This post is about volunteering for these organisations:

  • CLUG
  • DebConf
  • parkrun
  • PenOC
  • and, looking back, TEDx and SAOF (the national version of PenOC, sortof).

It ends with a quick summary on the virtues and characteristics of volunteering. Scroll down for the TLDR version.

I did way too much this year and that made me more sensitive to flaws in these organisations. On the other hand, I seem to have an aptitude and love for volunteering, and am starting to consider myself quite the veteran at it. There are (even!) more initiatives I was involved in over the years than listed here, but these are less relevant for the current purposes.

More critically, I did a lot of volunteering this year that I absolutely hated. What’s the beef? It’s volunteering, it’s supposed to be fun and optional. This needs research, so here goes.

DebConf

What is DebConf: DebConf is the annual Debian Project’s developer Conference. It sponsors a huge proportion of its attendees and so guarantees a diverse attendance, (and by diverse I mean DIVERSE. What a mind boggle). It also includes a week of DebCamp, where people who have only been able to work together online gets to work together in person. The excitement and productivity reaches meltdown proportions. DebConf orga, the group organising DebConf, on the other hand, is deeply broken.

Why did I agree to be involved in DebConf: In a word: ShackLabs. I wanted to learn more about “IT-stuff”, particularly embedded systems, which ended up being more about electronics than software, so Debian was perhaps less useful, but I did get awesome advice and support from the open hardware community, see some links:open-hardware and open-hardware-at-debconf16 and also this one as a reference: open-engineering

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Do I regret being involved in DebConf (Was my goals met)? I don’t regret being involved. My goals were met, very much so, and more. Yay!

I hated volunteering for DebConf – I wrote about this here, and here, and here, and here. with phrases like

“I feel that many developers, especially the pro-active, intelligent, and perhaps socially awkward ones, have been able to get away with not learning how to deal with other people. “

“My current thoughts on DebConf orga is that they are doing jack shit about challenging the current status quo of otherness, and I am extremely reluctant to be involved with something that is not refreshingly jouissance. I can try to change it, yes, but I feel I do not have a voice to speak up. “

“And now I’m wondering if the organisational aspects of expressive organisations aren’t always more prone to being broken than ‘conventional’ organisations.”

“Organising DebConf has dredged up a lot of the weird emotional turmoil from TEDx again.”

“To be sure, I think bronies [Debianites] are way more sensitive to actions that marginalize others and deserve credit for that, but their sensitivity is typically individual and does not often acknowledge structural inequalities and social privileges.”

Organising the conference was shit, but the actual conference was great, actually. It went very well, people did what they were supposed to do … I think it went well because the people who did a lot of the talking but didn’t do work really disappeared, talking included, by the time of the conference, which made it much more pleasurable for the people doing the work, during the conference.

Another big reason why this was not fun, in retrospect, was the absolutely insanely steep learning curve. Not only did I have to deal with uber-geeks with very limited social skills – par for the course with technology intellectuals (most people had PhD’s, the rest probably started one some time ago and had great reasons for quitting – I felt less alone!). I had to deal with these individuals across multiple time zones and cultures. The inside joke was having Italians and Germans on the same team (stereotypes! lol but no, actually, the Germans were not super efficient, as a rule, and the Italians were not super laid back, either, as a rule. There were very opinionated Germans and Italians.), but we had very different cultures even in our local team. Then, when you asked something, the answer was sure to include something about git, and the terminal. Like, WTF.

https://xkcd.com/1597/ – this is absolutely true.

I walked past a guy at DebConf15, and he was carrying his laptop with the screen open – a very common occurrence at DebConf, and his screen looked like this, and I said, whoa, nice screensaver!. He looked at me like I was a noob, which I was, and said, no, actually, it’s compiling. I still don’t know if he was joking or serious.

I had to pick up how to git, and how to write commands in the terminal, at the same time as having to do a day job that had nothing to do with gits or terminals, so that every time I dedicate some hours to DebConf, I had to pick it all up from scratch again. This, combined with deadlines all round, was hell. At some point I manage to reach the top of the steeply-sloped hill and felt like a verified geek, that was fun.

So the bottom line, I think, is that volunteering for DebConf was less fun because of the very steep learning curve under severe resource (mainly time, but also emotional energy) constraints. I think DebConf was a clear example of how volunteering is a great way to learn about something, and particularly, organising a conference in a field is a great way to learn about the concepts in that field, because other than seeing the content, you get to meet the people involved, often in person, and you can judge who will be most friendly :). You also have licence to bug them in person and they have to help because you are organising this entire frigging conference for them! On that note, there was a packaging tutorial I haven’t finished yet …

CLUG

What is CLUG: The Cape Linux User Group is a community of Linux users in the larger Cape Town area who get together frequently and offer on-line support to each other.

Why did I agree to be involved in CLUG: Uhm… my friend at the time, now my partner, kept inviting me to dinners that ended up being the committee meetings. I was co-opted. 🙂 To learn more about open source and Linux?

Do I regret being involved in CLUG (Was my goals met)?: I don’t regret it,  I made some good friends, but I don’t think it added value to my life. The talks and discussions were so way above my head that I didn’t learn much.

I was on the Cape Linux Users Group committee for two years, which was fairly low key and involved organising monthly talks for two years. Sadly, I think resigning off this committee is mainly collateral damage from DebConf, that I was tired and over anything to do with computer-ey stuff. But I also think that this is a group that perhaps doesn’t need monthly talks, in person. I think it would do well with an online forum, perhaps a bit more juiced up with monthly online-talk highlights, and if people want to meet in person, have a club dinner mailing list (which we created last year). Perhaps I could say that I didn’t feel particularly valued here, but that’s probably the social-skill deficit personality types again. There was also one individual who talked big and did little, and that affected me more than it should have.

parkrun

What is parkrun: A weekly, free, timed 5km run. In South African always on a Saturday and always starting at 8am. Also, parkruns qualify for Discovery points, which is a huge drawcard, and cause of, uhm, conflicting opinions about it being an incentive or a ‘cheat’.

Why did I agree to be involved in parkrun: I needed a place to run closer to home, I wanted to build community, to help people know each other, greet each other in the street.

Do I regret being involved in parkrun (Was my goals met)?: Undecided. I think more people see each other, but not sure if it was worth my effort. I did bring a parkrun to within walking distance of my home, so there’s that. I am still not really running, as I’m organising it, mostly. This may change in the new year. No fuck it, I regret ever meeting the people responsible for parkrun in South Africa. Holy cow.

I hated volunteering for parkrun. When organising and launching the Zandvlei parkrun, I realised very early on we’re dealing with personality clashes at a grand scale. Due to the personal issues I can’t quite see how to be objective about whether the people involved in parkrun higher up is doing a good thing or not, so I’ll try not writing about it. One lesson I’ve learnt with this whole experience is that I cannot work in corporate. Just ain’t gonna happen.

Another lesson is how I feel about volunteers, and looking  back this may have been a big pressure point with TEDx too. In my view, the volunteers are your most precious asset. Look after them. If the volunteers want to run before parkrun to get their Discovery points, let them. Make it easy for your volunteers to volunteer.

Also, rules. If you have rules, stick to them. Boundaries are important. So, duh, either have rules and stick to them, or don’t have those rules. (“This is a rule but do your own thing, just keep it quiet” “Please don’t get hung up about the rules”) . Don’t confuse your volunteers. And for god’s sake, know why those rules exist, because you’ll have to defend them based on the values of your organisation. Just because ‘the global organisation’ has them isn’t good enough. … Anyhooo, mooving on.

PenOC

What is PenOC: PenOC is the Peninsula Orienteering Club. Orienteering is a sport that uses navigating to find points, sortof like a treasure hunt for adults (kids too).

Why did I agree to be involved in PenOC: To contribute to an awesome initiative, to make it work well.

Do I regret being involved in PenOC (Was my goals met)?: Heck no! (and Heck yes!) Orienteering makes me fit and keeps me intellectually interested at the same time. Being on the committee unexpectedly put me in contact with people who can help with challenges in other areas of my life – like ShackLabs. I think, actually, this is one of the core benefits of volunteering, you get to network with people who you may not otherwise have been able to get into easy contact with. Finding skills and people you didn’t know you were looking for.

The one experience I didn’t hate was returning to the Peninsula Orienteering Club. I served on this committee many years ago (4? 5?), and then quit when I burnt out – not (just) from the stuff I did here, TEDx contributed most to the burn-out, but I think organising a (provincial or national, can’t remember) championships was the final straw. Thinking back, it was having to deal with the national orienteering body, the SAOF (South African Orienteering Federation), that I was struggling with. Again, personality clashes and an overly, in my opinion, unsuitable, hierarchy structure. But, this year I came back as Chair. The club was in a bad way, with dwindling membership and events, and poor communication to the members, creating a vicious cycle. Perhaps as part of where they were, or perhaps inherent to the club, there was not much of a hierarchy, people were relaxed yet efficient, doing what they could where they could, and I could get down to business fixing one small thing at a time, like help to send out event notices well ahead of time. Being Chair at such a vulnerable time showed me the power of leadership, of simply and gently easing a log jam when people are just too fatigued to make decisions. It’s good to be back and I hope to contribute for a few years.

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When I first thought about writing this post I had an idea how TEDx fit in, but I can’t see the link now. I did think of the TEDx experience often during the DebConf journey – e.g. debconf-1. I think the link is that in a multi-player environment, from such difference backgrounds and agendas, there is no right way. There are option spaces, and dialogue, and pluralism. There is strength in meeting and talking often, even if nothing ‘gets done’, because you build a relationship and you get to communicate your values and find a common cause without Communicating Values and Finding Common Cause (TM).

The TLDR: What I did want to write about is the emerging themes from how I felt volunteering for these different organisations. What did I learn?

  • People volunteer for a reason. There’s an incentive. That incentive isn’t money, so if you’re of the corporate mindset to treat people like shit because they’ve sold their souls to you for money (which for some godforsaken reason people seem to tend to do quite willingly) please, for the sake of democracy don’t get involved in volunteering.
    … Ahem, anyway, moving on. As a volunteer leader, learn what that incentive is and work with it (I talk more about it in the context of indie eventing here)
  • Volunteering doesn’t generally do well with autocratic, technocentric leadership: there is no right way, there is a space for people to find their way together, and it can take a long time. Have little tasks that people could get involved in that doesn’t involve lengthy discussions to keep them motivated. Don’t expect, or require, everyone to take part in the ‘finding the group’s way’, but allow anyone who want to join, to join.
  • Personally speaking: Have boundaries. (Watch Brene Brown’s 6 minute clip explaining why, a transcript can be found here). If you don’t, you will blame other people for making you do things that actually only you had cause to do, and only you had the power to say you won’t, you will burn out and it won’t be fun and, worst of all, you won’t come back once you’ve recovered. (It’s a constant struggle, I know)
  • If there are people who are not contributing, gently and kindly take them up on it, perhaps suggest they should leave, if only for a while. It’s most likely not their fault, volunteers are notorious for mis-judging their available time, but it is unfair to your other volunteers to have to cope with doing things they were not expected to do, because someone else is not pulling their weight. It’s hugely demotivating to not know if you can rely on someone or not.
  • Make it easy for your volunteers to volunteer.

And after those weighty points you might be thinking, why the hell bother?

  • Volunteering is the best way to learn something.
  • Volunteering is an excellent way to network. “Finding skills and people you didn’t know you were looking for.”
  • I don’t say this lightly: Volunteering is the stuff a democratic society is built on.