FSF board frequently asked questions (FAQ)
As the Free Software Foundation (FSF) board sets about the work of strengthening the Foundation's governance structure, here are answers to some frequently asked questions about this initiative. This document will be updated as needed, as this project moves forward in the weeks ahead.
Answers to frequently asked questions about FSF governance
- What are the responsibilities of a member of the FSF board?
- What differentiates board members and voting members in FSF governance?
- How long is the term of a board member?
- Is there any compensation involved for board members?
- What are the goals of the board's effort to rewrite the FSF's bylaws?
- Why did the FSF board recently add a union staff seat on the board?
- Why is the board seeking a consultant to help design the process for identifying and recruiting new board members?
- What are the most important qualities the board is seeking in new board members?
- Who are the current board members and officers of the FSF?
- What is the relationship between FSF and the GNU Project?
- What is the financial status of FSF?
- Can the board seek advice from individuals who are not board members?
- In addition to holding a board seat, what other role or roles does Richard Stallman play in the FSF?
The responsibilities of FSF board members are described at https://www.fsf.org/about/the-role-of-the-fsfs-board-of-directors.
The board of directors does not usually deal with the everyday work of the FSF, focusing instead on the long-term direction and financial stability of the Foundation, as well as the appointment of the officers.
In addition, members of the board do not speak for the board or for the FSF. Outside of the deliberations of the board, they are private citizens. The right to speak for the Foundation is reserved to the president of the FSF and other FSF officers, such as the executive director.
When the board does make statements, each statement is carefully deliberated. No one member has this individual authority.
Voting member meetings are separate from board meetings. Voting member meetings normally discuss only who should be on the board. They do not take up the issues that come before the board itself.
The original reason for the voting members is historical. When the Foundation was formed in 1985, the founders were advised that, to qualify for a tax exemption, board members should not be chosen solely by other board members. Legal counsel advised the founders that there should be two bodies with some overlap, one being the active board and the other being a body that appointed the active board.
Governance standards have since changed, and this structure is no longer required. As part of the effort to improve FSF governance, the board can consider possible changes to this overall structure.
The FSF voting members, as of April 28, 2021, are the current directors (Odile Bénassy, Ian Kelling, Geoffrey Knauth, Henry Poole, Richard Stallman, and Gerald Sussman) and one former board member, Alexandre Oliva.
There is no formal term limit for a board member. Board members are evaluated by the voting members at regular intervals, and occasionally by the other directors. From time to time, voting members have removed board members. Board members may resign from the board if they find participation on the board stressful, or if they have a conflict of interest, or for other more personal reasons.
Board members are not compensated for their work as board members. They serve as volunteers. They may occasionally be reimbursed for expenses incurred while doing their work for the FSF.
Mission integrity is the key reason. Board members agree that the bylaws need to be written in a way that ensures that user freedom cannot be compromised by changes in the board, members, or hostile courts. Of particular concern is the future of the various GNU General Public Licenses (GPL).
Secondarily, the board agrees on the need to strengthen our board evaluation procedure as we recruit new members. The bylaws also need to change to codify the implementation of the staff seat, which was created on March 25, 2021.
In addition, since the last change to the bylaws was made in 2002, the board intends to review them and make various improvements.
For a long time, the staff has wanted more access to the board. In the aftermath of the March 2021 controversy over the election of Richard Stallman to the board, the union formally asked to have direct staff participation. Dialogue with the staff has only reinforced the truth that staff have great intelligence, commitment, insight, sensitivity, skill, and relationships within the community. Creating a staff seat on the board made eminent sense.
Why is the board seeking a consultant to help design the process for identifying and recruiting new board members?
A qualified consultant will make sure that the effort to strengthen and modernize the board and its bylaws is transparent, thorough, and professional. The process should be trusted by the current board, future members, associate members, and the broader free software movement. This is a timely and important opportunity to strengthen the FSF’s governance structure, given that some board members are planning to transition out of their roles.
A board member should hold true to two principles that are critically important:
They should be loyal to the Foundation’s firm belief that users are entitled to control their computing, individually and collectively, and therefore to control the software that does that computing.
They should uphold the integrity of copyleft and the GNU licenses. They should decide about revised licenses primarily to ensure that the programs carrying these licenses continue to give their users the four freedoms; and all else being equal in that regard, secondarily, to encourage developers to release more programs under these licenses.
Board members should steadfastly resist pressure to depart from these two principles, regardless of what goal or argument may be offered for doing so. Important real goals will never require such a sacrifice of freedom for all; there will always be a morally preferable way to achieve them.
The current directors and staff can be found at https://www.fsf.org/about/staff-and-board/.
Richard Stallman announced the plan for the GNU operating system in September 1983 with the goal of developing a self-hosting free software operating system that could replace Unix and do all that Unix could do. Actual development started around the start of 1984. The GNU Project is simply the project to develop the GNU system. By mid-1985, GNU was attracting enough interest that its advocates wanted a way to receive donations for the GNU Project and to hold and enforce copyrights. The Free Software Foundation formed for this purpose.
In the first decade of its existence, the Foundation directed most of its revenue to support for the GNU Project. Now, the GNU Project's work is done mainly by volunteers and the Foundation mostly promotes free/libre software in other ways.
Current Foundation support for GNU includes:
Supporting the hardware of servers used by the GNU Project, and administering the operating systems of some of those servers;
Holding the GNU trademark, as well as recording, registering, and enforcing copyrights on GNU software and publication;
Supporting the vitality of the GNU community, for example, by helping to recruit volunteers and contributors when needed;
Promoting GNU to the public and media; and
Ensuring that key functions are performed, on the rare occasions when volunteers are temporarily unable or unavailable to do them.
The Foundation is legally the publisher of GNU licenses, and cooperates with the GNU Project on new versions of GNU licenses. The GNU Project coordinates with the Foundation about substantive changes to some pages in www.gnu.org. These include pages about licenses, the definition of free software, and pages that elaborate the philosophy.
The FSF is in good financial health. As is the case with many organizations, the pandemic affected the FSF, impacting donors, making it impossible to host or attend in-person events, and disrupting operations. Fortunately, conservative financial planning over the years provided the FSF with sufficient reserves to weather these difficulties.
The rating organization Charity Navigator recently gave the FSF its 8th consecutive 4-star rating and, for the first time ever, a perfect overall score: https://www.fsf.org/news/free-software-foundation-awarded-perfect-score-from-charity-navigator-plus-eighth-consecutive-four-star-rating.
The FSF does not depend on large single sources of funding. It accepts and appreciates support from corporations who want to give back by contributing to the development and advocacy for free software, but direct corporate support accounted for less than 3% of FSF revenue in its most recently audited fiscal year.
The vast majority of FSF’s financial support comes from individuals -- many, but not all, of whom choose to become associate members. At this moment, the FSF has more associate members than at any time in its history.
Yes, but in many cases, there are legal impediments to the board consulting someone who is not on the board. To cite just one example, such consultations on sensitive legal matters could lead to the loss of attorney-client privilege.
In addition to holding a board seat, what other role or roles does Richard Stallman play in the FSF?
Richard Stallman frequently gives talks on free software, in his personal capacity, and, when he does so, he sells merchandise from the FSF shop, recruits volunteers for FSF and GNU, and raises donations for FSF. He is the primary author and editor of two books sold by the FSF.