A few thoughts on the IA Institute

When I ran for the IA Institute board a couple of years ago, I’d never been on a board of anything before. I didn’t run because I wanted to be on a board at all, really. I ran because I had been telling board members stuff I thought they should focus on, and making pronouncements about what I thought the IA Institute should be, and realized I should either join in and help or shut up about it.

So I ran, and thanks to the membership of the Institute that voted for me, I was voted into a slot on the board.

It didn’t take long to realize that the organization I’d helped (in a very small way) get started back in 2002 had grown into a real non-profit with actual responsibilities, programs, infrastructure and staff. What had been an amorphous abstraction soon came into focus as a collection of real, concrete moving parts, powered mainly by volunteers, that were trying to get things done or keep things going.

Now, two years later, I’m rolling off of my term on the board. I chose not to run again this year for a second term only because of personal circumstance, not because I don’t want to be involved (in fact, I want to continue being involved as a volunteer, just in a more focused way).  I’m a big believer in the Institute — both what it’s doing and what it can accomplish in the future.

I keep turning over in my head: what sort of advice should I give to whoever is voted into the board this year? Then I realized: why wait to bring these things up … maybe this would be helpful input for those who are running and voting for the board? So here goes… in no particular order.

Perception rules

The Institute has been around for 8 years now. In “web time” that’s an eternity.  That gives the organization a certain patina of permanence and … well, institution-ness … that would lead folks to believe it’s a completely established, solidly funded, fully staffed organization with departments and stuff. But it’s actually still a very shoestring-like operation. The Institute is still driven 99% by volunteers, with only 2 half-time staff, paid on contract, who live in different cities, and who are very smart, capable people who could probably be making more money doing something else. (Shout-out to Tim & Noreen — and to Staff Emeritus Melissa… you guys  all rock).  But I don’t know that we did the best job of making that clear to the community. That has led at times to some misunderstandings about what people should expect from the org.

Less “Can-Do” and more “Jiu Jitsu”

Good intentions and willingness to work hard and make things happen isn’t enough. In fact it may be too much. A “can-do” attitude sounds great! But it results in creating things that can’t be sustained, or chasing ideals that people say they believe in but don’t actually have the motivation to support over time.

Jiu jitsu, on the other hand, takes the energy that’s available and channels it. It’s disciplined in its focus. Overall, I think the org needs to keep heading in that direction — picking the handful of things it can stand for and accomplish very well.

The Institute has a history of having very inventive, imaginative people involved in its board and volunteer efforts, and in its community at large. These are folks who think of great ideas all the time. But not every idea is one that should be followed up on and considered as an initiative. Here’s the thing: even most of the *good* ideas cannot be followed up on and considered an actual initiative. There just isn’t bandwidth.

I’d bet any organization that has a leadership team that changes out every 1-2 years probably has this challenge. Add the motivation to “make a mark” as a board member to the motivation to make members & community voices happy who are asking for (or demanding) things, and before you know it, you have a huge list of stuff going on that may or may not actually still have relevance or value commensurate with the effort it requires.

It’s easy in the heat of the moment of a new idea to say “yeah we love that, let’s make that happen” … but it’s an illusion created by the focus of novelty. I urge the community (members, board, volunteers, everyone) to keep this in mind when thinking “why doesn’t the Institute to X or Y? it seems so obvious!”  The response I’ve taken to having to those requests is: that sounds like a great idea… how’d you like to investigate making that happen for the Institute?

Anything that doesn’t have people interested enough to make it happen *outside the board* probably shouldn’t happen to begin with. The Board is there to sponsor things, make decisions about how money should be spent and what to support — but not do the legwork and heavy lifting. It’s just impossible to do that plus run the organization, for people who have paying, full-time jobs already.

Money & Membership

This is not a wealthy organization. The budget is pretty small. It only charges members $40 a year (still, after 8 years), and other than membership fees, makes a big chunk of its budget from its annual conference (IDEA — go register!). Where does the money go? Lots of it goes to the community — helping to fund conferences, events, grants, and initiatives aimed at helping grow the knowledge & skills of the whole community. It also goes to paying the part-time staff to keep the lights on, fix stuff & enable most of the work that goes on. The benefits are not just for paying members, by the way. Most of what the Institute does is pretty open-source type stuff. Frankly I’ve thought for a while now that we should move away from “membership” and call people “contributors” instead. Because that’s what you’re doing … you’re contributing a small amount of cash in support of the community, and you get access to a closed, relatively quiet mailing list of helpful colleagues as a “thank you” gift.

Whenever I hear somebody complaining about the Institute and “what I get for my forty dollars,” I get a little miffed. But then I realize to some degree the organization sets that expectation. It may be helpful for the next board to think about the membership model — which really may be more about semantics & expectations-setting than policy, who knows.

One thing the Institute has historically been afraid to do is spend money on itself. But then it tries to handle some tasks that would honestly be much better to pay others to handle. (Again, that can-do attitude getting us in trouble.) Historically, the board tried to handle a lot of the financial tasks through a treasurer (banking, recordkeeping, etc). It took a long line of dedicated people who gave a lot of their personal time to handling those tedious tasks. We finally hit a wall where we realized we just weren’t handling the tasks as well as we should as amateurs — we needed help. So we found an excellent 3rd party service provider (recommended by our excellent Board of Advisors) to take care of a lot of that stuff. (And it’s very cost-efficient — I won’t go into why and how here.)

One thing that comes up year after  year is that the board should have an annual retreat to ramp up new board members and spend concentrated face-to-face time bonding as a team, deciding on priorities & getting a shared vision. But there’s a lot of fear about spending the money (especially to fly international folks around) and the perception issue (see above) that the Board is blowing money on junkets or something.

But face time, especially if it’s moderated & structured, could go a long way toward building rapport & accountability and setting things up for success. This should be mandatory and written into the bylaws, and an explanation published on the site explaining why it is necessary. IMHO this may be the single biggest pitfall that’s gotten in the way of having a fully effective board, at least in my term.

Roads & Bridges

The infrastructure? It’s a hodgepodge of code & 3rd party services strung together through heroic efforts & ingenuity, over 8 years. A lot of it is pretty old & rickety. But honestly, it’s the 3rd party services that seem to be the biggest problem at times — for example the 3rd party membership system is messy and inflexible (though some excellent volunteer work is going on to switch systems to something that will integrate better with other web services).

I can’t tell you how many times over the last 3 years (1 as an advisor, 2 as a director) I’ve heard it said “we could totally do X better if we had the infrastructure” and just didn’t have the bandwidth or funding to move forward with that.

Progress is being made on several fronts, but the Institute needs an organized, passionate & well-led effort to deal with the infrastructure issue from the ground up. I do not mean that the Institute needs some kind of Moon Landing project. It needs to use a few easy-to-maintain mechanisms that take the least effort for maximum effect. One problem is that the infrastructure is supporting a lot of initiatives that have accrued over the last 8 years, some of which are still relevant, some of which may not be, and many of which should be reorganized or combined to better focus efforts (see the Can-do vs Jiu-jitsu bit above).

People will be people

This org, like any non-profit, volunteer-driven organization, is made up of people. And one constant among people is that we all have our flaws, and we all have complicated lives. We all have personalities that some folks like and some folks don’t. We all say things we wish we could take back, and we all do stuff that other people look at and say “WTF?”

While any organization like this is, indeed, made up of people … it’s a mistake to judge the organization as a whole by any handful of individuals involved in it. But it happens anyway.

So, since that’s inevitable, anyone running for a leadership position in an organization like this should be aware: being on the board is going to put you in a spotlight in a way that will probably surprise you. There are a lot of people who pay attention to who’s on such a list — and they look to you with a lot of expectations you wouldn’t dream other people would have of you. Just be aware that.

At the same time, remember to have some humility and openness about the people who came before you in your role, and their decisions and the hard work they did. Much of what I tried to do in the last 2 years turned out to be misplaced effort, or just the wrong idea … and some of the stuff that I think is valuable may end up being irrelevant in another year or two. That’s just how it goes. It’s tempting to go into a new role with the attitude of “I’m gonna clean this mess up” and “why the hell did they decide to do it like this?”  Just remember that somebody will likely be thinking that about some of your work & ideas a couple years from now, and give others the break you hope they may give you.

Signing Off

Speaking of people — it’s been an honor & privilege to serve with the folks I worked with over the last two years, and to have been entrusted with a board role by the Institute members. I hope I left the place at least a little better off than when I got there.

I had the privilege of hanging out with Allen Ginsberg for a few days back in a previous life when I wanted to be a full-time poet. At dinner one night, as he was working his way through some fresh fruit he’d had warmed for digestion (he was going macrobiotic because of his “diyabeetus”), he was talking about people he’d known in his past. He said something that stuck with me about his teachers & mentors through the years … I paraphrase: “You know, one thing I’ve learned … you don’t kick the people who came before you in the teeth.”  I think it’s important to keep that rule about the people who come after you as well.

I make this pledge to the incoming leaders & other volunteers: if I have an issue with the Institute, something it’s done or some decision it’s made, something that isn’t working right, or something a person said or did, I’ll strive to remember to avoid blurting an outburst or even grousing in private, because it’s best to communicate with you and ask “how can I help?” Otherwise, I have no room to complain.

A final note (finally!) … any good I and the other board members did was only building on the excellent efforts of the community members who went before … the previous boards, volunteers & staff. Thanks to all of you for the hard work you put in thus far … and thanks to those of you stepping up to offer your time, passion and ingenuity in the future.

  • Mario Bourque

    I like the Jiu Jitsu reference. I think a lot of people that run for the board would make great initiative leaders. I think the board members don’t focus on being board members. You’re not the contractor, you’re the foreman.

    I don’t want anyone to think it’s a cakewalk, because it isn’t; you do a lot of work and it is pretty much selfless – most of the time anyway.

    The $40 argument is old and stupid. An organization is nothing without the blood seat and tears of it’s people. I’ve volunteered along with a several dozen over the years. These are good people. With 2000? members, the membership can do better. The IAI is what the membership makes of it. They are the ones that elect the board. They are the ones who choose the future direction. It’s too bad that they can’t also volunteer en mass to help shape the IAI of the future. There are too few people doing too many things. You have lives, we have lives. If the load is distributed, things get done. Board members should be overseers. Much like the Canadian Government, they should act as “department ministers” commanding a staff (in this case a group of volunteers).

    “The IAI supports individuals and organizations specializing in the design and construction of shared information environments”

    I think the IAI has evolved and should rethink it’s manifesto. The governance model also has to change. The board dynamic changes every year with new people coming in and out. A year is not enough to build a cohesive group that will attack things and do what it takes to run an organization.

    I’ve read the candidate profiles and see a lot of “if I am elected, what I would do is”. It’s not about what you do as individuals, it’s what you do as a group. Most of the new board (hopefully all – nod to Andrei) will be together for 2 years, unless they choose to bail for whatever reason. That is a good chunk of time to move things along. Find new revenue streams, develop programs, start cataloging knowledge. The reality is that as long as we (humans) are curious and have a thirst for information and knowledge, IA will always be around. Think of all the places where IA is applicable in your daily life.

    I think this is a pivotal time and a great opportunity IF the new board chooses to take it.

    That’s all I have left to say about that.

    Just because I’m not renewing my membership does not mean I’m giving up on the organization. I’m merely taking an indefinite vacation. Planning to spend much more time with my children instead.