by Ruben Safir President - NYXLS
"When talented people gather together for the purposes of developing opportunity for members great things can happen."
With the current recession and dot-com crash of late 2001, the rosy optimism of the GNU/Linux based IPO's, and the many of the accomplishments of the late 1990's have been replaced by high unemployment among free software people, and ever more virulent attacks by the marketers of proprietary software and hardware products. Many of the organizational models within the Free Software community, "Linux User Groups" and the efforts of groups like 2600 have served very well in bringing Free Software into the public eye. Rick Moen's FAQ on how to setup a traditional LUG and its defining of core activities, has helped developed GNU/Linux advocacy and has been responsible for for
the broad placement of Free Software in homes, schools and businesses. Installfests, monthly technical meetings, stammtisch drinking sessions, and the spirit of volunteerism have greatly aided in the development of software for practical use. But that model is reaching it's maximum ability to effect change. We need new methodologies to ensure the freedom to innovate, compete, and to educate in the digital age.
One of the important lessons in the Jewish tradition comes from the collective work called "Teachings of Our Fathers", which says, "Without bread there can be no Torah". The fundamental concept here is that as individuals strive in freedom for their advancement and improvement, an economic foundation has to exist for the basic necessities of living. Economic freedom and political freedom are linked in a duet. Economic freedom can not be achieved without political freedom, nor can political freedom be achieved without economic freedom. We must have both.
The importance of political policy, and digital freedom is directly tied to the economic fortunes of businesses and individuals. This truth is known by every businessman in the world. Global Corporations have poured millions of dollars into political campaigns, flushed the Halls of Congress with money, and donated huge sums of money to the major political parties of the United States in the hope of effecting favorable legislative change for their industries and individual companies. Open Secrets (http://www.opensecrets.org) lists the 100 largest contributers to political campaigns. The list is sprinkled with Fortune 500 companies including Microsoft, Philip Morris, AT&T AFG, BellSouth, Lockheed Martin, Bristol-Myers Squibb, AIG, UPS, Pfizer, Time-Warner and more, and this is in addition to the donations by individuals who represent corporate interests. Here is a breakdown by industry:
Misc Business $47,447,874
Lawyers & Lobbyists $35,416,790
Energy/Nat Resource $21,733,893
All of these businesses are funded by profits, and can put money and staff into the pursuit of their legislative agendas. They use their full time legal teams to effectively use litigation as a political and business tool, and the result has been a series of serious blows to the Free Software movement which is now facing political annihilation. This has caused a negative economic impact to Free Software developers and end users, as well as trouble in the general economy.
It's time for Free Software people to go on the offensive. People with a technical inclination, by their nature, tend to stick with technical experimentation, and to leave marking and political strategy to others. If they expect to maintain the freedom to do development
they're going to have to change.
Late last year, we started a new experimental organization which we hoped will develop new modalities for Free Software advocacy. Many of the things we have been doing have been very successful, so we are encouraged by the initial results. The organization is called NYLXS, and when we started it, we started with a number of premises that helped us succeed.
The first premise was that NYLXS would not be a typical LUG. Instead, we would concentrate our activities in three major areas: business development, organizational funding, and politics. We wanted to address current issues in an effective manner and conduct ourselves in a businesslike fashion. These activities need to be targeted by other organizations, as well, so let's s now examine the NYLXS plan of action so that other organizations can emulate it.
For our tactical model, we looked to one of the most successful grass roots organizations in history: Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall was very effective at at three core political tasks: organizing volunteers, delivering votes, and acting as a provider of jobs and contracts. Ignoring, the graft and corruption, which we don't intend to emulate, we looked at some of the other things that made Tammany Hall so successful. Among those, we saw that one of the keys success of Tammany Hall was the bond built by the organization between it's members and the leadership.
This bonds was built by the tireless advocacy of it's membership, and by the doling out the financial rewards for political success. Tammany Hall carefully chose it's battles and functioned top down when putting people on the street and getting people elected. Nothing is as effective as targeting political candidates in their bedrooms.
Currently, Free Software organizations are short on cash, but do have great potential to mobilize volunteers. If they want to maintain their freedom, one of the primary missions that Free Software organizations must undertake is political involvement. Targeting key members of Congress to become fast adopters of pro-Free Software issues can be effectively organized by Free Software groups throughout the country. We must focus attention on elections and constituencies on the grass roots level. All politics are local.
The problem is that this requires real work, and true volunteerism. It's not fun. Going from door to door, and pamphleting supermarkets requires persistent effort and can be a humbling experience. But it can be done, and doing it will demonstrate to elected officials that we can be effective in getting people elected and unelected. We can even run candidates and put individuals into office.
The week after the destruction of the World Trade Center a local NYC advocacy group, New Yorkers for Fair Use, had members in the street. Its members were going door to door with the "Save the Libraries" campaign. That campaign targeted members the House Judiciary Committee and was very effective at getting pro-digital freedom issues heard. That NY Fairuse was able to organize this effort straight through that disaster, your organization can do the same.
A key component to being effective in this level of organization is the need to develop leadership. Leadership development should be a core component of all Free Software organizations, and the leadership of these organization absolutely must commit themselves to the identification of future leaders. It should have a system for mentoring new members and training those members for leadership. Leadership training needs to be built into all LUGs and Free Software organizations in order to propel the groups forward into the future. It's a good idea to establish a committee within your organization to direct this activity.
Another aspect of running the political arm of a Free Software group is the development of a social services for your organization. Your group is dependent on the loyalty of its members. This loyalty is best earned through a program of membership services. Often, providing valuable help to membership requires nothing more than than a schedule and a kitchen table. When talented people gather together for the purposes of developing opportunity great things can happen.
What services should your organization provide? Here are some suggestions. Mentoring, internships, job banks and resource networking, are all areas that can be formalized as a functions of your membership. People who work for your organization need to feel part of the family and the leadership must actually care about the individual well being of group members. In this time of high unemployment among talented free software people, your organization has a huge pool of untapped assets waiting to be exploited for the benefit of the larger group. Workshops, educational programs, business planning, and Job searching can all be implemented at a minimum cost to the organization.
People often need help with surprisingly simple tasks like resume writing and a url to put resumes on line or to advertise services.
State and local governments will often fund educational programs and job placement efforts. Leaders need to organize their efforts in getting state funding for such programs.
Clients of Free Software consultants are often huge resources when they are happy with the work of Free Software people. They can provide evening space for classes, projectors and white boards and such services as accounting for your organization, or helping to develop publicity channels. These clients should be sought out and we should take advantage of the services they're willing to provide.
It's absolutely key that your political arm provide at least some of these services, so members will develop the loyalty necessary for the hard work of door knocking. Members must come to see themselves as real stake holders in the outcome of digital rights legislation. Both members and client enterprises, need to feel empowered through an association with your organization and Free Software.
Your job as a Free Software leader is to build bridges through education and member services. As more people become indebted to your organization for work, business and personal development, its reach will become broader and it will become more influential in political campaigns and IT buying decisions.
One of the key services that a Free Software organization can and should provide is targeting local industry for complete Free Software desktop and server solutions. It is very important for local Free Software groups to join together, identify local industries, and to build complete functional business environments. Let's look at the accounting industry for example.
A group of dedicated leaders from your organization would meet, and call accounting firms to make appointments with the partners or the employees in those firms responsible for IT purchasing decisions. Then, they'd sit down with those individuals to identify the current software being used by the firm and to determine what additional software needs they may have which are not currently being met. After obtaining this information, your job is now defined and the work cut out for you. You now need to produce a plan for filling ALL of the needs for the firms desktop and server use. (And I mean ALL of their needs. No company can covert its desktop platform to Free Software, or GNU Linux, unless every need that they have is met. Your job is to assemble a desktop and server solution which can fill all the needs.)
For this example, an accounting firm, it's not good enough to just have accounting software. Such firms also need programs that track employee activity, invoice clients, track document movement, handle faxing needs, and provide word-processing and other standard office applications. If any one of its needs isn't satisfied, then the company can not move to a free software platform or entrust its business too you.
Once your organization has produced a complete solution, it can demonstrate that product for the whole industry, and share the development with fellow members. It's likely that members will need to be matchmakers between free software developers and the targeted industry. They may also need to develop some pieces of the system themselves. And they will have to be prepared to develop a comprehensive training program for the new platform. Training and support can be distributed to working members of your organization on a paid basis as a social service of your organization. Use your organizations Public Relations engine to promote your efforts, your members and your solutions. Be prepared to sell the concept of Free Software to businesses and unchain them from the licensing fee structures and restrictive agreements that impair the organization's ability to adapt to the changing needs of the industry.
Another area to explore, is federal, and local Free Software government opportunities. The federal government's biz ops site needs to be carefully combed everyday for potential bids. The process of forming a bid and identifying possible opportunities is daunting to individual consultants without experience in handling this process. Businesses have full-time staff people who handle this process and fill government contracts. Local organizations need to develop similar in house expertise, again, offering this service to working members and building loyalties. Government contracts are especially important in recessionary times like today's. Such contracts can feed a lot of Free Software
families. This would be a good thing(TM).
This paper has outlined many new avenues of activity for Free Software Organization and GNU/Linux user groups, which are very different from the sort of activities which LUG's normally perform. Key to producing this level of organized activity is funding. Free Software groups can fund many of their activities from within. Various means are available for accomplishing this task. NYLXS, for example, has had considerable success with its educational program. While charging cut-rate prices for classes ($200 - $300 per course), NYLXS has developed a comprehensive FreeSoftware education program that successfully enlarges membership. This also serves the role of organizational fund raising. It's success depends on the volunteer efforts of it's membership. Our groups members have also started to: build videotape assets for sale, provide ISP networking services, and to provide on-line curriculae. Teaching accomplishes two goals for Free Software organizations: the foundation for future membership and revenue to fund activities. Such a program can also be funded by local and state governments as part of their unemployment and training programs. If targeted well, a teaching program can draw membership from the untapped pool of minorities and women into the Free Software field.
Funding for necessary political and business activities can also be generated by annual dinners, sponsored workshops, journal publication, and public speaking. Membership dues, while not a great fund raiser itself, should be used to determine the membership of Free Software groups. Since so much work is being done by the organization, membership
efforts must focus on committed members. A nominal charge for membership sets a bar for entry into the organization, and shows a commitment by the
individual to the organization. It's your goal to build the organization one committed member at a time. Each individual brings to the organization a potential. It is your job, as a Free Software leader to develop that potential for the benefit of the individual and the organization.
With regard to funding lobbying and business endeavors for Free Software, one of the long term goals of your group should be to acquire a permanent location to hang your hat. Having a permanent location gives to you a powerful tool in attracting students, new members, and additional income generating opportunities. It provides a permanent teaching space as well as a place for demonstrations and meetings, space for conferences with local politicians and a rental possibility for other groups. In short, you need a clubhouse for your club.
GNU/Linux user groups and Free Software organizations just have to do more to protect our freedom and to survive the economic downturn. We simply are not doing enough to protect our interests. We must do more if we expect to help protect the the freedom of a larger society which is growing increasingly dependent on digital information. Proprietary software vendors are demanding the control of all digital information, and the prevention of free competitive markets. The road is laid out before each and every one of us, and it is up to us to choose the proper path.