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How Global Voices gave users a say in its future strategy
In a nutshell
A temporary council of Global Voices community volunteers informed its future strategy by reviewing four white papers and taking polls on key questions about the organisation’s values, structure and funding.
Global Voices is a global community of volunteer writers, researchers, translators and activists dedicated to publishing and translating stories from marginalised voices and about underrepresented topics.
It was founded in 2005 by Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman with the aim of using the power of the internet to build understanding across borders. It was incorporated as a non-profit in 2007.
A core team of seven works with hundreds of volunteers, who contribute remotely as authors, translators, editors and sub-editors across a range of projects including Lingua, Rising Voices and Advox. More than 6,000 people have participated since Global Voices began. Many meet in person at biannual summits.
Part of Global Voices’ mission is that language is not a barrier to understanding so articles are translated into more than 35 languages, including Spanish, Chinese, French and Arabic.
Global Voices is mostly funded by private foundations, including Open Society Foundations and the MacArthur Foundation, as well as independent grants, editorial commissions and mission-related services, and donations.
In September 2018, Ivan Sigal, Global Voices’ executive director, initiated a community consultation process about the future of the network. This case study explains how it happened and what they learnt.
How did they do it?
In 2017 and early 2018, the core team undertook a strategy planning process including a community survey and consultation with volunteers. Some consensus emerged but a subset of editors expressed confusion about financial transparency and potential misalignment of the organisation’s mission with its activities.
This confusion was caused in part by difficulties in communicating with such a diverse community. To correct this, in July 2018, the team opened applications for a Community Council, a temporary body intended to give community members an opportunity to advise on the future of the organisation in relation to four key topics: editorial focus, professionalisation, organisational structure and funding.
Community Council applicants were required to have been Global Voice members for a minimum of three months and to have published at least one post in the last five years. Each agreed to participate in the process as per Global Voices’ community and ethics policy.
The core team sifted through applications and, in September 2018, 184 members of the Community Council were announced, from more than 60 countries. Each signed a memorandum of understanding through which they committed to reading four white papers, taking part in group video calls, and voting in opinion polls.
In September and October 2018, the white papers were published on each of the four topics (you can read them here: editorial focus, professionalisation, organisational structure and funding). Each paper included alternative models for Community Council members to consider and discuss. 10 multilingual community members were on hand to help explain the papers for people who might have struggled with the language.
Community Council members were given around two weeks after the publication of each paper to leave comments, take part in the video calls and vote. A voting platform called D21 was used because it allows users to vote down ideas that they don’t like, which allows for a more detailed breakdown of results, showing polarisation as well as popularity (you can see the results for the editorial focus vote here).
In December 2018, the core team presented the findings of the process to the Community Council and published them on the website for the rest of the community to read. These findings were used to draft a strategic plan for the organisation in 2019/2020.
Some of Global Voices' Community Council members (screengrab)
What did they learn?
More than 100 of the 184 Community Council members participated throughout the consultation process, with the most popular poll recording 115 votes. When surveyed afterwards, members said they dropped out because of time pressure and unexpected obligations. Ivan had hoped the process would engage at least 50 participants so the total number was much higher than expected.
The demographics of the Community Council members mimicked the community as a whole: more men than women took part and most contributors were between 25-40 years old. They also saw people working together across traditionally hostile countries, such as India and Pakistan.
The consultation yielded clear recommendations in several areas. For example, the community indicated a desire to focus on specific editorial themes, to diversify ways for community members to participate in Global Voices’ work, and to create a new advisory council to decide and debate priorities (you can read the full conclusions here). This has shaped the focus this year.
In other areas, the comments and votes indicated that volunteers wanted things to stay the same. For example, members wanted the Global Voices mission to continue to emphasise diversity of coverage and community.
There were a few surprises: for example, members said that they participated in Global Voices in order to be read by policy makers and influencers and because they wanted to make a difference. This was something Ivan and the core team hadn’t been aware of before.
Six months after the Community Council and on the back of recommendations, the regional Asia team spearheaded a new Summit in Taipei, created a draft Community Council charter, hired a new managing editor to lead the work to diversify participation opportunities, and several regional teams landed editorial co-production contracts and grants. This was communicated back to members in a blog post.
"One big surprise that I didn’t expect was in the organisational structure. People didn’t necessarily want to be part of a group, they wanted to be individual and autonomous humans. That influenced their choices."
How would you improve it? "How do we create communities who are interested in the role of information in their lives and how that information is created? To do that, we need to become custodians, not commanders. It’s one of service rather than one of authority."