@fsfe @ggreve Well, that's not what I would call a democratic organization?— zoobab (@zoobab) January 21, 2016
Seeing this tweet, I felt that this was a great opportunity to talk about the structure of the FSFE as a freedom-fighting NGO and how it has evolved over time. At the last General Assembly of the organisation, Matthias and I as the executives of the organisation, was given a very clear mandate -- indeed, you may even call it an order -- to work on ways in which the FSFE can be more inclusive and transparent in our work, and to make it easier for people to participate and to have an influence in our work.
Some of what we're doing is making it easier for volunteers to access the technical infrastructure we use for our work, making the structure itself more transparent and clarifying what teams we have (both topical and geographical) and what decisions they're responsible for. This blog post is a step in the direction of making the structure more transparent, so that it's easier to see how to get involved and have a voice in the various bodies. It can be considered a draft form, and background for material that should later get properly organised on our web pages.
When we founded the FSFE in 2001, we believed that a European organisation required formal chapters in each European country, and the structure we put in place for this reflected that. We had a European hub registered in Germany, with local chapters in other countries. The members of the local chapters, with some additions, made up the members of the European hub. In practice, we learned that having a local chapter formally registered as an association in a country was a lot of work, didn't seem to contribute substantially to our work, and most of the benefits of having a local organisation was connected more to having a local team rather than a formal organisation.
So the organisation shifted towards having teams of people (without a formal organisation), which can be geographical (like Sweden, Italy, Berlin, DACH, or any other geographic overlapping or non-overlapping formation) or topical (like our web team, system administration team, translators, or so on). To a significant extent, this is how the FSFE is still organised, though where we've failed to be as transparent as we could be is in providing easier access to those teams, and more clarity on our web pages about what teams we actually have (this will see some work on our part in 2016).
So what about the members then? Let's start at the top of the organisation. The highest decision making body of any organisation is the annual gathering of its members. The same is true for the FSFE, and we routinely talk about this as our General Assembly (or just GA for short), regardless of if we mean the actual time of year when the members meet or if we talk about the mailing list that all members are subscribed to. In practice, the annual meeting is a rather sordid affair mostly to settle some of the legal obligations we have, to elect and exonerate our president, vice president, and financial officer. The protocols from those meetings are publicly available on our web pages.
The members also provide feedback on (and approve) the organisation's budget, support the executives in long term strategy, receive regular reports about individual employees and so on. A lot of this happens throughout the year and isn't connected to the annual meeting, but include the same people albeit virtually. In practice, the members can also give orders to the executives about the activities the organisation engage in, to hire or fire staff, or to change the organisations constitution. If there was a majority in favor of it among the members, they could even change the purpose and activities of the organisation to one that favour proprietary software!
They don't, and one reason they don't is that it's a smaller (currently 21 people) group of people who've demonstrated a significant commitment to free software over a long period of time (I don't have any statistics on this, but we're talking on average somewhere between 10 and 30 years). The likelihood that one of them would go against the principles of free software is very slim, and that's the very purpose of the GA: to provide the long term commitment and stability to the organisation. Every once in a while, someone new joins the GA, and this usually happens after they've been a member of the organisations Fellowship for some time, participated in some teams, and met many of the existing members in order to establish some mutual trust.
There's no formal way in which this happens, but in practice, the FSFE's President is usually the one that either identify people that would want to join, or who is approached by people wanting to join. If there's an agreement between the members, the President would then grant membership to that person to be confirmed at the next annual meeting.
As a way of supporting the organisation, individuals may choose to donate money to support our activities or to join one of the teams to participate in the work. A lot of people also decide to join the organisations Fellowship, which is a great way to contribute financially to the organisation, and to get a deeper connection with our work. In some cities around Europe, Fellows meet regularly, engage actively in our campaigns or develop their own campaigns for their area to promote free software.
Every year, we also hold an election between the Fellows where they elect someone from among themselves to join the General Assembly for a two year term. The people elected by the Fellows take some responsibility for being the link between the GA and the Fellows and have the same rights as anyone else in the GA.
The executives of the organisation: the President, Vice President, Executive Director, together with the Financial Officer as an observer, make up what we call the Executive Council. This is the closest you can get to a board of directors as you would know it from another organisation, and the members are elected or appointed by the General Assembly. The executive council manage the budget, follow up on our financial results routinely and often approve larger expenses.
A lot of the day to day decisions that are needed by the organisation's staff, but which don't need the approval of the GA, are taken by the executive council, including (recent examples), which bank should we use, who should be authorised to make expenses and should we send out donation receipts ourselves or should we contract someone to do that. These are decisions that are important for the organisation and the staff that they are taken, but which do not directly influence our mission.
There are more teams in the FSFE than even I are aware of, most of them driven by volunteers and active within their own geographic area or topic. This is where we'll spend some effort during 2016 to make the list of teams more transparent, to make sure that each team is presented on our web page, including information about what they work on, so that it's easier for people who look at the organisation to see where they can get involved.
The teams are where all the truly interesting decisions are taken! And to a large extent, the teams work autonomously and don't require any authority from anyone else in the organisation for their decisions. Our local Fellowship teams regularly participate in events or organise some activities, without any need to ask anyone else. Our system administrators take a lot of decisions about the infrastructure we offer, and so on. These decisions are usually taken by consensus among the people within the team, or -- if you want to be a bit critical -- by the absence of opposition. Frequently, a lot of decisions are taken by someone emailing a list saying that "I'm going to do X, unless someone objects."
There's some exceptions of course: a team can't take a decision that influence other teams. Such decisions require communication beforehand so that everyone is on the same page. And a team can't make expenses for the organisation without approval first. When there are decisions that influence more than one team, they're often taken in our Core Team or our Coordinators group, both of which include the coordinators from our teams. When there's a decision that require funding, this is often approved by the executive council unless it already fits in one of the existing budgets (for instance, if a local team needs some funding to print leaflets, we'd usually offer to print them or fund that from our usual budget for information material without the need for the council to make a decision).
Where to have an influence
If you are interested in joining the FSFE, a common first step is to join our Fellowship and one of our teams. You'll have the opportunity to work together with other volunteers, our staff, and to do things truly useful to bring free software forward. Having been a Fellow for at least a year allows you be a candidate for the election to the GA. And in general, showing a sustaining commitment to free software, establishing trust between you and other members and Fellows, is a step towards one day joining the GA on a more permanent basis if this is of interest to you.
For a lot of people, the administrative affairs of the GA are much less exciting than the day to day activities of our teams, and a lot of people who've been volunteers for the organisation for very many years feel that what they provide to further free software by working actively in a team is much more important than the contribution they could make in deciding on a budget for the organisation.
From my side, when people ask me whether they should contribute financially to the organisation or join one of our teams as a volunteer, I always ask them to join as a volunteer. While we appreciate any financial contribution we get, the work that we do is heavily influenced and made possible by our volunteers and the contribution of even an hour a week to our work, or helping us organise a presence at a local event, is much more useful for free software than the financial contribution.
I've hinted at this before, that what's critically missing at the moment is a good overview of the teams the FSFE have, who is helping to coordinate each team and what they do. That's something we want to improve on, and it's something that will see improvement during 2016, which will also see other changes in how we work and how we become more transparent and inclusive in our work generally. Our default should be: free and open.