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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Volunteerism and the Commons
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The Utopian world painted by commons advocates -- one of open-source production driven not by commercial ambition but rather by desire for peer acclaim and satisfaction from making a contribution -- is infectious, in part because one can find slivers of evidence of it in society. Volunteerism, after all, is fairly common in the modern world, and we are all better off as a result. But is it reasonable to expect that volunteerism can supplant professional work? Should it?

I ask because a volunteer group I participate in is facing this conundrum.

I belong to a professional organization that has a bare-bones paid staff, but is managed mostly by dues-paying members volunteering. No member is obligated to volunteer, and many don't, but many of us do. Nearly all volunteers work separately in full-time jobs; this is a professional organization, remember. I serve on a committee that recruits authors to give public readings. A local bookstore donates books to be sold at the event, and the proceeds of those books go to our nonprofit library.

We have many authors, publicists and publishers who approach us wishing to have an event, for it obviously is good publicity for them. But would anyone advise a single person in today's society to only date individuals who ask him or her out? I think not; that limits the pool of potential partners, and it's far better if that individual can take the initiative and ask someone else out (I'm glad my wife took that initiative with me when we first met).

It's logistically simple to deal with authors that approach us; they have an incentive to make it easy. It's far more difficult to identify an author we'd like to speak, determine who we should reach out to, actually establish that contact, persuade all interested parties associated with that author to agree to an event, and then settle on a date.

Until this week, we've been able to tap into one of the organization's few full-time employees to chase down these reluctant authors and their representatives. She was a central point of contact, and she put in all the time and effort required to make these events happen. Most of our biggest fund-raising events were with authors she had solicited at our request, not ones who approached us.

This young, talented woman has decided to move on. The leadership of our organization has decided not to replace her with someone of similar responsibilities. In other words, if we volunteers on the Book and Author Committee want to recruit authors, instead of just accepting authors that approach us, we'll have to do it ourselves. We'll have to add those responsibilities on top of our existing volunteer time and effort, and figure out a way to handle such an outreach program that is disaggregated among several committee members instead of centralized in one paid staffer.

I see a certain arrogance at work here. "Look," I can imagine the management conversation going. "We've already got these suckers who pay to belong to this club giving up their own time to volunteer on this committee. They hold monthly luncheon meetings, they work on projects outside those meetings, they volunteer after hours at book events. Why are we paying somebody to help them? Why not just ask them to take on a little bit more?"

Why not indeed? Maybe because at some point, you turn a volunteer into a serf. Has that happened here? It's too early to tell. We have a very smart and clever chairwoman. She's brainstorming a way we can continue to proactively recruit authors without turning us into unpaid organization labor. There's probably a solution here.

But there are other scenarios. One is that most of us find the aggravation of serving on this committee exceeds the personal satisfaction and we walk away; there's no requirement we serve. Other committees at this organization have faded away in this manner. Then we won't have any more author events, our membership and the community at large will suffer, and we won't be raising funds for the library anymore.

Another scenario is that the committee lingers on with a slightly reduced membership and we only deal with authors that approach us. For now, that is what we are doing going forward, until we can figure out a better approach -- we're only going to go out with folks who ask us out. Some of these authors will be great, but overall I would suspect the quality of speakers to diminish over time, and that too will erode fund-raising.

I keep coming back to the fund-raising. I volunteer because I think it's a great thing to have author events, which are free to the general public and allow anyone interested in literature to come, learn and enjoy, with no obligation to buy a book. But I have to assume the leadership of this organization cares about the fund-raising. Have they considered how the step they've taken will potentially erode that? Perhaps they feel the erosion is less than the percentage of salary we tapped by borrowing one of the full-time staff to chase down authors for us.

At our Monday meeting, I looked around the table at a group of bright, dedicated volunteers who care about the organization and who take pride in producing quality author events. I also saw a group of people who apply that same level of dedication to their professional lives. I saw a group of people slowly comprehending that they, perhaps, were finding themselves being taken advantage of because of their dedication.

Whatever Lessig or Benkler might say, there remains a limit to how much people are willing to do for others when they are serving as volunteers, and there remains a level of respect one should expect from the ones for whom you are doing the volunteering.

posted by Patrick Ross @ 11:34 AM | Commons

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"The Utopian world painted by commons advocates -- one of open-source production driven not by commercial ambition but rather by desire for peer acclaim and satisfaction from making a contribution.."


Why can't commercial ambition drive open source? I think it does, but not in the way that you expect.

First, there are those companies who want to do stuff with their computers. They don't make software and are looking for workable solutions, and may want to modify the source code. There have been several open source projects that got started this way.

Second, there are companies that want to sell product. For example, I bought my IBM laptop because I had heard how it's power management would work, with the API's that had been "donated" to open source. Sounds like a pretty hard-nosed business decision to me.

Third, the desire to escape monopoly pricing also plays a part. NEC, for example was burned big time by MS when they tried to develop their own computer architecture. Do you think they'll use MS if they can help it?
If you are a public agency in say Brasil, will you use software from a foreign monopolist, or a local supplier?

If your a business owner in Uzbekistan, what's the chance of your language being fully supported by MS? Well, guess what it's supported by a linux distro.

So there exists many business reasons fro using and contributing to open source..

Posted by: enigma_foundry at August 17, 2006 8:53 PM

It's been my experience that volunteer organizations live or die on the willingness of a few people to step forward and do most of the work. Most have the attitude that paying their dues is enough commitment, and besides there's always other stuff to do.

So the challenge is to widen the circle of active volunteers, and that generally takes constant nagging. Your club, like all clubs, needs a professional nag so the babe who's leaving should be replaced by another paid professional.

Posted by: Richard Bennett at August 18, 2006 4:18 PM

Well here is a related phenomena that I believe answers the question that you are trying to ask, but have not clearly stated, which I think is: Why do entities (people, corporations ) do things that are not in their own interest. I will provide the answer to this important question, not by expounding a theory at first, but by providing a concrete example of a market that has been transformed by largely non-economic considerations.

As an Architect I have noted the great expansion of the role of sustainability in projects that I have been working on, and its prominence in the profession as a whole. I have been happy to further this and encourage the adoption of Sustainable criteria in the projects that I am working on.

Certainly, many items that are Sustainable are interest in the long range interest of the client, but many can not be justified on purely economic grounds.

I would urge you to pick up an Architectural magazine, say Architectural Record, and I would call your attention to the fact that nearly every single advertisement addresses sustainability, either directly or indirectly.

How did this come to be? Did some government agency mandate this? In some limited cases, such as energy performance, yes it has in fact mandated certain minimum performance standards. But in many ares of Sustainability there has been no government mandate.

The United States Green Building Council, a Not-For-Profit, has cleverly trademarked a green building rating system, called LEED. This LEED rating system This LEED rating system provides for different levels of sustainability, ranging from Platinum, the highest to certified.

This trademark has set off a competition for the obtaining of the virtue conferred by the high ratings, and companies sometimes very keen to been seen as virtuous, so they have competed for the ratings. To get those ratings, they may need certain kinds of products, produced in certain ways. Manufacturers fill that demand. Anyone can observe that a market for sustainability has in fact been built, largely by the USGBC and its LEED rating system. Now certainly to expand Sustainability, to make it the norm, rather than the exception will require more than this, but this is an important first step, and one that has been taken by many clients without there being a direct immediate economic benefit.

Now, what theory might accommodate this? I am not an economist, but I have read a book hear and there, and it seems very interesting that Schumpeter is here talking about expanding our notions of competition from just cost:

The first thing to go is the traditional conception of the modus operandi of competition. Economists are at long last emerging from the stage in which price competition was all they saw. As soon as quality competition and sales effort are admitted into the sacred precincts of theory, the price variable is ousted from its dominant position. However, it is still competition within a rigid pattern of invariant conditions, methods of production and forms of industrial organization in particular, that practically monopolizes attention."

So, it is observable that entities do sometimes act outside of their narrow economic interests, but are acting in a broader more strategic way, and that, I would postulate, explains a good part of the work being done on Free Software projects, such as Gnu/Linux.

Posted by: enigma_foundry at August 20, 2006 3:18 PM

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