Leaving the Fronteers board: what happened

This week I resigned from the Fronteers board. I tweeted about it earlier, but didn’t express myself as carefully as I would have liked to do. In this post I hope to explain things properly.

TL;DR: Fronteers members democratically voted to hire an external company ran by two former conference team members to take care of the logistics of its conference organisation. Personally it made sense for me to leave the board as a consequence. I think Fronteers has a bright future, and the decisions made can help make Fronteers more professional, and possibly more fair, as less pressure will be put on volunteers that spend too much time on Fronteers.

Also, there should be no confusion over this: this was a perfectly reasonable proposal, which was accepted by a majority of the Fronteers members who came out to vote. Personally, I feel the decision is bad for Fronteers as an organisation that is multi-faceted: meet-ups, workshops, conferences, a job board and lots of community outreach. It puts the conference and its organisers first by making that facet a paid job, and is bad for the other facets. I suspect less volunteers will be likely to choose and spend a lot of time on Fronteers for free. In a year’s time, I think Fronteers should probably review what today’s decision meant for all of these facets.

The discussion was one between people with good intentions and people with good intentions. People who love Fronteers and people who love Fronteers.

My tweet

I tweeted this:

Yesterday I resigned from the @fronteers board after members voted in favour of a proposal that lets some volunteers charge for their work.

This tweet was phrased harsher than I intended. I did not mean any nastiness, but can see that it came across as such. I really should have used different words.

What happened is that people, who were previously volunteers, left the conference team. At the same time they put a proposal forward to Fronteers members, that offered conference organising services through their company. Where I said volunteers would get paid, the nuance is that the company of former volunteers would get paid.

I want to clarify that all of this happened through a fair member consultation in which all members were able to vote. There was no nepotism.

I was planning to leave at some point anyway, as it is almost 10 years ago since I first volunteered for Fronteers (at the first conference). I’ve been involved with most aspects of Fronteers since: more conferences, workshops, marketing, meetups, the board, finances, partnerships, et cetera. The situation brought me to do that a bit earlier and a bit more abrupt.

What happened at the members meeting

Fronteers members voted to hire an external company to take care of the logistics of its conference organisation.

The problem being solved

Fronteers can take a lot of its volunteers’ time. Some volunteers have literally spent 1-3 days a week, for years, working on stuff like the yearly conference. Evenings, weekends, but also lots of day time. Freelancers amongst them had to balance this with their client’s time and had to give up billable time to work on Fronteers tasks. Employees amongst them required lenience from their employers. This has been the case for years and is far from ideal.

It has taken me a lot of time to see the above as a problem, as it all seemed so natural. I also realised that it was in fact a problem that affected me, too. Evenings, weekends, day time. Life/Fronteers balance is important, and it is up to individuals to make sure they make that balance.

The arguments in favour

  • The proposed solution was ready to execute as it was well defined, with plenty of room for Fronteers to negotiate whatever boundaries necessary.
  • The members who brought the proposal into vote had done years of volunteer work for Fronteers. To hire their company made perfect sense: they had experience specifically with Fronteers Conference, spent years organising it for free and contributed a lot to what it is now.
  • They did a fair proposal: their ballpark figures constituted a price that would be hard to get on the market, many commercial conference organisers cost a lot more.
  • If Fronteers were to hire a company to help with logistics, that company could be held responsible and accountable for various aspects.
  • Fronteers already outsourced tasks to third parties, such as catering, WiFi and flight booking
  • Finally, someone recognised The Problem and tried to do something about it.

The arguments against

  • The proposed solution only solved The Problem for some members. Others also spent evenings, weekends and day time.
  • This would be weird for Fronteers volunteers that have to work together with the supplier (weirder than working with a caterer, hotels or venues).
  • I suspected the proposed supplier would be hard to separate from the people behind the company, as they were former conference team members.
  • Fronteers Conference is the product of years of volunteer effort. Can anyone ever earn any money from that? (This argument regards the caterers, hotels, travel agents etc as fundamentally different third parties, as they are not ran by former volunteers, which is both snarky to even mention and pretty much the case)
  • I suspected this would completely change how Fronteers works and possibly cause volunteers to leave.

One last point is that others in Fronteers history who have also faced The Problem, are not going to be paid for their past efforts (this includes those who made this proposal). But this makes sense: none of these people acted as a separate supplier, and applying the new rules to volunteers retroactively would be overdoing it.

To get around of some of my concerns, I co-signed Arjan’s proposal which asked the board to investigate the intricacies around paying all active Fronteers volunteers (financially, legally, ethically, etc), i.e. those who spend a lot of time on Fronteers. If all active people were paid, there would be less weirdness. Unpaid people could still remain, and could feel happy to do a lot less work.

My personal context

To give you an idea of where I’m coming from, I would like to share some of my Fronteers history (feel free to skip ahead to the next section). After I was approached to volunteer at the first conference in 2008, I continued volunteering for every single conference until 2013. In the first few years I was a ‘runner’, in the last years I joined the actual team. I was given responsibilities like sponsorship, volunteers, marketing, visual design, speaker curation and even had the honour to be the chair in my last year.

I also took on other tasks within Fronteers: I briefly chaired the marketing and workshops teams, and after I joined the board in 2014, I became treasurer in 2015. The last year was one of my heaviest: I helped Fronteers transition to a new bookkeeper, organised the preparation of two sets of accounts (2014 and 2015), restarted the workshops team and organised four workshops, helped organising four meetups and kept in touch with various organisations for our new front-end community support program.

I’ve very much enjoyed (most of) this. I made many friends, had fun, learned loads and met many friendly Fronteers fans who appreciated the stuff Fronteers did for the community. Yet it did cost me a lot of time. Evenings, weekends, day time.

I resigned from the board immediately after the vote. I had spent about a week contemplating doing this in case of a vote in favour of the proposal. The reason? I accept the decision, but assumed the proposal would take time to work out, and foresaw a backlash that would take the board’s attention for a while. I decided that I did not want to spend my free time on dealing with the situation. I was looking forward to spending the last year of my 3 year board term organising workshops, meetups, community support and possibly the new website. The acceptance of both proposals radically changed the board’s priorities, and I could not see myself stay yet ignore that. I saw an early end as the best way to solve my Fronteers/life balance.

What now?

Both the proposal to hire a supplier and the proposal to investigate paying Fronteers volunteers were accepted at the members meeting. The vote happened and this is now the direction in which Fronteers is moving. The board and others (like Peter-Paul Koch) have constructively started thinking about how to carry out the proposals. This will be a complex task, because there are a lot of questions about the details and conditions.

The 2017 conference will be fine too. It’s going to be the tenth year of Fronteers! The idea is that a team of volunteers will be erected to organise the conference, and that they will be in charge of contracting Eventstack (and any details concerning that contract).

Personally, I committed to keep carrying out my treasurer tasks until the end of the year, including making sure the accounts for 2016 are prepared and transferring all I know to my successor. I will also continue chairing workshop team, and hope to organise many more workshops in the new year. After, I hope to get some new hobbies.

Update: from 1 April I have left the workshop team, I am now no longer involved with organising things for Fronteers

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