My LITA Board service: an almost-a-year retrospective

ALA elections close tomorrow (eligible and haven’t voted? Go vote! The LITA slate is amazing). So it’s been about a year since I was elected, nine months on the Board, which is making me think retrospective-y thoughts.

(Like everyone, I’ve meant to blog more about my experience on the Board. Like everyone, I’ve found that so much of it is contact highs and crazy plans in bars, little nudges over IM, conversations that aren’t mine to share – both hard to summarize, and sometimes confidential. But for someone who was inspired to run for Board in part because of a fascination with its wrestling over the role of transparency these last few years, that’s not really good enough, is it?)

So let me look at my campaign platform and mull over how I’ve been doing. And you tell me what you want from LITA, how I can do better.

Technology is for everybody.

LITA’s made some baby steps in this direction – not all things I can claim credit for. Forum 2013 (a committee I was on) had more public library speakers than usual, and some youth services presentations, though it didn’t do as well as hoped on diversity counts. I hear Forum 2014 actually did blind review of submissions, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results of that.

A few folks have joined LITA, or rejoined after a long time away, that I’m super excited to have.

The Education committee (to which I liaise) has some children’s technology webinars in the pipeline in addition to our traditional academic-library-oriented content, and is working on broadening its topic coverage and reaching out to new speakers. You can help! Teach for LITA (I’m happy to answer questions). If you can speak to an important libtech topic we haven’t covered much, and if you’re not one of the usual suspects who’s spoken for LITA a bunch of times already, we’re especially interested in hearing from you.

Education is where I have been spending a great deal of my time – working with its leadership and LITA staff to get processes better documented, to put a better feedback loop in place so committee members can see the impact of their work, to communicate Board expectations more thoroughly to the committee, et cetera. And also personally, to understand the liaison role – I don’t want to run the committee or do its work (that’s for our awesome chairs and members); I do want to remove obstacles, and make sure they get information from other parts of LITA/ALA that they need to be fully effective. Lots of progress here; lots yet to be done.

Communication equals engagement.

Baby steps forward.

The Board’s taken on responsibility for @ALA_LITA, so it’s livelier and has a few hundred new followers; yay!

A lot of you showed up at the last online Board meeting – that was awesome! Hope it was interesting seeing how the sausage is made. Please join us in Vegas if you can!

I try to be conscientious about posting my LITA Board Connect content publicly whenever it is consistent with the open meeting policy to do so. (ALA Connect defaults to private, but can easily be set to public. You can get email notifications of, and comment on, public content, FYI.)

Been talking a lot with VP Rachel Vacek about more comprehensive steps we can take toward inclusive, vibrant communication.

Lots more to do here, though. The rest of our social media needs people to own it and make it vibrant. The Board needs to do better at regular communication to the membership – someone needs to own that, too. And that’s a thing that we need to model and set expectations for so it trickles down. The committee and interest group chairs are the first point of contact for many (actual and prospective) members, and we need to have a culture of communication that runs all the way down. We need a culture of understanding that communication isn’t just a thing you do in January and June, with people who show up physically to conferences.

I can see processes that would help here, but I don’t have the throughput to own them all.

Stewardship matters.

And this is where I’ve been spending the bulk of my time.

I’m a numbers person, right? I was a math major. And when things don’t make sense to me, I obsess about them until they do. LITA’s budget does not make sense to me.

This may well be because I don’t have experience with budgeting (and I’d love to have conversations with those of you who do). What I know is, I’ve collected every spreadsheet I can find back through FY2011 – drafts, actuals, high-level, line-item. And I’ve put them all in a master spreadsheet so I can compare them, year-on-year, category-to-category, draft-to-actual. And I’ve stared at the line items and tried to tie them to the high level stuff, and I’ve stared at the actual year-end revenue and expenses and tried to compare it to our projections for future fiscal years, pretty much until my eyes bleed. And I’ve asked an awful lot of questions of fellow Board members and the Executive Director and the Financial Strategies Task Force (its report [PDF] is illuminating). And I am just not smart enough to make these numbers make sense.

As a Board member I have a duty of care toward the association, and I believe the single most important element of that is ensuring the financial health of the association, so that it can continue to serve its thousands of members for many years to come. But I see financial year closes that show us running deficits most years, and I’m a startup girl: I know that everyone has a burn rate and a runway, and if your runway isn’t growing at least as fast as your burn rate is eating it (and ours is not), there comes a time when you are not aloft, when your wings are wreckage on the ground.

I’m a Board member and I love you, our members, all. I am not allowed to let there be wreckage.

I don’t know, yet, how to change the burn rate or runway. I’m mulling that over but I’m not a big enough picture thinker yet. What I do believe is that prior to that, the budget has to be an effective instrument for operationalizing our strategic priorities, and the Board has to be more effective at using it thus.

(Disclosure: I voted against sponsoring Emerging Leaders at the last meeting. I think this sponsorship is one of the best things we do, but I simply don’t know if we have the money to do it, and I cannot in good conscience appropriate money I am not confident we have. I chant “duty of care” to myself a lot some days.)

We on the Board, we’re not elected for our budget experience. Some of us have it, some of us don’t; some of us are numbers people, some of us aren’t. And we’re librarians; we’re not into conflict. We’re not into telling hard truths. And so over many years we’ve ended up with a culture of shirking our oversight responsibilities, of telling ourselves this runway looks good. And it shows.

We have begun to charge a Financial Advisory Committee, and we’ve found some really good people to serve on it, and I’m very optimistic about the work they’ll do. We need people specifically selected for financial expertise to help the Board perform its oversight role effectively, and to help us weigh the tradeoffs in implementing the Financial Strategies Task Force’s recommendations, or in other ideas that will from time to time arise. I think they’ll be a great help once they become a regular thing.

In the meantime, though, I have to keep on trucking with my own understanding of duty of care, my own drive to make the numbers make sense to me, to be able to look at the budget and see answers to my questions about whether our hopes can be implemented. Whether we will or won’t, in the end, have had the money to sponsor our Emerging Leaders in FY2015. Little things that make up big ones.

I myself, I wasn’t elected for budget expertise, and I’m happier with hugs and innovation and kittens than I am with hard truths. But I believe that when you elected me, part of the deal was that my own feelings and inadequacies became secondary to the good of the association. When I think of leadership I think of how I can be the person that you, that circumstances, need me to be. How can I rise to the level of the task you’ve entrusted me with.

How can I serve you better?

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