allocation decisions made at these early stages. As part of the consensus-based decision making model employed by all Free Geeks, any decision on how to best spend the organizations available resources are made through open dialogue between all members with the aim of unanimous decisions. For this reason, and with the help of transparency of operations, decisions are made with what is the perceived as being in the best interest of the long run viability of the organization. It is understandable that training volunteers is not a priority while there are not the structures in place to grow (like a home).
As mentioned in previous sections, the young age of the Free Geek Vancouver offers a great opportunity for expansion. Simultaneously this infant stage poses serious threats of overextension of limited resources, and disjointed growth. The need for a coherent strategy is therefore of the utmost importance at this timely crossroad. At its most basic level the problem facing Free Geek Vancouver is that the organization is less functional in attracting donations without charitable status; simultaneously, application for charitable status has been deferred until a home has been found. Without a home, and the (assumed) charitable status to go along with it, fundraising becomes an issue – even for financing the home location itself.
For this reason, the focus on the growth strategy will be centered upon initiatives that help to facilitate staffing and financing the anticipated opening of the Free Geek homebase in Summer 2007. Initiatives are already underway in this endeavor; visitors of the Free Geek website are encouraged to suggest potential locations, donate through “pay-pal,” or to come to upcoming events. At the moment, operation of the organization is based out of Chairperson David Repa’s home, while meetings have been held at host locations such as Spartacus Books and SPEC and the Brickhouse Pub.
Free Geek Vancouver should continue on its current path of tying in entertaining and enlightening get togethers as a means of building, not only organizational capacity, but also civic participation. At the root of the open source model is an inherent conflict with traditional proprietary soft ware. The free-access benefit of open source software will only go so far when users are faced with network externalitiesi associated with different software applications. As this problem will not go away until there is a threshold number of users; encouraging aspects of pride in the use, and sense of community around these bourgeoning systems will surely help overcome some of the obstacles pioneering users will be faced with.
There is no reason these get togethers need a Free Geek home. Many community outreach programs could suffice in the public areas that are already used for meetings, and could easily be stretched to include coffee shops and cafés. It should be noted that all possible efforts towards a smooth transition into a fully operational Free Geek should be encouraged in order to avoid a “start-stop” growth premised on the perceived capacity of the organization. Potential long term Free Geek volunteers may be enlisted in these meetings where, drawn to the social aspect of the organization, their talents could be put at the disposal of Free Geek in any number of mutually beneficial ways.
- Contact local cafes to find out if and when Free Geek could host meetings in their space. This should be done in as many communities as possible and may involve a weekly or bi-weekly rotating schedule of neighborhoods.
- Use online community forums (ie. Craigslist.org) to bring together other knowledgeable users as well as the curious to these meetings. This could attract a wider audience, as well as the more tech-savy user.
- Encourage an atmosphere of kinship amongst volunteers. Host potlucks or have friends/volunteers over for beers with the additional intention of assembling computers. The added benefit here is that these people will be more experienced/eager to continue doing so when Free Geek has a home.
- “Windowless Wednesday” should continue with a greater emphasis on fundraising and community inclusion. This would go a long way in parallel to #1 above in providing a more workshop oriented approach to gain converts
- Encourage new volunteers for targeted computer pick-ups. Collection of computers has traditionally been done by bicycle, and could prove an entertaining way of getting work done. Return on effort (especially in light of space constraint) can be maximized by flyering specific neighborhoods ahead of time. This also builds on volunteer participation and enjoyment.
In order to best manage the organization’s ability to find – and finance – a home, current awareness campaigns and workshops etcetera should be tailored to include a financing aspect. Already at workshops, attendees receive valuable pointers and help with their computers, while at other meetings people are exposed to open-source themed movies. It seems there rests a potential in these meetings for a donation style payment, especially if participants are informed that funds are being allocated to the acquisition of Free Geek home. Recently, Free Geek has added the ability to donate by means of “pay-pal” to the website. Currently board members are working with online payment systems that may facilitate a greater access to donations. Complexities however arise when attempting to avoid traditional payment systems like “pay-pal.” In the end convenience to the visitor must be balanced with the ethos of the organization. If primacy is to be granted to the pragmatist approach, it must be accepted that this will come at a cost of some support – a theme that may possibly be a reoccurring one as Free Geek clings to its much vaulted open source principles.
- Continue initiatives to accommodate online donations. Not all people have pay-pal accounts, so direct transactions via online bank transfers would go far in attracting donations
- More frequent meetings with a focus on repeat turnout and donations. Themed nights may help as speakers go over specific open source software. Any steps made in encouraging people to start using opensource must inevitably be backed up with technical support.
- Raise funds by selling tickets for potential draws to win a computer. Not only would this raise funds, but it also would help to increase attendance. Further this would also provide the impetus for social gettogethers outlined above to build computers.
- Continue efforts to acquire grants. This is an important ongoing aspect of the organization, and should continue behind the scenes of the other customer service aspects of the organization.
The main focus in the coming months is no doubt a creation of awareness tied with fundraising. Once a home has been acquired for the Summer of 2007, Free Geek may then start up its conventional role of computer recycling and computer literacy. For logistical reasons the current focus should be in creating community networks and building capacity to address the future growth. Fortunately both of these initiatives can prove to be mutually reinforcing. As Free Geek builds its presence in the community it will no doubt be able to build its financial base. The greatest opportunities for growth are still external to the organization and a while into the future. An article in the Georgia Straight on Free Geek has been deferred until a later point which will of course help with the formal launch of the organization. In the meantime Free Geek may continue to strategically position itself for the coming influx of supply and demand as a result of a ban e-waste, a wireless network, and the change over to Vista.
- SWOT Analysis
- Access to other Free Geek resources
- Current Non-Profit Status
- Dedicated / knowledgeable Volunteers
- Links to Existing Community Organizations
- Copy Left Licensing
- Transparency throughout organization
- Lack Capital & basic resources
- Lack Storage (home)
- Volunteers need to acquire skills
- Time constraints
- Possible Disjointed growth
- May obtain Charitable status
- City legislation prohibiting dumping
- Curiosity around Linux
- Access to Grants
- Vancouver is a “tech savvy” and green city
- Proposed City-wide wireless internet
- Publicity in Georgia Straight
- Perceived fear of computers
- Potential competition for used computers as valuable for recycling materials
- Too much supply to keep up with
- Transparency in other Free Geeks has lead to predatory competiton
- Reliance on Outside approval for certifications
The ability to use pre-existing Free Geek resources means it does not have to re-invent the wheel for grant proposals, business plans, nor repeat the errors of lessons learnt elsewhere.
Creating converts to Linux and incorporating curious people into the organization may prove easy in Vancouver
Anti-dumping laws may combine with a well organized structure to accommodate a large influx in supply. With charitable status, funds will be more easily accessable making growth easier
Vancouver’s tech savvy community may prove anxious to get onboard with pre-existing skills making the volunteer snow-ball effect less cumbersome to get going
Media coverage could attract needed talent.
Existing members may find themselves over extending themselves and shirk obligations with Free Geek in favour of previous community involvement.
May find itself ineligible for certification for Charitable Status or as a Dumpsite for e-waste If not positioned properly with volunteers, influx of supply in computers may swamp organization.
May find itself competing with recycling companies that can afford to pay people for their unwanted computers.
Free Geek Portland Freek Box
FreekBoxes are built to be as similar as possible to each other, and we do not take requests. This is what goes into a Freekbox (specifications expressed as ranges may fall anywhere within that range).
- Pentium III 800 - 966mhz
- 256 MB RAM
- 11 - 19 GB hard drive
- 24x - 52x CD ROM drive
- Floppy disk drive
- 17 inch color monitor
- 56k Modem
- 10/100 Network card
Free Geek Columbus Freek Box
At FreeGeek Columbus, we try to build the best we can build with what we've got. We will try to guarantee that every FreeBox we send out the door has at least the following:
- 500 MHz processor (Intel-compatible)
- 256 MB RAM (memory)
- 5 GB hard drive
- CD-RW drive (CD burner)
- 3.5" floppy drive
- USB 1.1 ports
- 17" CRT (TV-style) monitor