4 lessons about open organizations I learned offline

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I'm a member of two non-profits in my city. One of them is a sporting league, the other a community initiative to save a bit of land from commercial development. Both organizations are member-run. No one is paid to participate and external funding is minimal; in fact volunteers pay membership dues each year. Neither has a "CEO" or "board chair" position (other than those members arbitrarily give). These small non-profits barely have web presences—let alone a connection to the open movement.

Traditional business models function through rigid hierarchies, while open organizations use flexible teams to ensure maximum efficiency. We often associate "open" with "online" because certain technologies seem integral to remaining flexible in diverse communities. My offline communities have taught me four lessons about the ways open organizational principles don't necessarily rely on the digital technologies we tend to associate with them.

Taking it offline

I participate in these organizations because having IRL connections not associated with my beloved Internet or my online identity is important to me. Hanging around with people who are cognitively different from you has many benefits, and the members of these groups are certainly different from me.

Other members of these non-profits are "regular" Internet users. They don't know how to edit a wiki or chat on IRC. They don't know much about digital privacy and security. They don't use project management software (they use Excel).

But despite these differences, it's interesting to see how offline and open online communities are similar.

Being agile is hard

Life happens, and leadership responsibilities change hands repeatedly. Leaders may be interested in a project and then hand off responsibility to someone else. If no one steps up to lead, the project dies. This is incredibly difficult for anyone contributing to the project, but volunteers have to understand that agility is important. The leader of one phase might not be the best person to lead the next one.

Group dynamics are tricky

Each time one leader steps back, communities must establish new repertoires. Forming. Storming. Norming. Performing. Over and over again.

Offline, this might be easier. In a face-to-face situation, you can read people's body language and various social cues. In a room, you can see this person is a natural leader. You can listen to the reasons that a person has decided to take a step back from the project. It's easier to forgive people for being human in a face to face environment. Still, there are always group dynamics. Sometimes it's frustrating that "anyone" can join, no matter if you contributing online or offline. It takes patience, empathy, and a whole lot of courage to be who you are and still participate in a community and contribute to a common goal.

Fundraising is a skill

In recent years we've seen criticism of some of the larger open organizations when they've given their open communities full responsibility. When Mozilla stopped supporting Thunderbird or Open Badges, much of the community responded with disbelief: "How can we continue without leadership from Mozilla?" The open source projects have gone quiet, despite enthusiasm from contributors.

I don't think this happens because of a lack in leaders or leadership. Many stagnant projects have knowledgeable communities in which a natural leader could emerge. The challenge (one that I see in both my non-profits) is that fundraising skills are specialized. Despite how passionate one might be about one's project, many people feel awkward asking for money. Both offline and online volunteers bootstrap amazing and wonderful things with very little funding, but now and then a project can't move forward without being able to pay for X.

Communication takes work

The more self-aware you are, the more you can navigate the messy chaos of life with grace and poise and empathetic understanding. This trait, however, is also the most elusive to us all. Our social and cultural backgrounds make us hold fast to our perspectives and misunderstand each other. We bring our baggage to every conversation, whether we're typing or talking face to face. Being courageous, listening to each other, and moving forward with careful consideration is how communities, online or offline bring about change in the world.

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Laura Hilliger is a writer, educator and technologist. She’s a multimedia designer and developer, a technical liaison, a project manager, an open web advocate who is happiest in collaborative environments. She’s a co-founder of We Are Open Co-op, an Ambassador for Opensource.com, is working to help open up Greenpeace, and a Mozilla alum. Find her on Twitter and Mastodon as @epilepticrabbit


Great read! I like the idea of being around people who are cognitively different from me. I've never heard it put that way before but it's a great insight. I like too "Forming. Storming. Norming. Performing. Over and over again." That's certainly the way it is with my experiences in open organizations whether online or offline. I think too that the greater the serendipity of an organization brought about by the constant change in the makeup and dynamics of that group tends to create more innovation.

Great read. Just one note: Open Badges are alive and well - and Mozilla is still involved. Recent developments such as the release of the open source badging platform Badgr.io have added even more momentum to the movement.

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