Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees/Traits of a great WMF Trustee
This is a letter I sent on February 6th to many about to participate in the selection of two trustees during the 2012 chapter seat selection process.
We just completed 2 1/2 days of board meetings/dinners/etc. I was reflecting on how far we've come as a board since I joined in 2009 and thought I would share some thoughts from my experience both at WMF and from other boards on which I've served, both non-profit and for-profit. My hope is it may be useful for those of you selecting the chapter trustees. From the board manual, we've documented several personal characteristics desirable in WMF trustees. I will give some examples to bring these to life:
Strategic. WMF and our movement has so much complexity. How does Payment Processing work and what are all the technical, legal and operational implications? How do we think about prioritization of resources consistent with the movement strategy? The most effective trustees are able to pull us all back and ask "what are the big principles here? On what should we really focus? We're getting into the details and should leave that to the staff/movement."
Thoughtful. With all our diversity come many perspectives. I am always impressed when our trustees can start a discussion with one point of view and, after listening to several more, adjust their perspectives. It happens frequently and is a sign of thoughtful trustees and a well functioning board.
High integrity. One of the most difficult challenges, particularly for community elected/chapter selected trustees, is to step outside of a particular interest (local chapter? long-held perspective?) and represent "the best interests of WMF and the movement". Sometimes these are in conflict. The role of a WMF Trustee is to have enough integrity to advocate and vote for WMF's/The Movement's interests *as a whole*, not a particular group's interests. Even as it's quite appropriate to voice the interest's perspective to help inform the discussion.
Responsive. Some people are slower to respond or "go radio silent". This doesn't work for a board of 10 people with lots of responsibilities and committee work. When it happens, it frustrates those waiting to get something done and undermines the credibility of our group as a whole. We all have exigent circumstances from time to time (family, work, etc.). These are volunteer positions, after all. But effective trustees send a note saying "I'll be out of touch for a few days but promise to deliver my draft by the weekend - sorry for being late".
Follow through. Related to responsiveness, effective trustees get stuff done that they commit to get done. Some trustees do more than others. Really, it's more like "some do more than others at different times". But we all have to follow through on what we commit to do or we miss deadlines and lose credibility.
Respectful. I can't underscore how important this is. We tackle extremely controversial issues. BLPs, Image Filter, Fund Raising and Funds Dissemination, Movement Roles, etc. Naturally, we are going to disagree on many issues. The best trustees listen carefully to each other trustee's perspective and avoid getting emotional in the debate. This doesn't mean capitulation. But active listening and respect for each individual. When we (very occasionally) have a disrespectful interaction, people shut down and the discussion doesn't work until relationships are mended.
Collaborative. Similar to respectful, our trustees have to be collaborative. Our movement is often driven by a need for consensus. This means effective trustees are inclined to invest in building trust-based relationships in and outside of the board meetings to enable collaborative discussions and debate. We also have to each chip in and carry our load. There's a ton of work to get done.
One best practice we brought from other boards is an annual trustee evaluation process (2010 Trustee evaluation questionnaire). We have done it twice now and intend to continue. We each give each other (anonymous) feedback both quantitatively and qualitatively (to a 3rd party facilitator). This facilitator synthesizes feedback for each of us and gives it to us privately. What should we start doing, stop doing and keep doing. It's painful, and it's fantastic. Since we each know what others' perceive as our strengths and development areas, we've gotten better both individually and as a board. As you consider which trustees to select in this process, think about who will be open to this type of peer feedback and who is most likely to grow from it.
Finally, these list of traits is rather daunting. How can one person be great at all those traits and know Wikimedia inside and out? Really, one can't. The goal is to find people who are great at many, good enough at some and bad at none. And people who seem to have the capacity to grow when provided feedback. I've seen tremendous growth in several of our trustees since we introduced the trustee evaluations. Hopefully I've developed and responded to the feedback given to me as well as they have. It's definitely an honor to serve on the WMF board with my fellow trustees.
Thanks for reading and I welcome comments.
Board Governance Committee Chair, WMF Board of Trustees