A Year in Review for the Ronin Institute: 2022

Yet another year in our rearview mirror. Looking back at last year’s Year in Review, I had written: 

“Here’s our wishlist for 2022: prototyping a Ronin College, implementing a membership management platform, hosting more Interest Group Pluses, kicking off an invited speaker series, organizing a mentorship program for Scholars, developing an institutional evaluation approach, finalizing a new membership web page with diversity indicators, articulating our first strategic plan, and many other unforeseen ventures and dreams.”   

We did many of those things! The last three items are the exceptions, but they are still on our radar as priorities for 2023. 

Our accomplishments really show what can be done with some great community coordination, really smart and talented members, scrappiness, and a willingness to try. Incredibly, we did all of this with almost all volunteer effort, and some part-time administration work by Jon Wilkins and Arika Virapongse

Our community

Our biggest accomplishment in the community this year was our Membership management platform. And wow, this thing has changed everything for us! Alex Lancaster–with help from Rami Saydjari (both from the Infrastructure Working Group)–spearheaded this project. Alex took an off-the-shelf free version of a membership management platform and completely customized it to match our membership process and needs. 

This membership management platform now allows our volunteer onboarding team from the Membership WG to easily bring on new members with the push of a few buttons, and these new members can now also set up their own profiles. Both of these tasks used to be laboriously manual processes that were rife with human error. In addition to this, the platform helps members stay up to date with our policies, and also disembark from the Ronin Institute when they are ready to move on. 

Image: A screenshot of the log-in page for our new membership management system for Ronin Institute Research Scholars.

Working Groups (WG) are the main way that we govern and get things done around the Ronin Institute. They’ve been going strong this year, including meeting once a month without fail. These groups are also where all Scholars have an opportunity to take part in shaping the Ronin Institute. Participating in a WG can look like weighing in on a WG Slack channel, attending a WG meeting to listen in or share thoughts, or, more actively, helping out with or leading a WG activity.

Here, I share the accomplishments of each WG over 2022. 

Governance Working Group (WG)

Scope: Coordinates across all WGs & the overall Ronin Community. The Governance WG meetings are also where the Advisory Board meets.
Co-leads in 2022: Arika Virapongse & Jon Wilkins

  • Made the decision to aim for two co-leads for each WG. Such a leadership structure helps to build resilience within our governance structure, by setting up a succession plan and relieving burden on one person, while diversifying decision-making and leadership style within the community. 
  • Reviewed individual stories of our members. Over the course of 3 meetings, we read and discussed the results of Keith Tse’s surveys (120 surveys) that he’s been sending to newer members to understand why they joined and what they hoped for by being part of the Ronin Institute.  
  • Mid-year, we implemented policy requirements for members, namely 1. Code of Conduct, 2. the Human Subjects Research policy, and 3. the expectations outlined in the Founding Values statement. We also revised these documents, and worked on turning our Welcome Packet for new Research Scholars into a more collaborative doc (PDF to google doc).
  • Implemented our use of Consensus decision-making as a process for deliberating major decisions. 

Why do we have an Advisory Board? The Advisory Board represents at least one lead from each WG and it’s one of the rare closed community groups that we have at the Ronin Institute. Our Advisory Board helps to address community activities/issues that require some level of privacy. For example, when we send out a survey, or when there is a conflict between members. The Advisory Board also provides a consistent source of guidance and ideas for how to develop our community. We would not be who we are today without this committed group of people!

Communication WG

Scope: Develops the approach, structure, and guidance for how the Ronin Institute messages, publicizes, and disseminates information about the institute and between its members.
Co-leads in 2022: Keith Tse and Heather O’Connor; Emily Monosson (stepped down in 2022)

  • We delivered the same number of newsletters as in year 2021, and had the same rate of audience growth for our broader mailing list:
    • 51 weekly Updates were sent to our Scholars in 2022 (we always take one week off at the end of the year).
    • 4 Kitsune newsletters were sent to our broader mailing list, which also grew by 150 new contacts over 2022 (we had about 1000 contacts total at the end of 2022). Many thanks to our hardworking volunteer Kitsune Newsletter team: Emily Monosson, Heather O’Connor, Varsha Dani, Ainara Mancebo.  
  • Our social media continues to be an active place:
    • Twitter: We have 1624 followers; our all time activity on Twitter since inception is currently 2754 tweets. Many thanks to Keith Tse and Alex Lancaster for most of these posts!
    • LinkedIn: 266 new followers in 2022; 1,055 total followers.
    • Facebook: We currently have 1,100 likes  and 1,200 followers.
  • We’re pretty proud of our blog, which is the result of hard work by our volunteer blog editing team: Heather Maughan, Alex Lancaster, and Keith Tse. We published 15 blog posts by 16 different Research Scholars (for comparison, we published 34 blog posts in 2021).
  • Slack continues to be where all the action is at. Our activity seems to have climbed a little higher than last year (averaging around 80 people active per week)(see Image below). One reason that our activity might not have risen as much is due to our Membership renewal (see below in Membership WG). 

“I have been lead of the Communication WG since it began in year 2020. One worry I have with these sorts of volunteer leads and groups is when it’s time to go will anyone want to take the lead? I am grateful that Keith (who had been co-lead for a while) and Heather volunteered and are bringing new ideas and energy to Ronin Communications!”

– Emily Monosson, former Communication WG co-lead

“I jumped in as a co-chair of the Communications WG just three months after I joined Ronin. I was inspired by the “everybody drives a truck” philosophy and excited that I did not have to wait to be approached individually and asked to consider a specific volunteer role (as is the culture at some organizations). At Ronin, the invitation to help is open to all from the beginning and remains open…I read about what each of the WGs did, made a shortlist of which would best fit my interests, and then asked which of those was more in need of volunteers. It’s been a great way to learn more about the organization and its members.”

– Heather O’Connor, Communication WG co-lead

Events WG

Scope: Plans and organizes events and structures that help Scholars showcase their work, engage with each other, and expand their knowledge and skill set.
Co-leaders for 2022: Jeni Hunniecutt and Syb de Clark; Arika Virapongse (stepped down in 2022)

  • We’ve continued to use Zoom and KumoSpace as our main online event venues. 
  • YouTube: We had 20 new videos uploaded to our channel (less than 2021’s 28 videos). Our most viewed video of the year (and of all time) is John LaRocco’s Lightning talk on “AKLO: Synthetic Telepathy for Cognitive Enhancement” with over 1100 views! I’d also like to thank our video editing team of 2022: John Larocco and Keith Tse, while Syb de Clark and Paola Di Maio joined towards the end of the year to help out. 
  • End of the year Holiday Party: This was our third consecutive holiday party! We got to play our To Tell the Truth game again, and have a scavenger hunt on KumoSpace. It was a nice way to end the year. Hosted by Keith Tse, Syb de Clark, and Arika Virapongse. 
  • Event series:
    • Lightning Tag Talk (10 events; two more than last year’s!) – We’ve continued this event series from 2021 and have had 17 different presenters (11 men and 6 women). 
    • Ronin R&R (2 events) – This was a new quarterly event series featuring an invited speaker and networking/interaction between scholars. Our two events had themes on Robots and children, and Digital preservation
    • Research Skills 101 (2 events) – This was a new event series that focuses on one or more Scholars sharing their skills and expertise on a topic. The two events were on Writing a research grant budget, and Doing science
Image: Our cozy holiday party venue on Kumospace.

“We succeeded in establishing a smooth workflow, which has resulted in well-attended events that become available on Youtube very quickly. All good and encouraging things for the speakers and the Ronin Institute in general. The Holiday Event was really fun. It was a great way to share a small aspect of Ronin with family members, in addition to meeting more Ronin scholars.”

– Syb de Clark, Events WG co-lead

“I am proud we have created two new event series: the Ronin R&R Event and Research Skills 101. The Ronin R&R events help us build new relationships throughout the Ronin Institute, and the Research Skills series provides education and fosters knowledge sharing among this community.”

– Jeni Hunniecutt, Events WG co-lead

 

Infrastructure WG

Scope: Coordinates, maintains, and administers the technical aspects of the Ronin Institute. 
Co-leads for 2022: Alex Lancaster and Rami Saydjari (stepped down in 2022).

  • Developed our customized membership management/application system.
  • Added the capability to use non-latin scripts on our website (no easy feat!), so now our members can write their names in their heart languages.
  • For our members’ email accounts, we monitored and made adjustments to their storage and also helped troubleshoot their access to these accounts.
  • We shored up our internet security.

“We’re really proud that we managed to test, launch and deploy our WordPress-based membership application system. This is involved a lot of work from multiple Research Scholars, especially Rami Saydjari (who first identified the right plugin to use and trialed the system), to migrate from the old Google Forms-based application system, but it was totally worth it, since the system also handles self-updates to Research Scholar profiles. It was a team effort, and in particular I want to give a shout-out to Arika Virapongse, John Paulas, Emily Monosson and Jon Wilkins, who all provided valuable input and beta testing. Working together with everyone on this project to get it right, was a highlight of the WG in 2022.”

– Alex Lancaster Infrastructure WG lead

Membership WG

Scope: Supports the development of criteria, transparency, and flow to how people join and get more involved in the Institute.
Co-leads for 2022: John Paulas and Tanja Pelzmann; Sheilamae Ablay (stepped back in 2022)

  • We continued to fine-tune membership requirements, including policies and application submission materials for new members.
  • Supported membership inclusivity, which resulted in efforts like new affinity groups (Disability IG and Ronin Women IG), adjustments to our demographic survey, and the continuation of discussions on social equity and diversity in the Ronin Institute.
  • Held 5 orientations for prospective and new members to understand the Ronin Institute better.
  • Kicked off an Orientation Welcome team.
  • Played a large role in developing the membership management system, including helping to shape the membership application process and fine-tune the questions and requirements.
  • Contributed to our policy for handling membership privacy, including the storage of members’ data.
  • Revised our policy around how members can use the Ronin Institute affiliation
  • Responded to almost 100 inquiries emails (members who write to us via our contact form), and ignored probably about the same number of spam. 
  • Onboarded 45 new members (we had 80 new members in 2021; this might be a reflection of our implementation of a new Community First approach for new members in mid-2021 which helped ensure that members were joining the Ronin Institute for the right reasons).
  • Led the membership renewal effort, which included checking in with members who had been out of communication with the Ronin Institute. After membership renewal, our original membership of 523 scholars dropped to 346 Scholars (73.9% renewed), and we believe that our membership now reflects the people who really choose to be here. 

“We are most proud of playing our part in the Institute’s big shift to an entirely new system of membership management and, in doing so, making improvements to the processes of welcoming prospective Ronin Scholars, handling applications, onboarding, off-boarding, and renewal.”

– John Paulas & Tanja Pelzmann, Membership WG co-leads

Research WG

Scope: Guides and builds capacity for scholars to conduct research through the Ronin Institute.
Co-leads of 2022: Michelle Susberry Hill and Herbert Bernstein.

  • We implemented the Human Research Project Program (HRPP) process including figuring out how to review protocols and how to handle our due diligence and data privacy. The HRPP is chaired by Arika Virapongse, and we reviewed 3 protocols.
  • Implemented the requirement for all scholars to agree to the Human Subjects Research (HSR) policy that is now used as part of the membership renewal system. 
  • Revised the existing HSR policy in preparation for the 2023 membership renewal.
  • Developed and implemented the Financial Conflict of Interest (COI) that is now used as part of the grant administration process (see below). 
  • To help build more capacity among our Scholars, we launched the Research Skills 101 event series in partnership with the Events WG.

“I am most proud of our organization being able to provide Exempt IRB’s to Scholars.”

– Michelle Susberry Hill, Research WG co-lead

Interest Groups

Learn more about our Interest groups here

Interest Group Plus (IG+)

These groups are committed to meeting regularly and reaching short- and long-term goals. 

We’ve had two new IG+s this year: Ronin Women IG+ (on-going) and Ronin College IG+ (now closed). In the meantime, CAMP IG+ continues to be a really vibrant space for our members interested in Math and Physics. 

Interest Groups (IGs or #ig-)

These groups exist as Slack channels, and may decide to level up their activity to an IG+. 

Our Ronin Institute Slack workspace hosts a total of 34 active IGs! 

Our new IGs founded in 2022 are: 

  • IG-philosophy
  • IG-ronin-disabilities-and-health-problems
  • IG-human-evolution
  • IG-neurodiversity
  • IG-science-lab-brainstorming
  • IG-interesting-papers
  • IG-interplanetaries

In addition to Interest groups, our members also organize around regions (#region- on Slack) so Scholars can discuss and share information relevant to a specific place. These channels also help Scholars organize in-person meetups! This is something that we’d love to encourage more now that we are post-pandemic. 

Scholar achievements 

Our Scholars have been incredibly productive in 2022. Take a look at Our Work to see the 182 cited works by our Scholars who mostly used the Ronin Institute as an affiliation (most likely an undercount; comparatively, we recorded 70 works in 2021 but our recording system has gotten a lot better in 2022!). Scholars have given presentations, written books, published chapters, reports, preprints, and articles, been mentioned in the media, and given exhibitions. 

On our Achievements channel on Slack (where Scholars post about their successes) there were 1264 messages posted by 60 Scholars in 2022. While not all of these messages represent a specific success (and Keith Tse also works really hard to find and post publicly available new work by our Scholars), it does demonstrate that Scholars have had many successes to report and plenty to discuss about Scholars’ achievements.

Financial management

Our financial management of the Ronin Institute is mostly done by our heroic volunteer Board of Directors: Richard Murray, Steven Orzack, and Jon Wilkins. This year we also gained new assistance from key support staff like Judy Schaefer (see below) and Arika Virapongse. 

Most of the financial management consists of managing the Ronin Institute’s Sponsored Research Office, which helps Scholars submit funding proposals and administers the money that is received from funders (aka sponsors). For this work, the Ronin Institute receives an “indirect fee”, and this indirect fee is the main source of income that we use to run the Institute. 

Our main successes for 2022: 

We got Judy! Most of you have not had the pleasure of meeting Judy Schaefer (a contract accountant from Internet Technologies, Inc), but she has become one of our best kept secrets. Anyone who has been running a grant through the Ronin Institute has certainly worked with her already. But Judy’s impact on the Ronin Institute this year goes beyond just cleaning up our accounting processes. She’s been helping us become a lot more efficient, consistent, and accountable with how we manage our finances and the Institute overall. 

We improved our grant submissions workflow for Scholars. To help comply with federal regulations for administering US federal research grants we now have two new forms that Scholars fill out when they seek to apply for a grant through the Ronin Institute: Conflict of Interest (COI) form & Grant Proposal Submission form. 

We completed our first major financial audit. This audit enables us to begin the process of having a federally negotiated indirect rate for grants in 2023. Without this federally negotiated rate, we’ve been having to settle for an indirect rate that does not reflect the amount of work that it actually takes for us to manage grants (including our work in the community!). Having this major audit under our belt helps to bring in more funding for us to run the Ronin Institute and support our community, build our credibility as a research institute, and increase our ability to manage more grants from our Scholars. 

Number of Scholars funded: 15

Total number of grants managed: 13

Grant sources: 

  • Sloan Foundation
  • Arcadia Charitable Trust
  • Delta Stewardship Council
  • U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) (6 grants)
  • Donations from individuals given directly to a Scholar

In addition to these funding sources, we administered one third-party contract as a fiscal agent and received generous donations from a few of our Scholars. Most importantly, we received lots of in-kind support to the tune of hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours from our Scholars. 

These financial sources and in-kind support represent the majority of our funding that makes it possible to run the Ronin Institute. Thank you everyone for your support! 

Our wishlist for 2023

We’re already on a roll for 2023. The goals we’ve got our eyes on for this year are: An institutional strategic plan, a revamped governance structure, research ethics guidelines, Institutional evaluation approach, a grants management webpage, in-person meetups between scholars, and a new membership web page with diversity indicators. 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to all of the people who reviewed and/or contributed to this report:  John Paulas, Michelle Susberry Hill, Emily Monosson, Jeni Hunniecutt, Syb de Clark, Heather O’Connor, Rich Murray, Keith Tse, and Alex Lancaster.  

Arika is a Research Scholar and Community Director of the Ronin Institute. She is a social-ecologist who works with human-environmental issues including, community resilience, natural resource management, and the application of science. In addition, she is the Founder of Middle Path EcoSolutions, a consulting firm that helps organizations with community building.

This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.

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