My 10 guiding principles for open source community management

It's not just about subject matter expertise; leadership in the open source world requires special skills and processes.
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Many activities these days, be they sports, social work, arts or free and open source software, are organized in some sort of community. If backed by a respective legal entity, this not only helps with getting donations and entering contracts but also puts statutes and rules in place that establish the values and ideals all contributors share and abide by.

Inside these communities, there can be various roles. Some of them have formal requirements and annual or biannual elections, e.g., the board of directors or the supervisory board; others exist ad hoc within dynamically grown groups and can change frequently. Either of those are ideally composed of experienced and enthusiastic community members who take leadership and responsibility.

Many regular contributors will, therefore, eventually face the question of whether to accept a certain role. Based on my experience with being a board member of the former German associations Deutschland e.V. and Freies Office Deutschland e.V., previous chairman and current executive director of The Document Foundation and founding member of the Munich Open-Source-Treffen e.V., I would like to share some personal insights on the topic.

These views are purely my own, and your mileage might vary. It is likely that others had both similar and different experiences, so I'm looking forward to any feedback and thoughts you might have.

1. Cooperation

A community is all about cooperation. Boards, groups, and bodies are no different in this regard. Usually, you don't know who will co-serve on an elected committee with you until shortly before you start your duty. Therefore, it is important to cooperate openly with your new colleagues in a transparent, trustworthy, and effective way, within the committee as well as the larger community.

Sharing a common understanding of responsibilities and duties, and even more importantly, of your goals, visions, and plans can help a lot. It's not necessary for these to all be totally aligned in the first place, as long as there are consensus and compromise to help you identify goals that benefit the community and their objectives at large. In a vivid and diverse community, several goals can often be pursued at once, as most won't be mutually exclusive or otherwise prohibitive.

And then let's not forget one thing: the fun! Be proud that you have been entrusted by your peers to drive the community and its projects toward a bright future. Be proud that you can help steer the ship and shape the soul of something that is important to you. As is often the case in life, cooperating and working together with others is key to success. Joining forces is not only easier but also much more fun than working alone.

2. Commitment

Taking over a role is something that can and should make you proud. See this as something you have been entrusted with for a certain amount of time because your contributions have been recognized by the community as extraordinary and remarkable. You acted in a visible and trustworthy fashion, and people credit you with leadership skills.

Depending on the role you take, the honor often comes with a fair amount of new responsibility beyond what you already do, and it might involve subjects yet unknown to you. In other words: Be ready to put in some time and effort.

How much time such a commitment takes obviously depends on multiple factors: what specific role you take, how many contributors you have to coordinate with, how large your organization is, and of course, what kind of projects you run. In one of its annual reports, board members of The Document Foundation explained that every year "they each donate 15 to 20 days of activity to TDF for Board duties in addition to other volunteering" and the members of its membership committee donate "between 10 and 15 days of activity."

3. Variety

Should you be elected into an organizations' formal body, you will see yourself responsible for representing the entity from a marketing perspective, but also from a legal and organizational point of view. Other than the more glamorous parts, these duties often also entail regular meetings, annual budget planning and reserve building, tax filings and annual activity reports, team management, trademark and copyright handling, planning and overseeing tenders, and all sorts of expected and unexpected legal matters and fostering liaisons with other entities, all of which are rather unglamorous tasks rarely seen by the general public.

That requires the willingness to learn in a variety of areas and for having a rather high tolerance for frustration. Luckily, most of the groups I know are composed of members with different skills, so it's likely someone is either already experienced in or willing to learn one or more of the respective areas. Looking at The Document Foundation's rules of procedure for the board, a total of 13 different areas of oversight can be identified, each one staffed with one or more volunteers, matched to their area of interest.

4. Delegation

Handling all the work alone as a pure volunteer will sooner or later become an impossible task and, unless you have magical superpowers, it's strongly advisable to share these with other seat holders, volunteers, and, if they exist, staff and external professionals. Often, growing organizational demands luckily come together with the financial growth of the entity, which makes paying professionals for certain tasks quite feasible and sensible. Accounting, administration, and legal advice are prime examples of things to outsource (unless that's the service you already provide, of course).

If you oversee a large part of the organization, you primarily need to focus on strategy and the mission at large, so it is advisable to delegate many tasks to others. Remember, the community has entrusted you to steer the ship, to oversee the big picture; don't bother yourself with every little detail and micromanagement, but get enough insight to oversee those you task and trust that they do a good job.

5. Responsibility

In the end, however, it still is the ultimate and shared responsibility of all representatives to oversee and coordinate the work, ensure all duties are fulfilled, and, especially for board members, take care that all legal obligations are met. Remember, donors trust you to make good use of their money, so you have a huge responsibility.

In nearly all legislations, there exist numerous rules and regulations you are bound by, and the unfortunate tendency is often to make things more complicated instead of relaxing them.

In case something goes wrong, those most exposed are first in line to be confronted with that, both from a social and legal point of view.

6. Social

Depending on the size of the organization and your role, you might not only have responsibility for tasks and projects, but also for a paid team. Keep in mind that, for many, their economic situation depends on the success of your organization. Job security and a positive work environment are important factors to keep a happy and dedicated team.

Gaining the skills and finding the time as a pure volunteer to oversee a large full-time team is demanding. Interacting by talking, listening, and being open helps a lot for both your team and the organization. In many organizations, the paid team is there to serve your community, to drive forward the success of the project, to take away annoying administrative tasks from you, and to work on tasks that support and enable your contributors.

Working at charities can be a bit different from companies. Given most of your income consists of donor's money, you have less monetary flexibility than commercial employers. However, you provide a far superior experience than many traditional businesses. Use that as your advantage—your team does something for the good cause, can work with people around the world, can really make a difference, and at the same time make a living out of what they love. Communicate frequently, and don't forget to laud people if they do a good job, especially in remote working environments.

7. Diversity

Crucial and essential is that representatives reflect the diversity of the community—different genders, religions, languages, cultures, backgrounds, and experiences add an incredibly exciting variety that you should aim hard to achieve in any board, committee, and group. While this can turn out to be challenging in the beginning, it for sure will enrich your community in ways you never dared to dream of before.

This diversity is one of the most important and exciting assets a larger community offers; you'll soon learn how it widens the view, helps you to question your own thoughts and positions, and contributes greatly to your overall efforts. If you run an open source community, do exactly as the name suggests—be open, be passionate, and try to get to the bottom of things!

8. Coordination

Having members from around the globe can make you face some practical problems though—most notably, languages and time zones. While English as a common denominator is spoken widely in Europe, it might be different for other countries, and including those who don't speak English as their mother tongue is key if you have a large community. You risk losing vital insight into what your worldwide community does if you don't manage to connect to them.

Something the law of physics at least currently doesn't allow is overcoming the different time zones. Finding suitable meeting slots for participants on different continents, matching everyone's working schedule, and providing a work-life balance aren't trivial requirements, especially when you want to include a paid team. As you end your workday, colleagues from a different continent are just about to start theirs. While the volunteers need meeting times after office hours, your staff would probably rather not stay in the office until late or during the weekends.

Likely there isn't an ideal meeting time, but you will end up finding a compromise that works for most people, possibly including alternate meeting times. A word to the wise: use calendar invites and meeting planners with time zones to avoid confusion, especially during times of daylight savings changes.

The choice of medium is important as well—all stakeholders need to be aware of and included in important discussions. Some of these are thus better done in email; others are easier to handle on the phone. You might also find it convenient to prepare initial discussions via emails and have the final vote on the phone.

Properly prefixing email subjects with votes and discussions can likewise be helpful to handle the influx of messages and catch people's attention. The same is true for meeting intervals, agendas, deadlines, quorum requirements, and sunset periods—these need to reflect everyone's needs, factoring in availabilities, vacations, and absences. The rationale behind this is that taking a role requires continuous, active participation in many communities, to keep up with what's going on, and that is much easier when the rules are clear.

Depending on your setup and the jurisdiction you're in, votes and meetings also have formal requirements you have to stick to.

9. Trust

Trustworthiness is probably one of the most important characteristics for anyone who fills a leadership role. Email conversations lack tone and gestures, making it harder to understand moods, emotions, and intentions. Thus it's even more important to assume best intentions on each side, trying to avoid what is known as confirmation bias, i.e., interpreting actions and words in a way that seems to confirm your existing negative assumptions.

Trust especially comes into play when the entity is located in a country whose language you don't speak or whose legal system you are not familiar with—you will have to rely on translation services and people acting as gateways, be they volunteers or paid professionals.

10. Reward

Filling a community role usually means plenty of hard work on top of your existing duties, but there are plenty of rewards for all that work. It is a very honorable and truly exciting opportunity that will not only enrich your professional life (and makes a good item on a CV) but beyond that, enriches your personality, your skills, and your point of view. If you're passionate about what you do, if you're open to new things, if you want to shape the future of what you love—then you indeed might be a great candidate to serve the community and lead by example.

What to read next
Florian Effenberger
Florian has been a free and open source enthusiast for more than 16 years. He works for The Document Foundation, the nonprofit behind LibreOffice and previously volunteered in marketing and infrastructure.

1 Comment

Governance of community groups can be complex. Some "volunteers" have burdensome reasons for being involved, so it is important that the group have agreed on boundaries & dispute handling.
Long running organizations have "evolved" governance mechanisms. Before my retirement (now aged & frail), my Toastmasters International (10 years) and 12-step groups have solid governance structures.
When pioneering new groups or organizations, young, educated persons can be OK. But older, disturbed & unsettled persons are much more closed off & can be destructive.
In our computer worlds, it is interesting to witness various talented coder types who lack interpersonal skills. Some are like myself, having had traumatic brain injury for the last 35 years. So we need "people-orientated interfaces" between us and the non-coding worlds. GUI, rather than CLI.
Bling-bling (GNOME, Cinnamon) rather Windows-managers.

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