interview Claudia 10.2007
In her chat interview (October 2007) valerii asks claudiaab her opinions and hopes on the challenges faced by BeWelcome and BeVolunteer. Some of the topics discussed in the interview are BeWelcome and democracy: a challenge and an opportunity; the integration of new volunteers into ongoing discussions; and focusing on intercultural understanding and communication.
Hi! And welcome home, hope your vacation was good
Yes, just too short, as always ;-)
Could you first tell me your positions at BeVolunteer (BV) and BeWelcome (BW)?
Ok, in BeVolunteer I am a member of the board of directors (BoD) and its vice secretary, which means I help Pierre-Charles pietshah to keep an eye on all the discussions going on within BV and if needed try to move the discussions to a conclusion. I am also in charge of moderating the BoD meetings most of the time and writing the reports.
For BeWelcome I am most active as the support team coordinator. Training volunteers to use the OTRS, our email management system, recruiting volunteers and of course answering members' feedbacks.
Just so I'm clear on the relationship between BV and BW - BV is a non-profit which runs BW as a project?
Yes, BV is the legal organization running BW. This means BW members do not need to become a member of BV.
Speaking as a new person, I'm not that clear on how these organizations got started... could you explain how they began and your role in the process?
Ok, sure. First of all, all the founders had been very active volunteers for Hospitality Club (HC). In the beginning our aim was to give the volunteers of HC a legal and free platform for any discussions. When it turned out that cooperation with the HC founder would not be possible on these terms, we decided to split from HC and create a new network: BeWelcome. This is why we had to change the first version of the BeVolunteer statutes as well as our name (formerly HCvolunteers), since they reflected our cooperation with HC. So, apart from setting up the new network BeWelcome we also worked on new statutes for BeVolunteer. Now that more and more volunteers without any connection to HC have started working for BeVolunteer / BeWelcome, we can clearly say that we are over this stage.
I see... am I right in understanding that democratic process plays a real role in both organisations? If so, how do you see the democratic process working for BW?
Well, basically the idea was to keep politics a bit out of BeWelcome - to be honest, most users don't care too much and are happy as long as the site works. However, if they are interested, they can join the volunteers' teams and within those teams decisions are made according to majorities. The teams consist of a mixture of BW volunteers without BV membership and volunteers who are at the same time members of BV.
Within the teams, there is no difference between them, but BV members can also elect (and be elected as) the BoD, which makes every-day decisions for the whole of BV / BW, and they can also discuss things that do not concern BW but BV.
Even though the BW members are not directly involved in the democratic process, we are planning on discussing new features openly on the BW forum so that we can take their opinions into account.
In this approach then, you are coupling responsibility/willingness to do work, with actually having the power to vote, was that done in a purposeful way?
Because often it is the disconnection between the two that causes problems.
Yes, from our experience there are often very loud voices in forums that ask for certain features, but are not willing to accept the pragmatic approach that every feature needs people to program and work on it. Also the fact that 15 people cry out loud for something in a forum does not really mean that they actually represent a majority. Many users simply do not care that much about forums and never read what is going on there. So we really wanted to give people the opportunity to contribute in a democratic and very transparent way but also limit the democratic process to informed volunteers who are also willing to take responsibility.
I see.. has that been working well so far?
Yes, so far it has. Even though sometimes we also find some rather passive members of BeVolunteer, we have never had a problem with people trying to impose their opinion even though they are not informed at all. So basically we are still trying to find ways to keep volunteers active and informed and draw their attention to the hotspots of discussions or polls going on in our volunteer forum. The other issue is that we do want to get more opinions of 'normal users' of BeWelcome. For that we are hoping to make the BW forum more lively and used for these kinds of discussions.
A lot of new volunteers are now arriving from Couchsurfing (CS). Do you see a bit of a ""culture"" between HC and CS volunteers - meaning different approaches, expectations, or goals? If so... how do you think BW should proceed in working with these differences?
I'm glad that we are actually over the stage of 'former HC volunteers setting up a new site'. Many of the new volunteers bring a huge potential of knowledge and skills and I find it quite refreshing to get fresh and new input. Regardless of what the background is, we will have the 'problem' that every new volunteer will question decisions made before they joined. To a certain degree this is normal and fine, I just hope we will find the right balance of getting things done that have been decided and still be open to modify decisions once taken if new information / arguments are brought up. So far I have the opinion that it's worked well, even when a larger number of former CS volunteers joined more or less at the same time. To the contrary, sometimes the 'old' volunteers are a bit stuck in their work. For example working on the statutes over and over again, you don't see any flaws any more, so it helps a lot if new volunteers raise new questions and thus help to perfect things.
Communication problems and lack of transparency seem to have been a big issue for former volunteers from both CS and HC. Do you see a larger focus on insuring not just transparency, but an attempt to optimize communications to members, volunteers, and team leaders/BoD, as being a good idea?
In other words, is improving communications all around an area of focus for you?
Definitely. We started as a rather small circle, so communication was quite easy. Now we see that some information does not arrive where it should be. It will be one of the challenges to organize communication very efficiently without putting up too much 'bureaucracy' that might be demotivating for volunteers. To be honest, I do not have any great new ideas for that, but I'm sure others will come up with good ideas there ;-)
To take the larger view for a moment, how do you see the role of BW not just in the network of hospex sites, but within social networking in the Web2.0 world?
Well, even though you don't see it very much yet on the BW site, we are actually striving for expanding beyond the mere accommodation aspect. Even the travelling aspect is too much of a restriction to what we have in mind. Our focus is on cultural exchange as a whole. This can happen in real life but also online. Most of us prefer the real life aspect, but we should not forget that many people do not have the possibility to travel at all. We would love to get some more input about how we can connect these people more with our network. So far there seems to be a focus on the Western perspective, but we would be glad to shift this if more people from countries that have internet connections but not enough resources to travel themselves joined and showed us their perspective.
Interesting! I've been wondering how much emphasis BW intends to place on intercultural understanding and communication... is this one of the big challenges you see for BW?
Yes, definitely. In BeVolunteer there are even ideas to create a platform for scientists for this issue.
The problem is that even though we are interested in 'other' perspectives, it would not work to take them on ourselves...
Scientists.. wow great! That in itself could comprise a whole new set of perspectives. Could you explain what you mean though about not taking them on yourselves?
Well the majority of BeWelcome volunteers and BV members are from Europe or Northern America. Some exceptions, but we do not have any (or many) volunteers from Southern America, Asia, Africa and definitely not from developing countries. It would be a bit futile to assume ourselves what they would want in a network like BW. It would basically mean Westerners telling them how they should feel or what they should think...
Is BW willing, then to create a bit of infrastructure to support dialogue across these cultures? A few volunteers are very interested in creating real bridges in communications across cultures and the world; would you consider this as part of BW's basic mission?
Yes, definitely. But so far we are lacking good ideas to really make this work and most of all to recruit members and volunteers from those countries.
Ah i see... i think some of us are planning to help with that
Aside from this, what are you seeing as some of the major challenges BW faces in the next year or two?
I guess keeping the balance of providing new features for the hospex side of the site that many members are most interested in but also not loosing touch with our other ideas and 'missions' to provide more than just hospex features
Ok... well one thing i notice as a newbie is that the 'groups' feature doesn't have a clear path to setting up new groups, forums or discussions (though I haven't explored in depth). Are you open to creating, for instance, forums with topics for serious discussion on the world? Getting outside of thinking about hospex and traveling into the bigger picture of global concerns?
Basically this is up to the users themselves. They can of course start those discussions and also create groups for that. We do not want to interfere too much there. There is just a requirement to find 9 more members to create a group, but that should not be too difficult, I think.
What are other ideas or branches of BW or BV that you are actively engaged in exploring right now? Anything you want to alert members to?
Hm, not really - at the moment I'm too busy with my new job and keeping track of the 'old BW / BV jobs' to explore new branches.
How important do you feel 'appreciation' is in a purely volunteer organization? Can BW work out some good methods for helping everyone stay positive, and creating a win-win-win kind of mentality? The emotional side of volunteering can be very important.
Yes, this is true. I think we all have to learn a bit more in this direction. Of course our focus is often on the problems and the bugs that still need to be fixed. There is too little praise for what is working very well. But I personally also find it often a bit difficult to give this praise without sounding too much like a teacher - which actually I am LOL.
LOL!!! Well.. it may be that the world, and all of us, can use more teachers!
I can see from the site and the structures underlying it, that many people including you have put a lot of thought into BW and BV. Let me thank you on behalf on the many new arrivals for thinking through some of the difficult problems, and being willing to hear new voices so all can create something fantastic together. Thanks!