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Beyond the culture clash: Developing leadership for open organisations

26 February 2016 One Comment
English: Boxing Gloves Deutsch: Boxhandschuhe

Boxing Gloves  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It has been painful to watch the tensions at the Wikimedia Foundation explode over the last few months and with the stepping down of the Executive Director there seems a mood of conciliation and a desire for WMF to learn from the process. I know next to nothing of the details or the story, so while it is the spur for this post I don’t want to offer any opinions on WMF itself. But the story fits the outline of a pattern I’ve seen in a lot of organisations in the Open Community.

Organisations in “the open space” are often community driven. Groups come together to solve a problem, and in a few cases they succeed. Most fail, and most fail pretty early. Those that survive the initial phase often experience massive growth, sometimes beyond the wildest dreams of those who started them. This brings some challenges.

Sustainability is a big one: too many of these organisations lurch from grant to grant, depending on the largesse of philanthropists or government funders. Most of these eventually fail or stagnate. Some negotiate this transition by turning private and obtaining VC or Angel funds. Eventually most of these are sold off to incumbent players, and gradually lose the central thread of openness and just becoming part of the service background in their space. Nothing wrong with that but they’re no longer really part of the open community at the end of this process.

But some organisations succeed and find a model: donations, memberships, advertising, fee for service have all been successful in different spaces. These can grow to be sizeable companies, ones that need professional staff and business discipline to manage complex operations, significant infrastructures, and substantial financial flows and reporting. No multi-million dollar a year organisation is going to run for very long on volunteer labour, at least not where those volunteers need to work for a living.

Passion can also be a problem, as well as being a driver. Without that passion and without that community nothing gets done. Indeed without the passion many not-for-profit organisations wouldn’t be able to attract staff at the rates that they can reasonably pay. The community is a core asset.

But too often there is a disjunct between the discipline and expertise that comes with a leadership team with experience of running multi-million dollar organisations and that passionate community that sees itself as the guardian of the organisation’s value. Passion and belief in a mission, can lead to the creation of a close core community of true believers who don’t ask the tough questions; about how it will be done, what will be prioritised, and when. Tough minded management doing what needs to be done to streamline operation can fail to understand, or ignore what it is that the sustaining community cares about.

Too often it seems like organisations face a choice between hiring someone with management experience at the right scale and someone who really understands the core values of the community. I’ve seen very few examples of organisations that truly marry oustanding business management skills with the expertise and passion of the core community, whether those are staff or volunteers.

One of the reasons for this is leadership. It’s really hard to name people who truly grew up within our community and understand it a deep personal level, and who have also run organisations turning over $100M or $50M or even $10M. And who aren’t Mark Surman. I fear this is a structural failure, that it arises from the funding systems that exist in our space. That the very way we structure our organisations, the ways that they grow, and the way that management is structured in response to that, means that we systematically fail to nurture and grow the people who fit both of these criteria, to train them to be ready for the roles of COO and CEO, DO and ED. Domain expertise and passion comes from inside, business experience from outside. The career paths get cut off.

I don’t know the solution. Better growth and financing models an “MBA for Open Organisations” perhaps. Would incubators that provide the right kind of support and expertise be a better use of money than the ubiquitous “planning grant”. Personal prizes that provide a way of rewarding the sweat equity that founders put in, while helping them move from a role that is directing to inspiring when the time comes.

There is nothing easy about balancing the passion of a successful and motivated community with the discipline required to manage a large organisation. Traditionally we assume that community leaders and management directors are different people, different kinds of people. But does it have to be that way?


  • Kristen Ratan

    Great post, Cameron. Because it is easier to teach mission-driven, passionate leaders to balance a budget than it is to teach budget-balancers to be mission-driven and passionate, perhaps funders investing in a “business boot camp” for founders would be a good approach