Effective SPI Board & Administration

Mark R Dobyns Jones markjones at busybusy.org
Mon Apr 11 19:56:40 UTC 2005

More generally on boards and running an effective and energetic

John Goerzen ruminated on his blog on March 4, 2005 on having a
"homeless" SPI office, and more importantly, lack of interest in the
SPI entity by developers--see
http://changelog.complete.org/node/248#comment) .

He suggested to me that those on the spi-general list may appreciate the
comment, so I joined SPI as a non-contributing member and joined
spi-general list.  Here is that comment in expanded and edited form.

  Background: Why I know what I speak of.
  Completing Corporate Tasks (Purchasing Labor to do Dull Work)
  Effective Boards

Background: Why I know what I speak of.

I've been involved with the boards and staff of numerous non-profits
over the years, both large and small, and have been president, treasurer
and clerk for more than a few.

A limited survey of organizations I have been staff or board member of:
- Food Coops, Food Coop Distributors and Warehouses, and associated
Cooperative Loan Funds
    Northeast Cooperatives (now merged with United Natural Foods in NH,
    Coop Fund of New England   www.cooperativefund.org
- Political Organizations, and associated Political Action Committees and
   International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War
   Pro-Choice Massachusetts:  www.prochoicemass.org
- Social Dance Associations, and associations that own and maintain a
dance hall and stage, and a summer camp.
   Country Dance Society, Boston Centre   www.cds-boston.org,
   New England Folk Festival Association   www.neffa.org
   Concord Scout House   www.concordscouthouse.org
   Pinewoods Camp   www.pinewoods.org

Completing Corporate Tasks (Purchasing Labor to do Dull Work)

As a volunteer board, I think you all have plenty to do from a
policy-making and policy-implementing perspective without coping with
some of the details personally.

It is an enormous help to pay someone to keep the dull paperwork and
other details in order. That's what money is for, to ensure attention
is paid to a dull but important activity. It admittedly can be a
challenge to pay for such a person and attention.

Usually non-profit associations handle this by having dues, and members,
and the opportunity to donate significantly more to sustain the
organization. Generally, if a membership association can't keep their
affairs in orde (hence their credibility too), minimally to maintain a
list of interested people (members and/or supporters), and more
generally to use the resources given to it to accomplish its mission
responsibly, it will collapse.

Members, as people known to be interested in the mission of an
organization, are often very motivated to sustain and pay for such
activity. For example: if there are 1,000 members and they each pay $25
to keep the association going, that amounts to a very basic $25,000 draw
upon to  have someone attend to the dull work and mail, operate an
office, have archival file cabinets, pay nominal legal expenses, deal
with corporate filings, and other archival ephemera. (Even if every
scrap of paper is scanned into a paperless non-physical office, someone
has to manage this  process.)

I haven't a clue how SPI/Debian funds its corporate and operational
necessities. I have to believe that there are a lot of entities and
individuals have a strong interest in SPI/Debian's continued good
health and corporate and board well being, so it shouldn't be too hard
to figure out how to have a revenue stream that will sustain its humble

Someone serving as an assistant to the board is invaluable.
Perhaps titled as "office manager," to deal with:
- mail,
- government forms,
- keep copies of everything,
- perhaps pay approved bills, deposit checks and other donation (stock,
bonds, and so forth) under the supervision/authority of the treasuerer
- more generally to be a pest when the officers fail to:
--> sign papers, file forms,
--> respond to requests to coordinate or set dates,
--> follow up on the failure of a committee or board member to report
their activity
and so on...
-as well as generally keeping track of additional items delegated by the

An office manager is the typical method to further these tasks, and this
person can be priceless if he or she stays involved for 5 to 10 years,
and has seen and knows the history of what's been done, and how its
been done, and what has and has not worked.

As an organization gets bigger, an "office manager" tends to be
transformed into an "executive director," a title that reflects the
increased authority delegated to that position by the board.

Effective Boards

More generally, I speculate that there may have been timidity and
distraction in the SPI board for failing to, in a farsighted manner,
give consideration to what the longer-term administrative and corporate
demands of SPI may be, and and how to meet them well without wearing out
board members who are busy with significant personal, intellectual and 
organizational commitments elsewhere.

I would list these aspects of maintaining credibility in management of
corporate affairs:
- meeting regularly, face-to-face
- delegating to others those tasks that the board either should not do,
or is poortly equipped to do, or does not want to do
- having logically consistent policies that reflect and encompass the
values and perspectives and activities of the organization's members
- measuring and assuring performance of those policies
- perpetuation of the organization.

And a final comment, reflecting on the recent DPL election:

Perhaps it is time to give serious consideration to changing the SPI
bylaws to place the Debian Project Leader on the SPI Board as a matter
of standard procedure; you've got a tradition that represents the will
and interest of the membership, and it is no conflict of interest to
have this representation participate at the board level; perhaps it
would be a recognition that Debian tail is wagging the SPI dog.

Best regards,
Mark Jones
Boston Massachusetts

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