All participants and managers are volunteers, though their work is usually funded by their employers or sponsors; for instance, the current chairperson is funded by VeriSign and the U.S. government's National Security Agency.
The IETF is organized into a large number of working groups and informal discussion groups (BoF)s, each dealing with a specific topic. Each group is intended to complete work on that topic and then disband. Each working group has an appointed chairperson (or sometimes several co-chairs), along with a charter that describes its focus, and what and when it is expected to produce. It is open to all who want to participate, and holds discussions on an open mailing list or at IETF meetings, where the entry fee is currently around USD $650 per person. The mailing list consensus is the primary basis for decision of-making. There is no voting procedure, as it operates on rough consensus process.
The working groups are organized into areas by subject matter. Current areas include: Applications, General, Internet, Operations and Management, Real-time Applications and Infrastructure, Routing, Security, and Transport. Each area is overseen by an area director (AD), with most areas having two co-ADs. The ADs are responsible for appointing working group chairs. The area directors, together with the IETF Chair, form the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG), which is responsible for the overall operation of the IETF. The groups will normally be closed once the work described in its charter is finished. In some cases, the WG will instead have its charter updated to take on new tasks as appropriate.
A committee of ten randomly chosen volunteers who participate regularly at meetings is vested with the power to appoint, reappoint, and remove members of the IESG, IAB, IASA, and the IAOC. To date, no one has been removed by a NOMCOM, although several people have resigned their positions, requiring replacements.
The first IETF meeting was on January 16, 1986, consisting of 21 U.S.-government-funded researchers. It was a continuation of the work of the earlier GADS Task Force.
Initially, it met quarterly, but from 1991, it has been meeting 3 times a year. Representatives from non-governmental entities were invited starting with the fourth IETF meeting, during October of that year. Since that time all IETF meetings have been open to the public. The majority of the IETF's work is done on mailing lists, and meeting attendance is not required for contributors.
The initial meetings were very small, with fewer than 35 people in attendance at each of the first five meetings. The maximum attendance during the first 13 meetings was only 120 attendees. This occurred at the 12th meeting held during January 1989. These meetings have grown in both participation and scope a great deal since the early 1990s; it had a maximum attendance of 2,810 at the December 2000 IETF held in San Diego, CA. Attendance declined with industry restructuring during the early 2000s, and is currently around 1,200.
During the early 1990s the IETF changed institutional form from an activity of the U.S. government to an independent, international activity associated with the Internet Society.
There are statistics available that show who the top contributors have been, by RFC publication.. While the IETF only allows for participation by individuals, and not by corporations or governments, sponsorship information is available from those same statistics.
The details of its operations have changed considerably as it has grown, but the basic mechanism remains publication of draft specifications, review and independent testing by participants, and republication. Interoperability is the chief test for IETF specifications becoming standards. Most of its specifications are focused on single protocols rather than tightly interlocked systems. This has allowed its protocols to be used in many different systems, and its standards are routinely re-used by bodies which create full-fledged architectures (e.g. 3GPPIMS).
Because it relies on volunteers and uses "rough consensus and running code" as its touchstone, results can be slow whenever the number of volunteers is either too small to make progress, or so large as to make consensus difficult, or when volunteers lack the necessary expertise. For protocols like SMTP, which is used to transport e-mail for a user community in the many hundreds of millions, there is also considerable resistance to any change that is not fully backwards compatible. Work within the IETF on ways to improve the speed of the standards-making process is ongoing but, because the number of volunteers with opinions on it is very great, consensus mechanisms on how to improve have been slow.
Because the IETF does not have members (nor is it an organisation per se), the Internet Society provides the financial and legal framework for the activities of the IETF and its sister bodies (IAB, IRTF,...). Recently the IETF has set up an IETF Trust that manages the copyrighted materials produced by the IETF. IETF activities are funded by meeting fees, meeting sponsors and by the Internet Society via its organizational membership and the proceeds of the Public Interest Registry.
IETF meetings vary greatly in where they are held. The list of past and future meeting locations can be found on the IETF meetings page. The IETF has striven to hold the meetings near where most of the IETF volunteers are located. For a long time, the goal was 3 meetings a year, with 2 in North America and 1 in either Europe or Asia (alternating between them every other year). The goal ratio is currently, during a two year period, to have 3 in North America, 2 in Europe and 1 in Asia. However, corporate sponsorship of the meetings is typically a more important factor and this schedule has not been kept strictly in order to decrease operational costs.