In the last weekend of June 2023, we held a strategy meeting in the ibis Styles near Birmingham NEC. The main outcome of this meeting was the decision for our focus to the end of the decade to be Quality, Value, and Growth; I’ll go into this in a bit more detail along with other decisions and issues raised, below. But firstly, why did we need this meeting in the first place?
It’s a bit of an understatement to say there’s been a lot going on in Free UK Genealogy recently; from personnel changes to turning our finances around and lots more besides. It’s very much been a time of reinforcing our foundations so that we have a stable base to build on for the future. But what do we want for the future of FreeUKGEN? I’m sure everyone reading this will have an opinion on where our focus should be, but how do we unify these in a way that can help drive our work forward? We decided to hold an in-person meeting for trustees, staff and volunteers to discuss the issues, share ideas and suggest solutions.
Free UK Genealogy has ALWAYS been a remote organisation, so why spend valuable resources on meeting up in person rather than online?
There’s been a lot of research since the COVID pandemic on remote working, and it’s widely accepted as a Good Thing. Certainly, our approach (with the caveat of one physical meeting/conference per year pre-COVID) has saved the charity a lot of money on overheads over the years! However, recent research has suggested that a fully-remote mode of working actually decreases average productivity by 10% to 20%, with “challenges in communicating and innovating in an entirely remote environment” being one of the suggested causes. The last opportunity for us to get together was in 2019 at our conference in York. Some of our staff and trustees have never met each other, never mind being able to meet with our volunteers! We felt it was important to have this meeting in person, as not only could it be a boost to productivity, but also help bring us closer as a community. Indeed, the feedback we received from attendees confirmed this, as these quotes show:
“I think it was much more productive, allowing us to all feel like a real team, working together on a common goal.”
“The meeting gave me an opportunity to learn more about the overall parts of the organisation, its strengths and challenges, meet people in different areas and roles, share experiences and insights.”
There were four sessions across the two days.
To set the scene for the meeting, Andrew Turvey, chair of trustees, opened the discussions with a session on our overall purpose: what are we aiming to achieve together and how? What should the main focus be?
It started with the idea of "Target 1 billion" - a proposed goal of reaching 1 billion records in our databases by the end of this decade. Although a catchy soundbite, it was met with some apprehension and concern that the quality of transcriptions could suffer and we could miss opportunities to maximise the value that users can get from the data we already have. Therefore the consensus was that a more holistic approach was needed - hence the adoption of "Quality, Value, Growth" as the overall focus.
Richard Light (trustee and technical specialist) followed this with an overview of the way we handle data across the whole of its life cycle in FreeUKGEN. The TWYS (type what you see) approach was discussed, as well as the potential for using machine-aided transcriptions, e.g. OCR. He noted that the FreeComETT online transcription framework offers us the potential to have a consistent data capture approach across all three projects.
Each of the projects is in a different situation in terms of sourcing images for transcription. Richard pointed out that we can only manage ‘supply and demand’ of images effectively if we have a good understanding of the sources which are available to us, the quantity of material that they hold, and the throughput of our volunteers. Changes in strategy, such as the use of OCR or the acquisition of machine-processed data, could have a dramatic impact both on the nature of the transcription workflow and on the rate at which material can be processed.
TWYS has drawbacks when it comes to information retrieval, and we need to develop an information handling strategy that enables both transcribers and researchers to find variously-spelled versions of the same name (etc.). This might involve allowing variants to be recorded in the data, or could be supported by ‘alternative names’ in authority files, as is being pioneered by the FreeREG and FreeCEN place name gazetteers.
A single unified search interface, allowing researchers to search across all three FUG projects, would offer considerable benefits to our user base. We should also consider how best to support researchers, for example by allowing them to save both searches and search results, and by offering them a range of export formats for this data. Exporting search results as GEDCOM [in the absence of anything better] would facilitate the transfer of their findings to other genealogy web sites.
My session covered the people in FreeUKGEN, including the staff and volunteers with Andrew talking about Governance, specifically, in the latter part.
The group agreed that decisions should be made on an organisation-first basis i.e. to satisfy the needs of the organisation as a whole, rather than individuals within the organisation. In practice, this means that we decide on the charity’s priorities together, and develop clear policies and terms of reference so that all stakeholders are aware of individual and joint responsibilities and expectations.
It was felt that we should spend some of our financial surplus on more staff as there are so few of them supporting so many volunteers, the priority areas of need being Fundraising (incl. Comms) (to further grow our income) and Technical (a junior developer to support the software needs of the websites). However, we also identified that we could strengthen our volunteer agreements in an effort to reduce volunteer turnover. [Clarification: We have a high number of Foundation and Tech Volunteers (those volunteers who support the staff, often in areas outside of their expertise) who leave shortly after they've been onboarded, which wastes a significant amount of our limited staff resource. It was suggested that we could strengthen our volunteer agreement to reduce this high turnover.]
We know that there are a number of Coordinators with significant workloads; a situation that has persisted as volunteers have left projects and existing members have taken on portions of the work that needed to be done. More effective succession planning is needed, and looking after the well-being of Coordinators should be prioritised.
Andrew discussed the structure of the trustees, who are established on a "Foundation" model. Whilst the logical choice when the founders were the trustees, there's an option to transition to a more membership model where there is a broader body of members - perhaps transcribers and other volunteers - who elect the trustees. There was no major demand to move to this model at present. Attendees also discussed trustee terms. These are currently set at nine years, with a gap of one year. Some attendees felt the term should be shorter and the gap should also be longer. However, there was also support for allowing the board flexibility to extend a term beyond nine years if there are exceptional reasons.
Regarding decision making in the organisation, it was felt that we should bring the project volunteers, the staff and the board closer together. Andrew proposed we create a Steering Group for each project, which everyone supported. These groups would have a good mix of trustees, staff and volunteers, with clear terms of reference and meet once every month or two. This should enhance communication and improve the speed and efficacy of decisions that affect the projects, and the focus on key priorities and challenges.
It addition, it was agreed to reestablish a cross-project technical committee.
It was agreed that the Advisory Board should be disbanded, with members encouraged to get involved with the new committees.
Feedback also identified a need to exploit untapped potential for publicity, promoting the projects among genealogists and increasing usage.
Giorgio Abraini and Kate Streatfield, both trustees, ended the presentations with a look into the financial side of what we do. Giorgio spoke from a “where we are now” perspective, and Kate looked forward in terms of what we could be doing to further increase our income. The group suggested lots of ideas to explore for extra sources of income (including placing ads in more places, e.g. ComETT; creating instructional videos and placing ads within them; seeking small grants for new projects/roles) and those we would not want to seek at this time. The Fundraising Steering Group will take these suggestions forward in the planning of the next Fundraising Strategy.
What does the new strategy mean? We'll be fleshing that out over the coming weeks, but fundamentally:
- Quality - maintain/improve the quality of our transcriptions.
- Value - build user research into our development plans and allow users to get as much from our records as possible.
- Growth - grow the number of transcriptions, volunteers and users.
This strategy weekend signalled a commitment: from now on, we will ensure that decisions reflect the whole Free UK Genealogy community. WE might be remote but decisions shouldn't be!
We'll shortly be inviting expressions of interest for the new committees. If you have any queries about what's involved please get in touch with me (Denise) or Andrew.