I am a leader in free software. As evidence for this claim, I like to point out that I once finagled an invitation to the Google OSCON luminaries dinner, and was once invited to a Facebook party for open source luminaries.
In spite of my humor, I am a leader and have taken on leadership roles for a number of years. I was in charge of guests of honor (and then some) at Penguicon for several years at the start of my involvement in FOSS. I’m a delegate on the Debian Outreach team. My participation in Debian A-H is a leadership role as well. I’m president of the OSI Board of Directors. I’ve given keynote presentations on two continents, and talks on four. And that’s not even getting into my paid professional life. My compensated labor has been nearly exclusively for nonprofits.
Listing my credentials in such concentration feels a bit distasteful, but sometimes I think it’s important. Right now, I want to convey that I know a thing or two about free/open source leadership. I’ve even given talks on that.
Other than my full-time job, my leadership positions come without material renumeration — that is to say I don’t get paid for any of them — though I’ve accepted many a free meal and have had travel compensated on a number of occasions. I am not interested in getting paid for my leadership work, though I have come to believe that more leadership positions should be paid.
One of my criticisms about unpaid project/org leadership positions is that they are so time consuming it means that the people who can do the jobs are:
- those with few to no other responsibilities
- those with very supportive partners
- those with very supportive employers
- those who don’t need much sleep
- those with other forms of financial privilege
I have few responsibilities beyond some finicky plants and Bash (my cat). I also have extremely helpful roommates and modern technology (e.g. automatic feeders) that assist with these things while traveling. I can spend my evenings and weekends holed up in my office plugging away on my free software work. I have a lot of freedom and flexibility — economic, social, professional — that affords me this opportunity. Very few of us do.
This is is a problem! One solution is to pay more leadership positions; another is to have these projects hire someone in an executive director-like capacity and turn their leadership roles into advisory roles; or replace the positions with committees (the problem with the latter is that most committees still have/need a leader).
Diversity is good.
The time requirements for leadership roles severely limit the pool of potential participants. This limits the perspectives and experiences brought to the positions — and diversity in experience is widely considered to be good. People from underrepresented backgrounds generally overlap with marginalized communities — including ethnic, geographic, gender, race, and socio-economic minorities.
Volunteer work is not “more pure.”
One of the arguments for not paying people for these positions is that their motives will be more pure if they are doing it as a volunteer — because they aren’t “in it for the money.“ I would argue that your motives can be less pure if you aren’t being paid for your labor.
In mission-driven nonprofits, you want as much of your funding as possible to come from individual or community donors rather than corporate sponsors. You want the number of individual and community donors and members to be greater than that of your sponsors. You want to ensure you have enough money that should a corporate sponsor drop you (or you drop them), you are still in a sustainable position. You want to do this so that you are not beholden to any of your corporate or government sponsors. Freeing yourself from corporate influence allows you to focus on the mission of your work.
When searching for a volunteer leader, you need to look at them as a mission-driven nonprofit. Ask: What are their conflicts of interest? What happens if their employers pull away their support? What sort of financial threats are they susceptible to?
In a capitalist system, when someone is being paid for their labor, they are able to prioritize that labor. Adequate compensation enables a person to invest more fully in their work. When your responsibilities as the leader of a free software project, for which you are unpaid, come into direct conflict with the interests of your employer, who is going to win?
Note, however, that it’s important to make sure the funding to pay your leadership does not come with strings attached so that your work isn’t contingent upon any particular sponsor or set of sponsors getting what they want.
It’s a lot of work. Like, a lot of work.
By turning a leadership role into a job (even a part-time one), the associated labor can be prioritized over other labor. Many volunteer leadership positions require the same commitment as a part-time job, and some can be close to if not actually full-time jobs.
Someone’s full-time employer needs to be supportive of their volunteer leadership activities. I have some flexibility in the schedule for my day job, so I can plan meetings with people who are doing their day jobs, or in different time zones, that will work for them. Not everyone has this flexibility when they have a full-time job that isn’t their leadership role. Many people in leadership roles — I know past presidents of the OSI and previous Debian Project Leaders who will attest to this — are only able to do so because their employer allows them to shift their work schedule in order to do their volunteer work. Even when you’re “just” attending meetings, you’re doing so either with your employer giving you the time off, or using your PTO to do so.
A few final thoughts.
Many of us live in capitalist societies. One of the ways you show respect for someone’s labor is by paying them for it. This isn’t to say I think all FOSS contributions should be paid (though some argue they ought to be!), but that certain things require levels of dedication that go significantly above and beyond that which is reasonable. Our free software leaders are incredible, and we need to change how we recognize that.
(Please note that I don’t feel as though I should be paid for any of my leadership roles and, in fact, have reasons why I believe they should be unpaid.)