An Organization Shaped Like the Internet

Congo Line at the 2018 Global Voices Summit. Photo: Jer Clarke, published under a CC-BY license.

Congo Line at the 2018 Global Voices Summit. Photo: Jer Clarke, published under a CC-BY license.

At past summits we’ve held sessions devoted to the structure, finances and administration of Global Voices. This year, due to a packed schedule focused on future planning, we instead held Q&A sessions with the core team and the board. To address the questions we’ve received during and since those sessions, we’re writing a series of posts on the community blog.

Many of the questions revolve around how GV’s finances work, how we hire and promote, and how we allocate costs for contractors and staff. Money’s never an easy topic for organizations that work mostly with volunteers, and it’s not easy for citizen media either – which is based on the idea that expression is a right to be practiced, rather than a commodity to be sold in markets.

To understand where we are, it helps to take a detour into how Global Voices came to be, and how the choices we made when we began influence how we work today. Revisiting these ideas will help clarify what’s at stake when we discuss our future and how we might change our current set-up – a topic we’ll address in a subsequent post.

When Global Voices began as a project of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, we started with an ambitious proposal – could we shape an organization that matched, as much as possible, the structure and and values of the open internet, and also reflected our aspirations for truly global and equitable participation?

Specifically, we wanted to build a decentralized community with substantial autonomy, flexibility and freedom of action for our teams. We also wanted to organize ourselves on the basis of mutual support rather than a philosophy of command, control and discipline. And we established that we would focus our leadership on mentoring, listening and making space for the positions and interests of the community. Finally, we wanted to be geographically neutral. If a core value of the internet was an aspiration for a borderless world, we sought to build that in practice.

The Evolution of a Volunteer Organization

That early iteration of GV was purely volunteer. In 2005-6, a mutually supportive volunteer community based anywhere in the world, and covering the voices, stories and perspectives of the communities around them was an exciting possibility, especially if everyone was already blogging about international topics. The evolution of that community, as GV grew and the online environment went through dramatic changes, became significantly more nuanced and complex.

The basic model that we’ve evolved is that Global Voices doesn’t tell volunteer contributors what to write, but offers the following resources: a template for writing fact-based stories using online sources, the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills, relationships and friendships with a like-minded community, mentoring and editorial support to help people tell the stories that they want to tell, and opportunities to travel, to speak at events, to promote their work and to build professional networks and profiles.

In order to provide those services in an organized, sustainable way, we needed to create a legal structure. That meant hiring people who take legal responsibility for what we publish, can build and manage our financial systems, raise funds, manage boards, and run events and projects, as well as editors. Basically, people working on tasks that they wouldn’t do voluntarily, because they are too time-consuming, or need special skills.

Once we moved beyond the pure volunteer model and introduced money into the system, we’ve had to manage conflicting impulses. We know that there is not truly any such thing as an independent media, and that every dependency has consequences. Therefore, we set restrictions on the kinds of funds we are willing to take, and apply a Creative Commons license to all our work. As we set up our Dutch and United States nonprofits in 2007-08, we made the following decisions:

  • We do not take direct governmental funds, because we want to avoid affiliation with the geopolitical positions of states, and because government grants require significant reporting and staffing, which would in turn increase our operational costs
  • We work with private foundations and media partners if they support our mission and will not instrumentalize Global Voices to serve another agenda
  • We can take individual and some corporate donations, but only if those funds are unrestricted in terms of their use; the corporate donations remain controversial
  • We can perform mission-related services – writing, translating, producing events – as long as the work is in alignment with our own work
  • We can’t easily sell our output, as we’ve already given it away, thanks to the Creative Commons license
  • We will keep our operating costs to a minimum

Later on, we added another restriction. After a few experiments with advertising on the site proved very divisive, with a vocal minority opposing the idea, we abandoned explorations into ad revenue.

These choices left us with few remaining avenues to raise funds. We chose values over revenues, or as Ethan Zuckerman described it, we chose love over money. In his 2010 post Ethan unpacked many of the challenges and contradictions we face as a volunteer community, including the cost structures and the pros and cons of our choices that we are reviewing in this post. It’s worth revisiting Ethan’s discussion to help understand the dilemmas we’ve faced with our model.

Since then we have worked to strengthen and further define ourselves as a values-based organization and community dedicated to mutual support, to elevating ideas over sensationalism, to focusing on stories that bridge and connect people rather than divide them: stories that we believe are necessary, but not always popular. One of our early contributors, Lokman Tsui, wrote a whole PhD thesis on our model, calling it a journalism of hospitality, or “the ethical obligation to listen.”

We have been fortunate to find a pool of funders who recognize and support our vision: the MacArthur Foundation, Hivos, the Open Society Foundations, the Omidyar Network, the Ford Foundation, the Knight Foundation and Google have been our strongest and most consistent supporters over the past decade. It’s worth noting that the pool of journalism, tech/innovation, digital rights and freedom of expression, and digital access donors that fit our narrow criteria remains quite small. If they work in our field, it’s likely they have already supported us. If they stop being interested in our kind of work, it is difficult to replace them.

Because of these funding restrictions, we’ve had to get creative in how we find resources. We started the organization with a $200,000 loan from the Media Development Investment Fund, which we repaid over five years. We provide translation services for our field, which helps generate some unrestricted funds, and we sometimes do the same with journalism partners to produce stories, though finding funded partnerships hasn’t been easy for the past few years, as media outlets are often starved for cash. All our financials are publicly available in our annual reports, which we publish on our site. The financials include statements of activities and expenses.

How We Pay Our Teams

When we began Global Voices as an independent organization, we took cues from the structure we had at Berkman, where fellows and contractors were paid flat rates regardless of where they were located in the world, and were responsible for managing relations, tax obligations and legal status with their resident governments.

We did this primarily to try to align ourselves with the non-geographic and non-national distribution of our project, and also as a solution to continue working with the people who were already involved with Berkman — who were distributed all over the world. Employing that community as full-time staff in the many jurisdictions in which they were based was beyond our financial means at the time — and it remains complicated today, as a recent post on U.S. taxation law by Lauren Finch can attest!

We then created a process for how we decide remuneration for our editorial teams. We currently use a common base rate of $850 per month for a roughly 33-40% level of effort, which is equivalent to the median wage for a journalist in the U.K., and if were full time would be similar to the median for journalists in the first five years of their careers at North American or European media outlets.

Our rate is the starting point for all editors, social media editors, sub-editors, special projects editors, and translation editors. We then adjust — down if the position is less work than the base rate, and up if the position is more work, with individuals doing the same work generally receiving the same rate. For instance, a “half-editor” makes roughly half of what a “full editor” makes, but the half-editor had half the posting targets, when we had targets. We also take into account experience, longevity, and scarcity of skills in the market, and adjust accordingly. However, all editorial rates function within the established cost bands, to ensure a basic equity of pay.

We have applied a similar logic to the remuneration of core. We set rate bands for directors and managers, and adjust based on cost-of-living increases, prior work experience, specialized skills, legal and budgetary responsibilities, and market rates. The board sets the rates for the executive and managing director based on a market survey of similar positions, and reviews the rates for other core members, with the primary criteria being a minimum replacement rate if someone departs.

All of these rates, and the process we use to identify and apply them, are reviewed by the board as part of the annual operations budget, which also includes community representatives. We don’t publicly share the actual rates for specific individuals, but we strive to be transparent regarding how we set them. These policies and practices have been in place since 2010, and remain the guiding principles by which we organize our resources.

The decision to structure Global Voices in this way has had a number of positives. It gives our teams:

  • Freedom to work and live anywhere in the world
  • Autonomy to tailor schedules and workflows according to the needs of of each sub-community
  • Flexibility on how to integrate Global Voices with other work opportunities

If also sets up Global Voices as an open, permeable network, in which all of us are also part of other networks, and finding and linking to other communities, contributors, and learning. And it guides us, in our budgeting, to prioritize individuals over materials — we all use our own technology, work from our own spaces, and use our own telecoms. Personnel costs account for roughly 85% of our total budget.

However, this structure also has some negatives. Specifically:

  • It’s difficult to navigate competing priorities between Global Voices and other commitments
  • It’s hard for us to offer long-term work contracts, benefits, pension, insurance, etc., and for people to grow careers within the organization
  • Contract rates for both core and editors are set at the middle/lower end of pay scales, in comparison to European NGOs and nonprofit media – our closest market comparison
  • There’s a potential conflict between growth based on project opportunities – such as dedicated resources for specific topics, languages or regions, and the desire to support all teams equally

Another issue, which we will address in more detail in a subsequent post, is whether what we are able to pay is sufficient compensation for the work as it currently stands. Some of us think of the current remuneration as a stipend or honoraria, and many of us do other work in order to support ourselves. At present, rate increases are primarily based on inflation, and occasionally, we make adjustments to ensure that they meet market rates for similar positions.

I know many would like to see increases in our rates – not just because of inflation, but because writing GV stories has gotten more complicated as the issues we cover have evolved, and because researching, verifying, writing and editing GV stories is correspondingly more complicated. A few years ago, editorial teams were able to publish, on average, 3-5 long posts, and 10-15 updates/short posts per week. Today that posting goal would seem overwhelming.

Figuring out how to resolve this is not simple, and many of us are struggling to find an answer. I think, the root of the issue may be a conflict between the way that we have structured Global Voices – with a focus on the perspectives, stories and views of the community and editors – and the way  most nonprofit funding works.

Global Voices and Project-Based Work

Another immediate challenge of being a primarily volunteer community is that people without their own resources, without free time and Internet access, can’t participate. This was a significant conflict between our aspirations for a universally accessible internet and the structure we set up. The open internet, we’ve long known, reflects, and sometimes amplifies the inequities we see in the world, and the volunteer model does not adequately address the reality of those inequities for participation – in fact, it can amplify it as well.

To deal with that conflict, while still part of Berkman we applied for targeted funding to create a project to involve communities with limited access to online tech. Rising Voices, begun in 2007, was first a project designed to respond to the basic inequality of an all-volunteer community, and has evolved into a section that we’ve considered essential to rebalancing participation in GV throughout our existence.

It also became the model for other projects, focused on digital access, digital rights and freedom of expression, research and advocacy. Some of these projects, such as Advox and Lingua, became a core part of our work because they helped us respond to some significant and persistent inequity that we’d identified, such as restrictions to online participation because of political or economic circumstances, or the role of language online.

Every year, as we build our operational budget, we consider which aspects of Global Voices work are essential to our ability to support our community. At present, there are four sections that fit these terms: Newsroom, Advox, Rising Voices and Lingua. Our first fundraising goal for each year is to support these fundamental blocks of the GV community. That means, at a minimum: a team of editors, sub-editors and regional editors for newsroom, and directors/managers for Advox, Rising Voices and Lingua. Everything else we consider to be project-based work – such as the Summit, workshops, research projects, editorial projects, conferences, travel and meet-ups.

Other projects such as many of our editorial partnerships, the Technology for Transparency Network, Threatened Voices, the Global Voices Exchange, Activismolenguas, and NewsFrames, have been very important to our mission, but are sustainable only if we can raise separate funding for their existence. Most of them not only support themselves in terms of cost, but have brought in resources to support the core idea of a newsroom that isn’t pressured by donor priorities, and our overall operations budget as well. For instance, NewsFrames, in addition to supporting the team running that project, has brought significant funds to support the core operational and editorial costs of GV and also provided new work for at least six existing Global Voices editors.

These projects all also need specific kinds of expertise – in editorial journalism, coding, research, data journalism, policy advocacy, or facilitating, that require their own budgets and teams. Whenever we can, we try to find people from the existing GV community to work on these projects. All contractors working on projects also receive rates in line with our general policies for setting remuneration for core activities – equitable rates for equivalent work, with adjustments for specific skills and expertise, experience and market scarcity, and reviewed by the board with an eye to reasonableness and equity.

We know that this background, while detailed, may not satisfy the concerns of everyone, because we don’t have easy solutions to all of our challenges. I’m more than happy to speak directly to anyone who has questions. We’ll also be addressing the feedback and ideas we received at the Summit, and to discuss what it will take for us to increase our funds overall to increase the rates we can offer, in our next post, Rough Consensus – planning the future of Global Voices.

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