Reflections on Being an EFA Board Member

A boardroom style office.

I’ve been a member of the EFA board for nearly two years now, and with board nominations open for this year’s elections, I thought it might prove useful for potential board members to know a bit about what being on the board of EFA is actually like.

Do You Enjoy Working For Free?

It’s a lot of work.

More specifically, being an EFA board member involves a lot of tedious, boring, usually thankless, work. It is not glamorous, and it is not at all paid.

EFA is an operational board, because we cannot afford to pay staff to do admin tasks. It’d be great if we could, but we’ve just spent the better part of two years digging the organisation out of extremely dire financial difficulties of its own making.

I was part of a group of people who came onto the board at that time with the goal of saving EFA from itself, and we very nearly didn’t succeed. That’s part of why it’s been a lot of work for me personally. I decided that I wanted to save EFA rather than let it die. I often question the wisdom of this decision.

How Much Free Time Do You Have, Really?

A few years ago I got into the habit of (mostly) tracking my time as part of running my own business. My time tracking reports tell me that in calendar year 2018, I spent 133 hours on EFA activities. I have (so far) spent 120 hours on EFA related tasks in 2019. It’s not smooth, either, as some months I’ve spent 20-24 hours on EFA things, and other months only 4 or 5. The way I track my time, this is definitely undercounting the actual time spent. I’m not a lawyer who bills in 6 minute increments.

If you want to join the EFA board, you should plan for spending at least 10 hours a month on EFA things. You may think that doesn’t sound like much, but I challenge you to spend a couple of weeks actually tracking your time all day every day, including all the things like commuting, spending time with family, sleeping, cleaning, cooking, and your actual day job. You will likely find the results illuminating.

An extra 10 hours a month, sometimes spiking to 25 hours, is not a small commitment. Be realistic about how much spare time you really have to spend on a new part-time job that pays zero.

Do The Thing

Consistency is important. You have to turn up and do the thing. All the time. This isn’t a “maybe show up every now and then” gig. Sometimes life gets in the way, such as when you travel for work and can’t make a board meeting due to time zones, but you’re expected to show up every time, and to do the things you said you would do.

If you don’t, that means one of the other board members (who is also extremely busy) has to find an additional 10-20 hours a month to cover for you. Occasionally is okay, we understand, and we do each other favours like that, and we try to have understudies for major roles like Treasurer because sometimes people get sick, get busy with work, or have other last-minute commitments crop up. But if it becomes a regular thing, you’re not pulling your weight and may get asked to reconsider your position on the board.

What Is The Work?

A lot of the reason consistency is important is that there is a lot of basic admin stuff that just has to happen for the organisation to stay alive. This is the cooking and cleaning, chopping wood and carrying water part of running a thing. It is maintaining the life support systems. It isn’t optional. Previous boards let this slip and that’s why EFA nearly died. 

You’ll need to read and understand the monthly financial reports. They’re not complex, but if you’re not sure how to read and understand a balance sheet and an income statement, you’ll need to tell people straight away so we can teach you. And by we I probably mean me. I’m happy to do so, because financial reporting is a fundamental skill involved in being a director of any organisation, big or small. You will need to know how to do this.

We also field a lot of media inquiries, so if you’re interested in learning how to deal with media, we’re happy to teach you how to do that, too, as best we can. It mostly involves being available and responsive to media’s tight deadlines with something well aligned with EFA’s policy position on whatever the topic is.

No one has really figured out how to make digital rights incredibly compelling to mainstream society. That’s why the authoritarians have been able to trample all over our digital rights for a couple of decades or so with little, if any, opposition. If you know how to make millions of people take to the streets to defend privacy, we’re all ears.

EFA makes lots of submissions to the never-ending parade of Parliamentary inquiries and consultations, even though some of them look like a waste of everyone’s time. We are ably assisted by the amazing chair of our Policy team, Angus Murray, but if you’re into writing really compelling policy documents, we’d love your help there. In fact, you can just join the policy team itself. You don’t need to be on the board to help there.

Fundraising is an ever-present issue, and that means attracting and retaining paying members as well as seeking out people who will give us big wads of cash. If you’re afraid of calling someone and asking them for money (it’s called sales) then you’ll struggle at this part of the job. EFA is a not-for-profit, which means the money isn’t the point, but without any money, EFA dies because it can’t pay its bills. Money is what we use to get stuff done. More money means we can do more stuff. It’s quite straightforward.

Things are much, much better now than they were two years ago, and it’s getting better all the time. But there is still a lot to do, and you need to be prepared to help. You may not have to personally fix everything, but you do need to help figure out how things can get fixed within the constraints EFA is under. This is a substantial challenge, or it’d all be done by now.

Good Things

It’s not all terrible, obviously.

If digital rights is important to you, it’s a chance to get intrinsic rewards from working on something meaningful that your day job might not be giving you. Some people might consider it a way to give back to the community.

You’ll get invited to roundtables and meetings with influential members of Australia’s political scene. Whether you consider that to be a good thing, well, your mileage may vary. The networking opportunities are there for those who want them. Similarly, if you’re interested in learning how to talk to the media, EFA board members get to do that as well on a fairly regular basis.

You’ll learn about financial management and how to read financial statements, fundraising, media and comms, member relations, and how to keep dozens of other spinning plates in the air. You’ll definitely learn a bunch about corporate governance and dealing with the whole people management side of being on a board.

I’d be lying if I said I was sure it’s all been worthwhile; I don’t know yet. It has definitely been educational, and I’ll never know what my life would have been like if I didn’t do this.

I take solace in having helped a 25 year-old icon of Australian civil society avoid going bankrupt, and maybe at least slowed down the rise of fascism in this country. I hope it helps make up for at least some of my many other failures in the final reckoning.

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One Comment

  1. Every story has two sides. I’ll be the first to admit that the EFA Board needed someone with Mr Warren’s skills much sooner than it got them.

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