[IAEP] Executive Director- some benefits and risks

Edward Cherlin echerlin at gmail.com
Mon Sep 22 00:33:48 EDT 2008

I find this a surprising statement. Is this a consensus of the
governing board, or your personal opinion?

On Sun, Sep 21, 2008 at 3:08 PM, David Farning <dfarning at sugarlabs.org> wrote:
> Background
> For the past couple of months, we have been working on setting up the
> governance infrastructure for Sugar Labs.
> We have laid out the basics of the membership structure.  Our members
> are our owners.  In for profit organizations, owners invest their money
> in the expectation that they will have a positive return on their
> investment; the stock price goes up
> At Sugar Labs, instead of money, we ask our members to contribute their
> time and effort to improving the Sugar Labs ecosystem.  Our members
> should receive a positive return on their investments.  The value of
> their individual contributions increases because of Sugar Labs.
> Our members own Sugar Labs.  As owners, they have control over the
> assets and direction of the project.

This is where I begin to have doubts. Is this based on some experience
of how such things work, is it based on a theory, or is it just a
pious wish? The way it spozed to be?

> Because of the transaction costs
> of large group decisions, our members elect an oversight board to
> represent their interests. The boards job is to direct and protect.
> The board directs the project by establishing goals and assigning
> resources to those goal.  The board protects by insuring that the
> foundation is working towards the goals stated in our mission statement
> and vision.

That's all reasonable. I think.

> In for profit companies, the board appoints a Chief Executive Officer to
> oversee day to day operations.  In not for profits, the CEO is typically
> referred to as the Executive Director.
> Executive Director
> The decision to have an Executive Director boils down to one question,
> 'Do the benefits of having a single point of control outweigh the risks
> of a single point of control?'

Too simplistic, I fear. You identify both problems and opportunities
below. It may be that the best way is to have a division of
responsibilities. But it is not simply a binary yes/no decision.

> Benefits
> 1.  Fund raising.  The single largest advantage of an Executive Director
> is their ability to raise money.  This stems from the fact that people
> and companies that are in a position to donate money are more
> comfortable dealing with an individual than a group.

This is certainly true for universities, but many other organizations
put fundraising elsewhere in the system.

> 2.  Public relations.  The Executive Director can be the voice of the
> organization.  He can become the canonical source of information about
> the foundation.

Same comment.

> 3. The buck stops here.  The Executive Director's job is to execute the
> vision of the board.  As a result, he is in a position to make the hard
> decisions.

Frequently so. But the Board, staff, and outside advisors have
something to say, and the Executive Director's job is not simply to
make decisions, but to do it in a way that includes buy-in by the
team. In fact, one of the most important functions of a leader is
team-building, not in the jargon-compliant and buzzword-complete
sense, but in practical terms of establishing communication and having
people take responsibility.

Communication and defined responsibility were particular problems with
Nicholas as Chairman and ED. We are doing much better, but nobody
seems to have taken clear responsibility for either.

My chosen area of responsibility is to watch for essential functions
not being worked on, and to do them to the extent I can, while getting
others to join in or step up. As when G1G1 units were allocated to
Haiti and Cambodia, but no localization projects had been started. Or
R&D on electricity and Internet for villages. Or redesigning textbooks
to use available software. Or just thinking about how the immediate
mission of building the best hardware and software for children fits
into the overall mission of ending poverty at a profit. I put a link
to a video of me explaining some of these notions on my User:Talk
page, if you want to know more.

> Risks
> 1.  Philosophical.  In the world of free and open source software,
> individual contributors can be philosophically opposed to the
> centralized control granted to the Executive Director.

We would have to ask. Are there any objections in principle? Certainly
there will be objections to specific persons.

> 2.  Losing control.  For an open source project to be successful, there
> must be a balance of power between the members (owners), the board
> (directors), and the Executive Director (manager).  It is possible for
> strong Executive Directors to run roughshod over inexperienced, part
> time board members.

Can you cite cases for our consideration?

In an Open Source project, there is always the possibility of the
members forking the code and leaving in a body, or splitting in two.
It is not just who wields power, but who understands what needs to be

> 3.  Herding cats.  There can be significant tensions between a manager
> who is responsible for executing the vision of the board and volunteer
> contributors.

A person who does not know how to herd cats has no business taking
responsibility for an Open Source project. The ANSI Standard
cat-herding method is to convince them that where you want them to go
is where they want to go, and it was their idea in the first place.

> As always, I appreciate your feedback on other benefits and risks of
> having a Executive Director in an open source project.
> In a few days, I will form a recommendation on the value of an Executive
> Director to Sugar Labs based on the consensus of the list.
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