March 4th, 2005
Software in the Public Interest, Inc. (SPI) is a fairly unique organization. It was originally created to be the legal entity that holds Debian‘s assets and can receive donations for it, though today it also has several other member projects. SPI is New York corporation, and a 501(c)3 not-for-profit.
I call it “homeless” because, like Debian, SPI has no physical home. There is no SPI office. Discussions about SPI are held online. Even the SPI board meetings and annual meetings are held online. This is a confusing concept to many people, but it makes perfect sense to us geeks. We have board members from the USA, Canada, UK, and Germany, at least. SPI maintains PO boxes for receiving mail, and that’s about as close as it gets to a real physical presence.
I’ve been on SPI’s board of directors for the last two years, and have been the SPI president since July. Sometimes this is a surreal experience.
Over its 8-year lifetime, SPI has had quite a few problems. A few years ago, SPI’s board had trouble meeting because so many members didn’t bother showing up that quorum wasn’t met. At one point, SPI was without both a president and a treasurer because both of them seemed to suddenly lose all interest in SPI, or returning e-mails. As you might imagine, most of my time on the board has been occupied, in one way or another, with trying to clean up things from the past while still keeping the present held together.
One main cause of this, and a problem still today, is lack of interest. Most of Debian’s developers are content to just ignore SPI, prefering to code instead of worry about getting stuff from the PO box to the bank, preparing tax returns, and all the other annoying things that go along with running a non-profit. So we don’t have many volunteers to do these things. That means the people that do volunteer burn out. And, to date, there hasn’t been enough support to obtain paid help.
I’m sure this isn’t a problem unique to SPI. I suspect that many non-profit organizations have had trouble finding people to handle all the details of running the organization. Our church, for instance, sometimes has trouble finding enough people to work on maintaining the building.
I wonder if being “homeless” hurts us, because it’s easier to give up on a task when there’s nobody looking at you in the face wondering why it’s not done.
So, I’d like to end with two questions:
How do you think SPI could get more people interested in helping out? Or do you think that we have a different problem entirely?