Question to the candidates: what would make you a good asset to assist with the sustainability of the Foundation?

Disclaimer

I am a candidate myself. I am not sure I am allowed to ask questions here.

Question

Following a blog post by @ramcq about The Next Steps for the GNOME Foundation, @allanday opened a discussion for the board to issue recommendations to the GNOME Foundation members when voting for a candidate.

This post and issue both highlight the change that happened for the past few years in the Foundation board and staff. They also emphasise how urgent is has become for the Foundation to have experienced directors with strong skills to make its activities sustainable. @ramcq and @allanday, please correct me if I over or mis-interpreted the intent.

Question to the candidates: what would make you a good asset to follow the Foundation’s strategy and assist it to become sustainable?

4 Likes

I came here to post this very same question, so thanks for asking it :slight_smile:

1 Like

I have, as always, the Foundation’s sustainability at heart, particularly from a financial perspective. The numbers I was able to guess from my external point of view, and the resulting projections, concern me; therefore I hope to be able to focus on strategy with the board’s new focus on governance, a luxury that we didn’t really have way back when.

TLDR

  • With fairly pessimistic considerations that 2020 is matching pre-2018 income (roughly $275k/y) and 2019 expenses (roughly $600k/y), I am not going to be able to find sustainable funding in the next 12 to 18 months to match the Foundation’s current expenses. This can very likely have dramatic consequences on the Foundation staff.
  • We don’t have the yearly report yet, but pessimistic considerations don’t seem too far fetched since the board discussed revising the Reserves Policy. It is fair to assume we are nearing the $600k of reserve.
  • The pace at which the Foundation was reformed was very quick, and unless we receive other large donations such as the 2018 and 2019 ones, we won’t be able to reach financial equilibrium. Note: this corresponds to my knowledge of the finances of the Foundation from previous reports, the 2020 report has not been issued yet.
  • We need to make radical changes in the way we work to attract donors, and this is where I can help.

My Response

Before assessing whether I’ll be a great asset to help with the Foundation’s sustainability, I believe it’s important to share my expectations from the Foundation and its mission, and how to succeed here.

The Foundation

The GNOME Foundation is not GNOME’s vendor. The Foundation’s purpose is to deliver a vision representative of its members’ opinion, do mediation & coordination work between its members and third-parties to materialise the vision. Its role is not to implement the vision, but to support the individuals and organisations willing to do it. In the rest of the post when I mention “how to implement the strategy”, I mean how to set-up proper support to incentivise third-parties to actually implement it. That can mean for example conducting a study on the state of accessbility, and assisting third-parties interested in making it better to hire competent people.

The Vision

The GNOME Project is extremely difficult to monetise directly for reasons I have explained in more detail in this blog post. TLDR: for-profit organisations can’t really make money by selling open source software to the general public.

Many countries have entered the era of “everything digital” and computers have become more than an extension of ourselves: they have become essential products. Thinking that most countries are going to follow that trend isn’t too far fetched. “Everything digital” makes sense because it automates a lot of our boring tasks. But it also enables mass surveillance. GNOME remains more relevant than ever to provide healthy “digital organs” to the masses and more particularly to the groups who can be targeted by this surveillance.

The GNOME Foundation can strive if it provides significant help to people who need it, and advertises it. Obviously, the way for us to grow is not to rely on individuals’ donations but on partnerships with organisations which can benefit from the GNOME Project.

Getting the Job Done

First, the Foundation needs to have a clear view about who it can help, what problems they face, how GNOME can help solving it, where it falls short, and how the Foundation can help making GNOME better for those groups.

Given that the Foundation is a non-profit living out of donations, there are two important premises mandatory to earn donors’ trust: transparency and accountability. We have room for improvement on both of those.

I can help us do better on those, and in particular:

  • In the same way a commit on a public repository is not proper communication with the outside world, having issues about strategy on an open tracker is not proper communication to people who can benefit from our work.
  • For entities to support us, we must have a clear, public and motivated strategy. Most importantly, we need to release a roadmap on how to achieve it. We have failed to deliver it in the past few years and it has cost us greatly in terms of trust. Being involved in large scale projects in my company, I am used to producing and presenting strategies and roadmaps to stakeholders so our team can get a budget.
  • Since the first source of spending will be the employee wages, a monthly “progress on the strategy” blog post from the Executive Director to highlight what we have been doing with employee time will help donors understand that we’re moving in the right direction even if there are no visible results yet. Here again, this is something I’m used to doing.
  • When we don’t deliver the milestones in a timely manner, it’s crucial to acknowledge it, understand why, revise the roadmap and make propositions regarding how to reach the target
8 Likes

I’ve talked about this in the message where I declared my candidature but I’ll touch on this again, briefly. To gain more revenue and to bind more people under the banner of GNOME we need to explain our relevance to them and identify the impact that they can catalyze by becoming a larger part of our community. That’s the kind of work that I do, and not on my own. I support, mentor and review other people doing this (which is the part I would expect to do more of in this role - I am not running for election to be an unpaid employee).

From the non-profit side in particular I’ve been a long term trustee of my local Church which happens to have a historic, Grade 1 listed building. Balancing the interests of stakeholders and grant funders whilst maintaining the functioning purpose of the organisation and building is a challenge that is highly applicable to GNOME. It’s not just enough to take people’s money and do good, we need to demonstrate that we have delivered the impact that they desired whilst doing good if we want them to continue to support us.

3 Likes

I’m not the candidate that has extensive experience in nonprofit governance and fundraising. The experience that I have, comes from three years in the GNOME Foundation itself, and from much smaller volunteer organizations before that, and that gives me just enough to know what I don’t know yet. (And, to be honest, should three candidates with more nonprofit fundraising experience than I fill the open seats, I’d consider that a success!)

The main thing I can offer, why I think it’s worth voting for me, is continuity — as a board member I’ve been participating in the transition to a more professional style of governance. I have a good idea of where the strong and weak points of the organization and its executive director are, and what we most need to work on (which is, in my opinion, cultivating the relationships that are needed to expand our donor base.)

The strengths that I’d bring into this process are: communication; and the tendencies to look at the long term, and to always consider the side of an issue that applies to the person or group with less power. Where I believe I can be most useful is in helping to craft a more outward-facing GNOME Foundation (so that we can continue to operate at our current level of ambition) while retaining the essential qualities that make it GNOME.

3 Likes

I agree with Robert and Allan that the GNOME Foundation elections are a slightly unusual process that “filters” our board nominees by being existing Foundation members. And I think our staff team is doing great work. And we should look for people who can help in fundraising, but not from this election.

I think we should look for fundraisers from existing GNOME Foundation members starting from this term. And we should look for potential fundraisers outside the Foundation, to partnering/work with us on a GNOME program (eg. education) and then become our Foundation members if it is successful to build up the relationship with them.

So, back to the question, what would make me a good asset to assist with the sustainability of the Foundation?

I reached out the FOSS community in other Asia cities in previous years and organise FOSS conferences in Hong Kong and help communities to host conferences in other Asia cities. I can help the Foundation to tell the people in Asia what is the mission of GNOME and what do we need to sustain our goal.

5 Likes

I have a followup to this:

Many nonprofit charities in the United States (which GNOME is) get the majority of their funding through philanthropic support and Board member connections. I’d like to hear what you think Board responsibilities to fundraising are (or should be), and how you expect to be able to participate in that.

My opinion about this is that the GNOME Foundation is in somewhat of a weird position here due to the transition the board went through over the last few years, from operational direction to oversight. It’s true that many nonprofit boards provide fundraising opportunities through their connections, but GNOME doesn’t have a large pool of board candidates to draw from, who are well-connected to philanthropists. (I’m certainly not.)

So at this stage in the GNOME Foundation’s growth I think it’s not realistic to expect each board member to bring in their own philanthropic connections. I do think that we should be trying to recruit board members who bring this in, but it’s a chicken-and-egg problem. The GNOME Foundation has to accomplish more in order to attract the interest of such volunteers to bring their fundraising experience to bear on the GNOME Foundation board, and we have to attract volunteers with fundraising experience in order to accomplish more.

This is a complex question, because the answer really depends on what the Foundation will look like in the coming year.

About the board responsibility regarding fundraising, I understand how convenient it can be for the Foundation to get board members who have connections intersted into donating to a United States nonprofit charity. It makes the fundraising much easier since all the strategic aspects can be discussed in private with potential donors without having to rely on public campaigns to showcase how necessary the GNOME Foundation efforts are, and we obviously all know how difficult PR is.

We don’t need to make it mandatory for board members: if we made having such connections a competitive advantage for board membership, we would be de facto creating a system that encourages aristocracy. This doesn’t sound right for a project whose goal is to help people who need it the most, and doesn’t correspond to the idea I have the GNOME Project and GNOME Foundation.

Now, defining what shouldn’t be expected from the board doesn’t tell us what its responsibilites should be. The key principle is that the board should steer the fundraising strategy. This means the board should decide whether a given strategy is desirable or not for fundraising, define how to measure progress, actually follow progress, and adjust the strategy if needed.

Elaborating the strategy itself is where things can get more complex. I said in a previous post:

First, the Foundation needs to have a clear view about who it can help, what problems they face, how GNOME can help solving it, where it falls short, and how the Foundation can help making GNOME better for those groups.

Those are quite time-consuming tasks. Depending on the structure where these actions take place, different actors are involved:

  1. When there is a board and employee(s) dedicated to fundraising, the employee(s) are proactive on the tasks. The Board relies on its expertise, vision, knowledge of the GNOME ecosystem, and when necessary on the community to assess whether an initiative should be followed or not, and to help the employee to find a new direction for their next proposal.
  2. When there is no employee dedicated to fundraising, those tasks should be carried by the board itself.

The Foundation has gone through a series of reforms for the past two to three years to get from a board of on-the-field implementers to a board of strategists. This would place us in the type 1 scenario. Because of the state of finances and depending on how well we’re doing, we might end up in a type 2 scenario, so I’d argue ideal candidates should be able to do both.

Does the above answer your question @mollydb?

Edits: typos

2 Likes

I guess there are two angles that I can think of right now when it comes to the sustainability of the project that I am going to address. I will try to go straight to the point.

Contributor base sustainability

There are many things we need to do to ensure we have a healthy stream of new contributors.

Raising the profile of our platform, if our platform is not attractive or is not heard of, there will not be potential contributors coming our way. I trully think that aligning both from a technological and institutional angle is important here.

I will give a couple of examples of initiatives I was involved in that I think helped people to keep GNOME relevant.

  • One was our migration to GitLab. For a long while I was convinced that our contribution tooling was pushing contributors away and that we were missing out. I initially created the GitHub mirror to test this hypothesis and soon after we were getting casual PRs from people from outside the community. Unfortunately GitHub was a no go due to licensing.

    A few years later I tried out GitLab and was really impressed and I thought their CE offering was mostly what we needed, I approached GitLab and with the help of Carlos Soriano we started requesting features to be moved to CE to close the gap. I want to note that it was eventually Carlos and Andrea Veri who ended up championing most of the heavy lifting of that migration.

    I truly think that migration has enabled contributions and contributors that just wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

  • Another example was my initial push to explore the potential of Rust in the GNOME ecosystem, I wrote a blog post that had a reaction from the core Rust team who offered their help, out of that came the first Rust+GNOME hackfest in Mexico. Where hackers working on Rust bindings met with a large part of the core Rust team to accelerate our binding story.

    A lot got done that day and I believe our Rust story improved massively from the small core community that was forged that day. The core Rust binding team as well as Federico carried the spirit of that hackfest forward to date.

    If you look at most of the new apps showing up in the GNOME ecosystem, it seems that if not most a lot of them are Rust based, so I think those efforts and the work of the resulting community are paying off.

These are just two examples of me trying to build relationships with organizations and projects that align to our goals. I think we can/should do this more often.

Financial sustainability

The other angle is the financial sustainability of the foundation, this is a topic I care a lot about, I was in charge of sponsors for GUADEC in Manchester, something I noticed is that the local team at GUADEC has been the one responsible for sponsorships. I found this unfair, since I felt this was something that was closer to the core of the Foundation having a relationship with those companies and less about organizing an event, but also detrimental as we rebooted the relationships with sponsors every year since it would be a different person.

I tried to champion the idea of a sponsorship committee for two years that would carry the torch year over year, but frankly I felt alone in that duty during those two years as nobody got nearly as involved as I did.

Good news is now we have staff that can take care of this, but we also have a different challenge, one I am less familiar with which is scaling our donor base in a bigger scale to sustain a larger staff. This is new territory for me as the target is not tech companies but larger philanthropic organizations, I am eager to look into this and try to tackle it in the upcoming years.

Well I hope I have shown where my focus is when it comes to the sustainability of the project.

An interesting update: I had made very pessimistic assumptions about our reserve. The board minutes of May teach us that:

  • NET assets are $1.3 mil, including restricted funds. Gone down since last time. This means we have ~20 months of running at current staff and spending levels (so ~14 months at end of year).
1 Like