Hi folks! This thread comes as an extension to the Opensource.com article on LibreCorps that published last week. I’d like to have a public discussion about open source governance models for humanitarian / non-profits / NGOs.
What are governance models?
I see governance models simply as “where ultimate decision-making authority lies.” This is intentionally broad, but because this is a broad domain, I think it helps to work in a big context.
For background, Karl Fogel writes about social infrastructure in Producing Open Source Software. He includes governance and decision-making bodies in his definition, but they are loosely connected to his main idea. He explains a few democratic models to allow for community input for decisions, and also introduces the role of non-profit organizations (or rather, emphasizes starting a software project under an existing non-profit organization).
But Fogel doesn’t go far enough. He starts to talk about non-profits but it is a small section. What is most notable to me as a reader is this is where the “buck” starts. Or simply, this is where the influence of money becomes apparent, when a project needs to begin accepting financial contributions and support. I think he presents a limited and narrow view of options here. (Not at Fogel’s fault, he covers a wide range of topics in a condensed format.)
I think of governance as the allocation of power in a distributed decision-making setting.
Where does this discussion start from?
I’m framing two things on my mind:
- Why this is an issue
- Cooperative governance models
Why this is an issue
There are three aspects I emphasize that bring governance models to the forefront of thought for me:
- Overall sustainability of humanitarian FOSS software works
- Competitive environment pits niches against each other instead of for each other
- Solutions are often designed to be funded, not to solve problems
First, what does overall sustainability of humanitarian FOSS mean? It means continuance, perseverance, and connection to long-term impact. Often in the humanitarian sector, software projects are frequently started as often as they are ended. Software engineers churn between one project for months or years when suddenly a grant is not renewed or a financial sponsor decides a project is no longer feasible. This makes money a focal issue because of its impact on longevity and health of a project. Even if a project is successful in solving an issue or problem, if it cannot also make a profit or find a sustainable funding source in an early phase, it risks being defunded or abandoned.
Second, because of the emphasis on sustainable funding, the non-profit world is often presented as a competitive environment where everyone wants a piece of a fixed-size pie; this turns related niches to work against each other instead of collaborating with each other on solving common problems. Who then receives the ultimate funding to continue the work? Again, the influence of money impacts how non-profit organizations / NGOs can see each other. This does not mean that all non-profits will refuse to collaborate and work with other organizations; it may mean that they are not socially-equipped with the same experiences and skills to effectively collaborate. Instead of being pitted against each other as competitors, non-profits need infrastructural support to see opportunities to work together as valuable for the organization and also for projects within an organization.
Finally, humanitarian solutions are often designed to be funded first, solve problems second. The previous two points explain how this happens. But why does this happen? I keep returning to the influence of money and capital. The role of capitalist power structures that put wealth in the power of a few is what makes it feel like there is a fixed-size pie. Often the financial sustainability of humanitarian work is rooted deeply in the personal philanthropy of a wealthy individual or a wealthy group of individuals (e.g. foundation), or sometimes a group of well-meaning but poorly-funded people who have no choice but to cut a project without cutting employees or other benefits. Ultimately, capitalism flips the process upside-down and often has non-profit organizations focus on ways to make their work sustainable first before fully thinking through a solution and evaluating whether it is the right solution to solve a persistent societal issue.
Cooperative governance models
This is where I have the least material but the most interest in learning. I’m looking more at cooperative governance models. Co-operative organizations in the business world is a powerful example of people-owned, people-driven decision-making. Could open source stand to learn something from this worker’s movement too?
One thing that started me on thinking this way was a specific episode of a podcast I listen to occasionally:
And now, cross this perspective of transition strategy as it intersects with libertarian values and the history of free/open source software:
I feel like there is something powerful in this sociopolitical cross-section from governance in the working world as it applies to free and open source software. I’m thinking more about ways that empowering an external volunteer community to contribute to decision-making in an internal organization. Is it a matter of translating the voices and needs of external volunteers to internal stakeholders? Perhaps. Is it a matter of bringing community voices to the same tables as internal stakeholders? Warmer. Is it giving direct power to the community to determine the direction and future of a project, irrespective of the preferred decision by the project’s primary sponsor? Bingo.
I have been sitting on this for a long time and trying to rephrase and rethink this a lot, but I really have to let it off! It’s a lot of text and mostly me rambling, so I’m not sure if anyone else will engage with this… but it was helpful for me to do a brain-dump on what’s been eating me up inside since October.