Combating Apathy in [Free and Open Source] Communities – Part 2

This article is a part of a three part series, if you haven't read the first part, you really should.

Why don’t more people actually volunteer 2-3 hours per month?

One word, Apathy.  Yes, apathy.

I believe apathy is what kills communities around the globe.  They don’t have to be any specific type of community, but when someone, or enough people stop caring about a particular activity, event or cause, the community will die.  I don’t have any cold, hard facts on this, just my experiences, what I’ve read and my gut telling me it’s so.

If it were up to me, as an individual running a medium sized community conference based around Free and Open Source Software, I’d suggest that everyone come and spend 2-3 hours volunteering at the event.  While I know that’s not realistic, it can combat the apathy of which I speak.  But that’s kind of a problem too.

Where are we heading with this discussion?

For one, there are only so many volunteer positions available at the Utah Open Source Conference, or at a LUG meeting, or any such event.  But there are events that are currently not happening.  Imagine if everyone in the FOSS community in the Mountain West spent those 2-3 hours each month either helping a particular event, or creating their own special event or group.  What would the FOSS community landscape look like?

Each month I run into at least 5 people who want to help out within UTOS.  Each time I tell them the same thing, we have lots of things we need help with, we meet here at this time each month and would love to have you attend.  On rare occasion, we get a new volunteer coming to our meetings.  Sometimes they stay, sometimes they realize it’s too much and other things are a priority, and sometimes, they get so excited, they become one of the Utah Open Source Foundation’s ‘Core Team’.  So far, it’s been working well, but recently, we’ve been experiencing growing pains of our own and a little apathy as well.

Another thing to note, larger communities tend to have already dealt with this problem and have a plethora of answers for dealing with things like Apathy, a lack of knowledge and all of the other standard problems that smaller communities must deal with to thrive.  Most of those answers aren’t documented anywhere, at least not very well documented.

How does a community suffer because of apathy?

I am going to use the Utah Open Source Foundation to give some examples of where we fail.  Currently, I fear that our community suffers from apathy for a few reasons.

  1. The economy.  While it’s definitely important for people to have jobs, a paycheck and a promise of more work, I find that this is among the lamest excuse people use for not helping.  If you aren’t participating in the community, you are doing yourself a disservice.  Just think of all of the lost opportunities for employment, education, skill improvement (aka resume material) and networking.
  2. Family.  Again, I find that a lot of people in our community use their family as an excuse for not participating.  I’m not saying that families aren’t important.  In fact, I would say that participating in the FOSS community is a perfect example of how to show your family what you do, as well as encourage them to be part of a community and volunteer their time to their passions.  Families do take time, but I can guarantee that everyone can find 2-3 hours per month to volunteer.
  3. Time.  While possibly related to the other two issues, time itself can get in the way of volunteering to help the community.  People regularly fear that they can’t dedicate enough time to help, when a community really just wants people to dedicate a few hours a month.  If you are spending a couple hours a month in front of your TV, you could cut that down and spend it helping your community instead.

Watch for part three of this series next week.