A few weeks ago, I interviewed my friend Katherine Maher on leading a non-profit under some of the biggest challenges an org can face: accusations of assault by leadership, and a growing gap between mission and reality on the ground.
We did the interview at the Free Software Foundation’s Libre Planet conference. We chose that forum because I was hopeful that the FSF’s staff, board, and membership might want to learn about how other orgs had risen to challenges like those faced by FSF after Richard Stallman’s departure in 2019. I, like many others in this space, have a soft spot for the FSF and want it to succeed. And the fact my talk was accepted gave me further hope.
Unfortunately, the next day it was announced at the same conference that Stallman would rejoin the FSF board. This made clear that the existing board tolerated Stallman’s terrible behavior towards others, and endorsed his failed leadership—a classic case of non-profit founder syndrome.
While the board’s action made the talk less timely, much of the talk is still, hopefully, relevant to any value-centered tech non-profit that is grappling with executive misbehavior and/or simply keeping up with a changing tech world. As a result, I’ve decided to present here some excerpts from our interview. They have been lightly edited, emphasized, and contextualized. The full transcript is here.
Sunlight Foundation: harassment, culture, and leadership
In the first part of our conversation, we spoke about Katherine’s tenure on the board of the Sunlight Foundation. Shortly after she joined, Huffington Post reported on bullying, harassment, and rape accusations against a key member of Sunlight’s leadership team.
[I had] worked for a long time with the Sunlight Foundation and very much valued what they’d given to the transparency and open data open government world. I … ended up on a board that was meant to help the organization reinvent what its future would be.
I think I was on the board for probably no more than three months, when an article landed in the Huffington Post that went back 10 years looking at … a culture of exclusion and harassment, but also … credible [accusations] of sexual assault.
And so as a board … we realized very quickly that there was no possible path forward without really looking at our past, where we had come from, what that had done in terms of the culture of the institution, but also the culture of the broader open government space.Katherine
Practical impacts of harassment
Sunlight’s board saw immediately that an org cannot effectively grapple with a global, ethical technological future if the org’s leadership cannot grapple with its own culture of harassment. Some of the pragmatic reasons for this included:
The [Huffington Post] article detailed a culture of heavy drinking and harassment, intimidation.
What does that mean for an organization that is attempting to do work in sort of a progressive space of open government and transparency? How do you square those values from an institutional mission standpoint? That’s one [pragmatic] question.
Another question is, as an organization that’s trying to hire, what does this mean for your employer brand? How can you even be an organization that’s competitive [for hiring] if you’ve got this culture out there on the books?
And then the third pragmatic question is … [w]hat does this mean for like our funding, our funders, and the relationships that we have with other partner institutions who may want to use the tools?Katherine
FSF suffers from similar pragmatic problems—problems that absolutely can’t be separated from the founder’s inability to treat all people as full human beings worthy of his respect. (Both of the tweets below lead to detailed threads from former FSF employees.)
Since the announcement of Stallman’s return, all top leadership of the organization have resigned, and former employees have detailed how the FSF staff has (for over a decade) had to deal with Richard’s unpleasant behavior, leading to morale problems, turnover, and even unionization explicitly to deal with RMS.
So it seems undeniable: building a horrible culture has pragmatic impacts on an org’s ability to espouse its values.
Values and harassment
Of course, a values-centered organization should be willing to anger sponsors if it is important for their values. But at Sunlight, it was also clear that dealing with the culture of harassment was relevant to their values, and the new board had to ask hard questions about that:
The values questions, which … are just as important, were… what does this mean to be an organization that focuses on transparency in an environment in which we’ve not been transparent about our past?
What does it mean to be an institution that [has] progressive values in the sense of inclusion, a recognition that participation is critically important? … Is everyone able to participate? How can we square that with the institution that are meant to be?
And what do we do to think about justice and redress for (primarily the women) who are subjected to this culture[?]Katherine
Unlike Sunlight, FSF is not about transparency, per se, but RMS at his best has always been very strong about how freedom had to be for everyone. FSF is an inherently political project! One can’t advocate for the rights of everyone if, simultaneously, one treats staff disposably and women as objects to be licked without their consent, and half the population (women) responds by actively avoiding the leadership of the “movement”.
So, in this situation, what is a board to do? In Sunlight’s case:
[Myself and fellow board member Zoe Reiter] decided that this was a no brainer, we had to do an external investigation.
The challenges of doing this… were pretty tough. [W]e reached out to everyone who’d been involved with the organization we also put not just as employees but also trying to find people who’ve been involved in transparency camps and other sorts of initiatives that Sunlight had had run.
We put out calls for participation on our blog; we hired a third party legal firm to do investigation and interviews with people who had been affected.
We were very open in the way that we thought about who should be included in that—not just employees, but anyone who had something that they wanted to raise. That produced a report that we then published to the general public, really trying to account for some of the things that have been found.Katherine
While most of the report is quite specific to the Sunlight Foundation’s specific situation, the FSF board should particularly have read page 3 of the recommendations: “Instituting Board Governance Best Practices”. Among other recommendations relevant to many tech non-profits (not just FSF!), the report says Sunlight should “institute term limits” and “commit to a concerted effort to recruit new members to grow the Board and its capacity”.
Who can investigate a culture? When?
Katherine noted that self-scrutiny is not just something for large orgs:
[W]hen we published this report, part of what we were hoping for was that … we wanted other organizations to be able to approach this in similar challenges with a little bit of a blueprint for how one might do it. Particularly small orgs.
There were four of us on the board. Sunlight is a small organization—15 people. The idea that an even smaller organizations don’t have the resources to do it was something that we wanted to stand against and say, actually, this is something that every and all organizations should be able to take on regardless of the resources available to them.Katherine
It’s also important to note that the need for critical self scrutiny is not something that “expires” if not undertaken immediately—communities are larger, and longer-lived, than the relevant staff or boards, so even if the moment seems to be in the relatively distant past, an investigation can still be valuable for rebuilding organizational trust and effectiveness.
[D]espite the fact that this was 10 years ago, and none of us were on the board at this particular time, there is an accounting that we owe to the people who are part of this community, to the people who are our stakeholders in this work, to the people who use our tools, to the people who advocated, who donated, who went on to have careers who were shaped by this experience.
And I don’t just mean, folks who were in the space still—I mean, folks who were driven out of the space because of the experiences they had. There was an accountability that we owed. And I think it is important that we grappled with that, even if it was sort of an imperfect outcome.Katherine
Winding down Sunlight
As part of the conclusion of the report on culture and harassment, it was recommended that the Sunlight board “chart a new course forward” by developing a “comprehensive strategic plan”. As part of that effort, the board eventually decided to shut the organization down—not because of harassment, but because in many ways the organization had been so successful that it had outlived its purpose.
In Katherine’s words:
[T]he lesson isn’t that we shut down because there was a sexual assault allegation, and we investigated it. Absolutely not!
The lesson is that we shut down because as we went through this process of interrogating where we were, as an organization, and the culture that was part of the organization, there was a question of what would be required for us to shift the organization into a more inclusive space? And the answer is a lot of that work had already been done by the staff that were there…
But the other piece of it was, does it work? Does the world need a Sunlight right now? And the answer, I think, in in large part was not to do the same things that Sunlight had been doing. …
The organization spawned an entire community of practitioners that have gone on to do really great work in other spaces. And we felt as though that sort of national-level governmental transparency through tech wasn’t necessarily needed in the same way as it had been 15 years prior. And that’s okay, that’s a good thing.Katherine
We were careful to say at Libre Planet that I don’t think FSF needs to shut down because of RMS’s terrible behavior. But the reaction of many, many people to “RMS is back on the FSF board” is “who cares, FSF has been irrelevant for decades”.
That should be of great concern to the board. As I sometimes put it—free licenses have taken over the world, and despite that the overwhelming consensus is that open won and (as RMS himself would say) free lost. This undeniable fact reflects very badly on the organization whose nominal job it is to promote freedom. So it’s absolutely the case that shutting down FSF, and finding homes for its most important projects in organizations that do not suffer from deep governance issues, should be an option the current board and membership consider.
Which brings us to the second, more optimistic topic: how did Wikimedia react to a changing world? It wasn’t by shutting down! Instead, it was by building on what was already successful to make sure they were meeting their values—an option that is also still very much available to FSF.
Wikimedia: rethinking mission in a changing world
Wikimedia’s vision is simple: “A world in which every single human can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.” And yet, in Katherine’s telling, it was obvious that there was still a gap between the vision, the state of the world, and how the movement was executing.
We turned 15 in 2016 … and I was struck by the fact that when I joined the Wikimedia Foundation, in 2014, we had been building from a point of our founding, but we were not building toward something.
So we were building away from a established sort of identity … a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit; a grounding in what it means to be a part of open culture and free and libre software culture; an understanding that … But I didn’t know where we were going.
We had gotten really good at building an encyclopedia—imperfect! there’s much more to do!—but we knew that we were building an encyclopedia, and yet … to what end?
Because “a free world in which every single human being can share in the sum of all knowledge”—there’s a lot more than an encyclopedia there. And there’s all sorts of questions:
About what does “share” mean?
And what does the distribution of knowledge mean?
And what does “all knowledge” mean?
And who are all these people—“every single human being”? Because we’ve got like a billion and a half devices visiting our sites every month. But even if we’re generous, and say, that’s a billion people, that is not the entirety of the world’s population.Katherine
As we discussed during parts of the talk not excerpted here, usage by a billion people is not failure! And yet, it is not “every single human being”, and so WMF’s leadership decided to think strategically about that gap.
FSF’s leadership could be doing something similar—celebrating that GPL is one of the most widely-used legal documents in human history, while grappling with the reality that the preamble to the GPL is widely unheeded; celebrating that essentially every human with an internet connection interacts with GPL-licensed software (Linux) every day, while wrestling deeply with the fact that they’re not free in the way the organization hopes.
Some of the blame for that does in fact lie with capitalism and particular capitalists, but the leadership of the FSF must also reflect on their role in those failures if the organization is to effectively advance their mission in the 2020s and beyond.
Self-awareness for a successful, but incomplete, movement
With these big questions in mind, WMF embarked on a large project to create a roadmap, called the 2030 Strategy. (We talked extensively about “why 2030”, which I thought was interesting, but won’t quote here.)
WMF could have talked only to existing Wikimedians about this, but instead (consistent with their values) went more broadly, working along four different tracks. Katherine talked about the tracks in this part of our conversation:
We ran one that was a research track that was looking at where babies are born—demographics I mentioned earlier [e.g., expected massive population growth in Africa—omitted from this blog post but talked about in the full transcript.]
[Another] was who are our most experienced contributors, and what did they have to say about our projects? What do they know? What’s the historic understanding of our intention, our values, the core of who we are, what is it that motivates people to join this project, what makes our culture essential and important in the world?
Then, who are the people who are our external stakeholders, who maybe are not contributors in the sense of contributors to the code or contributors to the projects of content, but are the folks in the broader open tech world? Who are folks in the broad open culture world? Who are people who are in the education space? You know, stakeholders like that? “What’s the future of free knowledge” is what we basically asked them.
And then we went to folks that we had never met before. And we said, “Why don’t you use Wikipedia? What do you think of it? Why would it be valuable to you? Oh, you’ve never even heard of it. That’s so interesting. Tell us more about what you think of when you think of knowledge.” And we spent a lot of time thinking about what these… new readers need out of a project like Wikipedia. If you have no sort of structural construct for an encyclopedia, maybe there’s something entirely different that you need out of a project for free knowledge that has nothing to do with a reference—an archaic reference—to bound books on a bookshelf.
This approach, which focused not just on the existing community but on data, partners, and non-participants, has been extensively documented at 2030.wikimedia.org, and can serve as a model for any organization seeking to re-orient itself during a period of change—even if you don’t have the same resources as Wikimedia does.
Unfortunately, this is almost exactly the opposite of the approach FSF has taken. FSF has become almost infamously insulated from the broader tech community, in large part because of RMS’s terrible behavior towards others. (The list of conference organizers who regret allowing him to attend their events is very long.) Nevertheless, given its important role in the overall movement’s history, I suspect that good faith efforts to do this sort of multi-faceted outreach and research could work—if done after RMS is genuinely at arms-length.
Updating values, while staying true to the original mission
The Wikimedia strategy process led to a vision that extended and updated, rather than radically changed, Wikimedia’s strategic direction:
By 2030, Wikimedia will become the essential infrastructure of the ecosystem of free knowledge, and anyone who shares our vision will be able to join us.Wikipedia
In particular, the focus was around two pillars, which were explicitly additive to the traditional “encyclopedic” activities:
Knowledge equity, which is really around thinking about who’s been excluded and how we bring them in, and what are the structural barriers that enable that exclusion or created that exclusion, rather than just saying “we’re open and everyone can join us”. And how do we break down those barriers?
And knowledge as a service, which is without thinking about, yes, the technical components of what a service oriented architecture is, but how do we make knowledge useful beyond just being a website?Katherine
I specifically asked Katherine about how Wikimedia was adding to the original vision and mission because I think it’s important to understand that a healthy community can build on its past successes without obliterating or ignoring what has come before. Many in the GNU and FSF communities seem to worry that moving past RMS somehow means abandoning software freedom, which should not be the case. If anything, this should be an opportunity to re-commit to software freedom—in a way that is relevant and actionable given the state of the software industry in 2021.
A healthy community should be able to handle that discussion! And if the GNU and FSF communities cannot, it’s important for the FSF board to investigate why that is the case.
Checklists for values-centered tech boards
Finally, at two points in the conversation, we went into what questions an organization might ask itself that I think are deeply pertinent for not just the FSF but virtually any non-profit, tech or otherwise. I loved this part of the discussion because one could almost split it out into a checklist that any board member could use.
The first set of questions came in response to a question I asked about Wikidata, which did not exist 10 years ago but is now central to the strategic vision of knowledge infrastructure. I asked if Wikidata had been almost been “forced on” the movement by changes in the outside world, to which Katherine said:
Wikipedia … is a constant work in progress. And so our mission should be a constant work in progress too.
How do we align against a north star of our values—of what change we’re trying to effect in the world—while adapting our tactics, our structures, our governance, to the changing realities of the world?
And also continuously auditing ourselves to say, when we started, who, you know, was this serving a certain cohort? Does the model of serving that cohort still help us advance our vision today?
Do we need to structurally change ourselves in order to think about what comes next for our future? That’s an incredibly important thing, and also saying, maybe that thing that we started out doing, maybe there’s innovation out there in the world, maybe there are new opportunities that we can embrace, that will enable us to expand the impact that we have on the world, while also being able to stay true to our mission and ourselves.Katherine
And to close the conversation, I asked how one aligns the pragmatic and organizational values as a non-profit. Katherine responded that governance was central, with again a great set of questions all board members should ask themselves:
[Y]ou have to ask yourself, like, where does power sit on your board? Do you have a regenerative board that turns over so that you don’t have the same people there for decades?
Do you ensure that funders don’t have outsize weight on your board? I really dislike the practice of having funders on the board, I think it can be incredibly harmful, because it tends to perpetuate funder incentives, rather than, you know, mission incentives.
Do you think thoughtfully about the balance of power within those boards? And are there … clear bylaws and practices that enable healthy transitions, both in terms of sustaining institutional knowledge—so you want people who are around for a certain period of time, balanced against fresh perspective.
[W]hat are the structural safeguards you put in place to ensure that your board is both representative of your core community, but also the communities you seek to serve?
And then how do you interrogate on I think, a three year cycle? … So every three years we … are meant to go through a process of saying “what have we done in the past three, does this align?” and then on an annual basis, saying “how did we do against that three year plan?” So if I know in 15 years, we’re meant to be the essential infrastructure free knowledge, well what do we need to clean up in our house today to make sure we can actually get there?
And some of that stuff can be really basic. Like, do you have a functioning HR system? Do you have employee handbooks that protect your people? … Do you have a way of auditing your performance with your core audience or core stakeholders so that you know that the work of your institution is actually serving the mission?
And when you do that on an annual basis, you’re checking in with yourself on a three year basis, you’re saying this is like the next set of priorities. And it’s always in relation to that that higher vision. So I think every nonprofit can do that. Every size. Every scale.Katherine
The hard path ahead
The values that the FSF espouses are important and world-changing. And with the success of the GPL in the late 1990s, the FSF had a window of opportunity to become an ACLU of the internet, defending human rights in all their forms. Instead, under Stallman’s leadership, the organization has become estranged and isolated from the rest of the (flourishing!) digital liberties movement, and even from the rest of the software movement it was critical in creating.
This is not the way it had to be, nor the way it must be in the future. I hope our talk, and the resources I link to here, can help FSF and other value-centered tech non-profits grow and succeed in a world that badly needs them.