Scaling the Foundation to Contribute to GNOME
This article follows one published by a former director, Allan Day, who detailed the evolution of the Board of Directors. The article you’re reading goes further on what I believe is needed to help us scale the Foundation to become an active contributor to the GNOME Project, beyond its traditional support activities.
The Foundation is not the GNOME Project’s vendor, and it’s not the GNOME Project’s shepherd either. For more about the balance of powers within the Project, see Tobias Bernard’s blog series.
Board members aren’t here to help from an operational perspective (e.g. gathering the release notes, doing moderation in our various channels, doing project management, issue triaging…). Becoming a board membwr is also not the logical next step for long term contributors. Board members who have the best chances to fullfill their mission are those with a specific skill set. It’s usually quite different from what it takes to be a good hacker.
Being a board member is more than simply attending meetings. It’s about taking an active role in shaping the GNOME Foundation’s strategy. Developing new ideas can be a substantial time commitment – far more than approving or vetoing decisions someone else came up with.
What the GNOME Foundation Is About
The GNOME Foundation is about giving the GNOME Project and community the means to exist and work in the same general direction. There are technical means, such as a place for the code (GitLab), a place for discussion (Discourse, Matrix/IRC) or even outreach materials (such as YouTube release videos). There are legal means: the GNOME Foundation is responsible of the GNOME name and logo.
Finally the GNOME Foundation is about contributing to the GNOME Project (and should increase its contributions!) to make it an appealing platform to use and build for. In short: it’s about giving GNOME a purpose to expand beyond its user base, sell the idea to donors, and eventually hire people to make it happen.
A Good Director
As said earlier, a good director is not necessarily a good hacker. It’s a person who is able to help with organisational challenges rather than operational ones. In practice, a good director is not only able to understand how the GNOME Project works, but also how it can have a positive social impact, what changes are required in practice, and who would be willing to support such changes.
Purpose & Strategy
A good director knows what the GNOME Project is and what are the forces at play within the project (e.g. what is the role of the release team, what is the weight of the design team when it comes to adding new features to GNOME, what release cycle the project is following, etc). Knowing where the GNOME Project excels, they should also be aware where the project is lagging behind.
Based on this understanding of the project, the directors need to create a strategy that:
- Takes advantage of the strengths of the project;
- Answers a need and (additionnally, may) have a positive social impact;
- Has a clear target population it solves problem for;
- Has a clear target population willing to fund it;
- Is realistic, and can be turned into actionnable and budgeted items
Additionnaly a good member of the board is capable of review the strategic initiatives and assess fairly if they have been successful or not. In practice this means each strategic initiative should come with a set of indicators to measure progress and success.
Finances & Sustainability
The Foundation is a not for profit but still operates under a budget. When possible, directors need to help connecting the Foundation to potential donors. A good director needs to take the finances into consideration when drafting a strategy.
Directors need to help with the Outreach of the project. Outreach plays an important role in understanding the impact of software on society, how GNOME can make it more positive, who needs the most help, who would be interested in improving GNOME, and finally who has a budget for it.
A well-connected director who is able to introduce the Foundation to potential donor organisations would significantly help the Foundation scale to the point where it can go beyond supporting the GNOME Project and become an active contributor to it.
- Being a member of the Board of Directors takes time and commitment
- It is not the logical next step for having been contributing for years. This is a different role, with a specific skill set requirement
- Strategic thinking and planning are difficult. Materialising the strategy is even harder!
- The better connected a director is to those who could fund initiatives, the more the Foundation can do, so long as they don’t get carried too far away from the GNOME Project.