Running a Homeless Non-Profit

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?

7 thoughts on “Running a Homeless Non-Profit

  1. I’ve been involved with the board of numerous non-profits over the years:
    – Food Coops & associated Coop Loan Funds
    – Political Organizations, and associated Political Action Committees and Foundations
    – Social Dance Associations, and associations that own and maintain a dance hall and stage, and a summer camp.

    It is an enormous help to pay someone to keep the dull paperwork and other dull items in order. That’s what money is for, to ensure attention is paid to a dull but important activity. It admittedly can be a challenge to pay for such a person and attention.

    Usually non-profit associations handle this by having dues, and members, and the opportunity to donate significantly more to sustain the organization. Generally, if a membership association can’t keep their affairs in order–minimally to maintain a list of interested people (members), it will collapse. So members are often very motivated to sustain and pay for such activity. For example: if there are 1,000 members and they each pay $25 to keep the association going, that amounts to $25,000 to have someone attend to the dull work and mail, operate an office, have archival file cabinets, pay nominal legal expenses, deal with corporate filings, and other archival ephemera. (Even if every scrap of paper is scanned into a paperless non-physical office, someone has to properly manage this dull process.)

    I haven’t a clue how SPI/Debian funds its corporate and operational necessities. But it seems to me there are a lot of entities and individuals have a strong interest in SPI/Debian’s continued good health and corporate and board well being, so it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out how to have a revenue stream that will sustain its humble operations.

    Someone serving as an assistant to the board is invaluable.
    Perhaps titled as “office manager,” to deal with:
    -keep copies of everything,
    -perhaps pay approved bills, under the supervision/authority of the treasuerer
    -to be a pest when the officers fail to:
    — sign papers, file forms,
    — respond to requests to coordinate or set dates,
    — follow up on the failure of a committee or boarm member to report their activity
    and so on…
    -as well as keeping track of additional items delegated by the board

    An office manager is the typical method to further these tasks, and this person can be priceless if he or she stays involved for 5 to 10 years, and has seen and knows the history of what’s been done, and how its been done, and what has and has not worked.

    As an organization gets bigger, an “office manager” tends to be transformed into an “executive director,” a title that reflects the increased authority delegated to that position by the board.

    1. I think you’re quite right, and unfortunately I think this is a lesson that we’ve had to learn by our own painful experience. Debian, the main force behind SPI, is a project that had never had any real expenses. Our machines and bandwidth have often been donated, and that doesn’t leave many essentials for writing an operating system.

      I hope that support for this will materialize. It would help us out a lot.

    2. For example: if there are 1,000 members and they each pay $25 to keep the association going, that amounts to $25,000 to have someone attend to the dull work and mail, operate an office, have archival file cabinets, pay nominal legal expenses, deal with corporate filings, and other archival ephemera.
      Even it’s the good example, but, it’s not that is easy, as it seems, but have a look at Wikipedia, who received 100k$ by as a charity, nice result of good company.

  2. I like debian and hope I can help in some way. Since I am not quite interested in coding but more in tweaking it to meet joe user’s need of seeing how effective debian can be comparing with say Window, I may be suitable for this kind of dull back office work. But I need to know what it involves and how much time is needed.

    Another concern is, does physical location matter ?

    I have run my own business before and is semi-retired for the moment spending my time mainly on tweaking debian and hopefully I can one day deliver some back office operation to small business/non-profit organizations.

  3. Part of the problem is how organizations help each other on the funding level itself. Interdependence. Also, the ability to make it easier for both donors and receivers to make donations to several of their interests in preferably one action.

    My ‘ich’ is that it is hard to support efforts such as Debian for example, because from a donor’s perspective, there is too much fragmentation. I want to support other efforts as well and this means going through recurring donation steps for each single organization. That is why I started Donorge. But at the same time it helps the receiving organizations, because they enable easier funding and helping each other.

    It’s not spam here, just on-topic. You might want to look at Donorge sometime, it’s pretty new at the moment, but already very complete. It’s GPL itself as well.

  4. An organization one can neither see nor touch is like trying to sell intangibles.IMO it may never really get off the ground.It is especially difficult on the net,which is notorious for scams.Also you are not very clear as to your actual intent. I wish you luck in your endeavor.


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