Open source governance models in humanitarian / non-profit organizations

Hi folks! This thread comes as an extension to the 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:

  1. Why this is an issue
  2. 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:

  1. Overall sustainability of humanitarian FOSS software works
  2. Competitive environment pits niches against each other instead of for each other
  3. 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.

From my experience , the death of these projects are not as sudden as you make it out to be. Most develop “prototypes” knowing they won’t make it nearly from the get go. It’s often clear to the developers that their are core flaws in what they’re building and they do not have the resources or authority to change that.

I think this is mostly right, however, the targeted goal of the initial grants inherently change the design and goal of a project to not be sustainable and likely to fail. Grants often fall prey to the issue of solutioneering and often set out on building entirely the wrong thing. Even if it’s maybe addressing an issue, it fails to become adopted because of misunderstanding existing organizational or operational constraints of the areas in which it’s used.

I genuinely don’t think this is the key reason NGOs don’t like to work together. Instead, it’s the additional beaurocratic overhead that comes from putting two very beaurocratic organizations together that incentivizes organizations to not team-up. While sure, grant competition does happen, it’s often due to different NGOs having different approaches to solving a problem.

Yes. In order for projects to get funded, they often need to be proposing a solution. This makes it difficult to properly understand scope and budget needed to actually and realistically address the issue.

Yes but how? Governance plays a big part in shifting power to the user and I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here. Still, I think that this extends far beyond simply project governance. How we go about designing technology products, communicating with our users (because not all users can or should be expected to design their own tools), and yes how we organize ourselves to govern the decision making for these teams and communities all have equal importance into changing this issue we’ve seen with a disparity in access to useful software tools across sectors and demographics.

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This is an important detail. Just curious, are there any experiences you mind sharing publicly to add context to this view? Often I think these kinds of stories are moving!

I think solutioneering is a good way of contextualizing grants. I agree with you here.

The specific example I was thinking of was Esra’a and her challenges with sustainability with Majal is an NGO ran by Esra’a and others, and occasionally I peer through their Twitter threads to understand the sustainability issues faced by a grassroots organization like Majal. What Majal does well is understanding the constraints of the areas they work within, because the people designing solutions understand the regions they are developing for. I don’t know if there is a parallel for Western NGOs that insert themselves into a foreign population?

This is an aside and I have been guilty of doing the same, but I don’t want to present something as a “key” reason. When looking at socioeconomic factors, there are intersectional motivations, purposes, and conflicting ideas that all can influence why event X causes event Y. I don’t think you are positing against this either, but I want to emphasize there isn’t a single explanatory reason that we can point to in order to answer our questions; it is a collection of multiple reasons and motivations that, when compounded together, have social consequences.

I think we are saying the same thing in a different way. I think your view is more zoomed in than the lens I am looking at this from.

You are saying it is difficult for two different organizations with different approaches to work together on solving problems. I am saying that organizations are not equipped with the social skills and tools to be effective at collaborating. We both are agreeing that NGOs / non-profits seldom collaborate effectively together. You are saying aligning values and combining efforts across multiple organizations is difficult. I am saying there are not many resources for organizations to spend time on working together in areas that don’t match funding priorities, and this makes it hard to align values and combine efforts.

Maybe I am off on the underlying reason for why organizations are lacking these skills, but I think there is an art to collaboration and not many organizations understand how to collaborate effectively. If you can’t play well with others, working with any other external organization is always going to be sticky.

So… I feel like we are saying the same thing in the big picture?

Not to prematurely pull this line out, but reading this, I know this is a fundamental split for me. Rather than going beyond governance, I think all of these things come back to governance:

I’m going to push on your definition of “user”. User being the end consumer of some sort of product or software. Not all users are technical. Not all users should have to understand how to build their own tools. Users are a specific type of person.

However, I am thinking more of “community”. Community being the group of people who collaborate and work together on open source. This could be technology products, user design, back-end engineering, etc. But it also includes marketing people, graphic designers, community organizers, and a lot of people who may not be wrapped into the “engineering” bucket, but contribute in meaningful ways to an open source community. The structure of what “community” means is fluid and not well-defined. Sometimes your community contributors are not users of your software. Sometimes community contributors influence high-level decision-making in an organization (e.g. an elected seat to a decision-making committee, like the Fedora Project’s Council). Sometimes, they don’t (e.g. how Apple-employed Swift developers decide on community proposals for language improvements in a black box at Apple HQ).

The community is not traditionally thought of in decision-making. When it comes to allocation, prioritization, and focus of financial resources, the voice of the community is typically underrepresented in corporate open source. I think this is to the detriment of humanitarian organizations who work on issues that are (usually) deeply embedded within the communities they serve. Like when I replied to grants and mentioned above.

I don’t have an answer yet. :grinning: I put this thread out there to hopefully invite challenge to these ideas and I’m glad you picked some of these points apart. I value your input.

Also I wanted to drop these somewhere. Here are some notes I took from a discussion group at the Sustain Summit 2018. Our discussion group was titled, “Open source human governance”:

I think in the case of my work at the IRC, we knew that the technical aspect of the project (which was defined in the grant) was over scoped and most likely, not solving the biggest blockers towards achieving the goals of the project (finding Syrian refugees in Jordan sustainable employment)

I think in general, majority of the community surrounding a FOSS product should/will be made up of users of that software/technology. I’m sure there’s cases of people who have wanted to contribute due to simply liking the idea of that product or whatever but I think that is far less common. When I say users, I meant community. When growing a community, you should target users.

While I don’t disagree with you that Esra’s organization faced issues of sustainability, I think grouping the issues and solutions of Majal with those of the Aid/Relief sector is perhaps casting too wide of a net. Majal is a non-profit, advocacy, citizen journalism organization. Advocacy groups like that have long had issues of funding that has only gotten worse due to the advent of social media platforms, centralization of journalism, and cheapening of information distribution.

I’m not saying their work isn’t incredibly important and we shouldn’t seek to solve these issues, just that I think these issues may require a different solution to the issues facing inefficiency in the aid/relief sector.

I’d say there is a general movement in “Big Aid” (These are big western staffed NGOs such as IRC, CARE, MercyCorps) to focus on providing logistical support to more local operations powered by local staff.

There’s definitely a similar message here. However, I think yours focuses on how can we deliver proper skills training on collaborating, where-as my messaging focuses more on constraints imposed by donors which simply make communication so difficult it is not worth it (even when the NGOs have the right skills to do it).

Governance is a very broad term so I can see how you could fit this issue in terms of being a “governance” problem. However, I think it’s important to narrow down what exactly is the issue here. Governance of what? Individual projects? Donor relations? Relations between foreign powers and communities suffering from conflict/disaster? All of these things certainly involve governance of some sort but they’re all very different governance structures with their own problems requiring their own solutions (that may extend beyond governance).

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(No sooner did I join this list, when my computer died and I caught a cold. Both I and the computer are “recovering”.)

I know some here are more in the Fedora camp than the Ubuntu camp, (and no doubt use the wrong editor as well) :wink: , but, if you have not already encountered it, you may want to take a gander at The Art of Community By Jono Bacon. I have not read it yet myself, and, from the web site, it looks to be aimed at a broader market, including the more commercial organizations. Still, it’s a CC-licensed work, and does pay some attention to “causes”.

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