On the governance of The Carpentries

We are clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the Executive Council

When The Carpentries was formed in 2018 by the merger of Software Carpentry and Data Carpentry, it was decided that the new organisation should be governed by an Executive Council

Over the years, one of the recurrent discussions between the Executive Council, the Core Team and the wider Community has been what the exact role of the Executive Council is. This blog post summarises some recent discussions and decisions on this topic.

Executive Council versus Board

The Carpentries operates like a nonprofit organisation, yet functions as a fiscally-sponsored project of Community Initiatives (http://communityin.org/), who provides operational (human resources) and accounting support.

As a fiscally-sponsored project of Community Initiatives that does not have formal nonprofit status in the United States, our governing body is represented by the Executive Council. The Executive Council in many ways functions like a Board of Directors of a nonprofit organisation. This fact has led to ongoing discussions over the past year.

What does it mean to be a Board, rather than a Steering/Executive group? Traditionally, Executive Council members, and those that formed the governance bodies of Software and Data Carpentry, have been very active community members. This has been a strength for these governing bodies. However, it is important to also have members on the Executive Council that have experience in overseeing business affairs, fundraising and other aspects important to running a nonprofit organisation.

In recent years, the Executive Council has proactively invited and included members with substantial Board experience from other nonprofit organisations. They have helped us sharpen the discussions around what it means to be a governing body. This includes topics such as what exact responsibilities and decisions should the Executive Council concern itself with, what tasks the Executive Council should just be informed on and what tasks should be left to The Carpentries Core Team.

We are now slowly but steadily moving toward an Executive Council that resembles the function of a nonprofit Board (of Directors). To understand what we mean by this, it helps to understand the difference between management and governance.

Governance versus Management

In its essence, governance is about high-level strategy, oversight and accountability. Management is about the day-to-day operations of an organisation. While good management is essential to the functioning of an organisation, governance is essential to establishing and reinforcing the mission of an organisation, and moving the organisation towards achieving its mission. The Carpentries Core Team takes care of management, led by the Executive Director, a role at the time of writing fulfilled by Kari L. Jordan. Community members actively take part in essential day-to-day activities through their different roles in committees, as maintainers, in the governance of lesson programs and the trainer community, etc.

The Carpentries Governance consists of the Executive Council, which has a combination of community-elected, and council-elected members, supplemented by committees which include community members. Having community-elected members as part of the Executive Council ensures that the community has real influence on the strategic direction the organisation is taking. Having council-elected members enables the inclusion of people, potentially not from the community, with relevant experience that can help strengthen the Council and thus the organisation.

Clarifying decision making in The Carpentries

One part of the discussions we recently had in the current Executive Council was whether we are operating at the appropriate level in the distinction between management and governance. Increasingly, the Executive Council found itself asking whether some of our responsibilities should actually be delegated to the Executive Director and the Core Team.

As part of these discussions, we started a process in 2020 where the Executive Council and Core Team members were both asked the following question:

What should the Executive Council be:

  • deciding on
  • advising on
  • be informed of.

Both the 2020 and 2021 Executive Council members took part in answering this question, together with the Core Team members. Based on their responses and subsequent discussions in the Executive Council, we arrived at the ‘Decision Making Transparency Rubric’, which has been added to the Governance Section of The Carpentries Handbook:

  1. In order of relevance the Executive Council should vote on:
  • The strategic plan: approving mid to long term strategic direction priorities. Mid term 1 year and long term 3-5 years. Include voting on strategic alliances with outside organisations
  • The yearly budget: oversee the yearly budget and annual financial reports
  • By-laws: modifying and approving official policy changes biannually
  • Mission, vision, and values: defining, updating and approving the public mission, vision, and values statements
  • Council-elected members: Policy to identifying, appointing, and removing/ replacing council-elected members when necessary
  • Executive Director: Appointing/removing the Executive Director
  1. The Executive Council should advise on but not vote on:
  • Appointments of new Core Team members: Executive Council advice should continue to be considered alongside community members and The Core Team
  • Equity, inclusion and access matters
  • Approaches to growth in new regions
  • Formation of committees/sub communities, especially if they affect multiple communities
  1. The Executive Council should be informed of (but no decision or advising expected):
  • Decisions relating to Core Team changes
  • The Executive Council needs to be generally informed where groups have explicit powers that affect the culture of the organisation (e.g. Decisions of the Lessons Programs governance committees and Task Forces)

In practice, this means that, for example, the Executive Council will focus its work on everything related to governance, strategic planning and finances. The day-to-day running of the organisation will be the task of the Core Team. The Core Team may bring issues to the EC they deem necessary for EC review and potential approval.

Formation of the Executive Council Standing committees

The Executive Council has recently adopted a model (used by many boards) of establishing Standing Committees. Each Standing Committee is handling a specific set of tasks in order to prepare issues for decision making at the Executive Council meetings, expedite the process of dealing with issues in between meetings and enable the Executive Council to focus on issues where the input of the whole group is needed. As of 2021, The Executive Council operates with five committees, and each Council member is a member of two of them. The current Executive Council Standing Committees are:

  • Officers Committee
  • Governance Committee
  • Finance Committee
  • Communications Committee
  • Program Committee

As explained in The Carpentries Handbook:

Serving on a specific standing committee provides Executive Council members with the opportunity to bring their subject matter expertise to specific governance and operational priorities, deal with issues and projects more effectively and efficiently, and maximize time and resources between meetings. When considered beneficial or necessary, these committees can have members from The Carpentries community and/or Core Team.

A detailed description of the responsibilities of each Standing Committee can be found in the Handbook.

The composition of the Executive Council Standing Committees for the current Executive Council term can be found on the Carpentries’ website.

Furthering The Carpentries’ mission with more clearly defined roles

The Executive Council is enthusiastic about the new way of working described above - a combination of decision making transparency and task delegation to standing committees. It has already proven to be very efficient and effective. The clarification of our role will benefit the whole organisation, as it makes it clearer ‘who decides and works on what’ and avoids potential delays and stumbling blocks in the decision making process. We feel we are maturing as the governing body of the organisation, and are empowered to become even better at furthering the mission of the organisation.

As always, we welcome your questions, comments and contributions to our discussions around governance of The Carpentries. Feel free to reach out to us through one of the channels described at the Executive Council page on The Carpentries website.

Dialogue & Discussion

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