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Facing the Future of ICANN’s Volunteer Recruitment

Co-authored by Maureen Hilyard, the current ALAC chair, Marita Moll, an ALAC member for NARALO and Joanna Kulesza, an EURALO ALAC member.

The musings of one volunteer summarize the problem: “As a newcomer to ICANN, I was always frustrated by the fact that I could never get a straight answer to the question ‘How much time does it take?’ There was always an awkward silence, a vaguely worded response. Now, years later, I know that no one in their right mind would sign up knowingly for the long hours and late shifts required to be a full participant in this game. It is a groundbreaking project that really matters. But you will get a lot more recognition and immediate satisfaction for volunteering far fewer hours at your local food bank.”

How can the work of volunteers at ICANN be assigned some value that encourages an individual to engage in and remain part of the team that does this complex and demanding work? That is the challenge that faces the ICANN multistakeholder system as it moves into the next phase of its evolution.

Despite community efforts, and augmented by the pandemic, the challenge of attracting and retaining volunteers to the multistakeholder system has become more apparent. When COVID brought the world to a halt, the Internet governance crowd was already accustomed to working remotely, intermittently, and across time zones—a skill set they had mastered long before “working from home” became the new normal. For some community members, their participation at ICANN could be integrated with their day jobs in ways that made the change less disruptive. The case was much different for those who offered their skills and time to ICANN outside of their professional portfolios. When everything landed on the kitchen table, ICANN calls were competing with home schooling and attending to quarantined or sick family members while adjusting to life online in many unrelated professional contexts. In the ICANN world, both of these groups contribute their time as “volunteers,” but their realities are very different.

The At Large definition of volunteers is “individuals who commit time and effort to the work of ICANN with no personal connection to the domain name industry and who pay their own costs of engagement, participation and commitment to this work.” The situation is similar for volunteers working in civil society stakeholder groups like NCUC. We suggest that this group of volunteers has struggled most with devoting parts of their daily routine to ICANN’s policy development process. And it is these groups, all essential to the multistakeholder system, who are experiencing the greatest difficulties in attracting and keeping new recruits. We note that this year, after numerous callouts for applications, the Nomcom had to extend its deadline twice in a last ditch attempt to attract participants.

This should not be considered a minor “bump in the road.” The pandemic has changed the way people value their time and efforts in all sectors of society. People are not lining up to fill volunteer positions in ICANN. This is why finding more ways to express the value of the work done by volunteers in the ICANN community matters. If we want to attract new members, what can we tell them to expect? What could be the incentives we use to get them involved? If we are unable to do a better job of answering these questions, this perpetuating crisis will only deepen. We limit ourselves to only attracting the most highly motivated idealists among potential volunteers.

At ICANN73, members of the At Large leadership team posed questions to the Board on the topic of volunteer recognition. The Board was sympathetic and asked for more input. We responded that it was unnecessary to “reinvent the wheel” that other organizations recognized this problem. Following up on this conversation with the Board, the authors of this article sent a letter with suggestions on ways to value volunteer input in the ICANN process. The letter notes that the ILO has developed a system of indicators that might be adjusted to fit the ICANN context. But it is only one example, and we have not done a full research analysis on this topic. We are suggesting that the Board undertake a study on valuing volunteer input as part of its strategic objective of evolving the MSM model. It is well known that, during the community exercise, which led to the list of issues causing friction in the MSM model, volunteer burnout loomed large. Burnout is a symptom of the difficulties linked to volunteer recruitment.

We know the Board and the entire ICANN community value its volunteers. Volunteers realize that their input is not “work” in the business sense. It is public interest work, and we, as individuals, all do it because we are committed to ICANN’s multistakeholder model. But it takes a community to support an individual and this community, as a whole, needs to find innovative ways to support its volunteer workforce. This is an invitation to start a wider discussion.

This blog post is submitted on behalf of Maureen Hilyard, the current ALAC chair, Marita Moll, an ALAC member for NARALO and Joanna Kulesza, an EURALO ALAC member. They are speaking here in their individual capacities. Together, they represent more than 25 years of volunteering at ICANN on behalf of end-user interests.

By Joanna Kulesza, EURALO ALAC member

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