RfC: Geography and Wikimedia

Ahead of our scheduled WMF Board meeting in early February, I’ve been thinking through a really hard and thorny movement-wide issue. Last time I was dealing with a similarly hard issue, I put some rough notes/questions up here and asked for your thoughts and help thinking through the issue. I’d like to try another Request for Comments with a related but bigger issue.

Let me set this up as a thought experiment. Imagine that we can all go back to the beginning of our movement. Imagine that we have a clean slate and can start fresh. But also imagine that we have the benefit of the past 10 years of experience, and with it all the lessons we’ve learned about ourselves and our strengths and weaknesses as a community.

Let’s say our objective is to define the basic structure of a movement that will most effectively help our community pursue our vision over the next 100, 200 or even 500 years. Long-term impact is the primary objective.

If we could start over, how would we organize our movement?  In particular I’d love input on three questions:

  1. Are current political/legal boundaries the best primary organization model for our movement? Or instead would we choose to build things a different way, say around each of our projects, or languages, or some of the passions among our community (e.g. a GLAM Chapter), or other special interests and topics (e.g. arbcom, comcom, translate-l)?
  2. Should we give special rights to certain kinds of movement entities (e.g. special rights to pick board seats outside of elections, exclusive access to things like the trademarks, preferred access to donor funds)?
  3. Are legal entities worth the effort on a large scale? Our current chapters model is leading us to having a hundred or more legal entities globally. Is this worth all the overhead involved? Or would informal associations and affiliations be fine in many cases?

Below are some notes that I’ve kept as I try to think through the issue. They aren’t intended to be comprehensive. Feel free to review or ignore as you think through and respond to the above questions.



Background notes

The different kinds of affiliation in our movement:
– Many editors/contributors have no organizational association. They work on their own, editing articles and making contributions without a great deal of interaction with others in the community.
– We have many loose, informal affiliations. Talk pages provide a place for editors with a shared interest in a particular article. WikiProjects bring together editors into cross-article collaboration. Village pumps provide another project-based way to build community. Other affiliations include interest groups such as GLAM, projects like Wiki Loves Monuments, and the many groups of volunteers brought together by mailing lists like comcom and translate-l.
– We have a global Wikimedia Foundation entrusted with the trademarks and with the responsibility to operate the websites and technical/legal infrastructure behind the projects.
– Finally, we have country-based chapters which receive significant special rights.

We started with geographic chapters in 2003. The model has developed so that these geographic organizations now receive rights unique in our movement including a) exclusive geographic right to use the trademark, b) preferred access to donor funds from the annual fundraiser, and c) the right to appoint two of the ten Trustees on the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation.

We’ve had one chapter grow into a large organization (Wikimedia Deutschland), and few others hire small numbers of professional staff, and others in varying degrees of development. A number of chapters appear to be defunct, with minimal or no programmatic activity.

There has never been a clear definition of success for a geographic chapter. I ask most chapter members and chapter leaders I meet what their organizational objectives are and I get widely varying answers. Few say they have a role representing or serving the editing community. So it’s not a surprise that when I ask editors about the role of the chapter where they live, I often get a shrug and a disinterested look.

As a result, we do not have a way to assess the performance of geographic chapters. How do you measure impact in a specific country when our projects are all cross border? Is it odd that a global movement is trying to organize itself around existing nation states?

Exclusive trademark use, preferred access to donor funds, and the right to appoint trustees are a really big deal. Should other groups receive these rights? ArbCom is critical, but receives no such special treatment. GLAM effort have been an extraordinary success. It has brought together a global community sharing a strong passion. It has spawned projects like Wiki Loves Monuments which are amazing in helping pursue our vision. Yet it has no special access to donor funds. It has no exclusive right to the trademarks. It has no right to appoint Board members. Is that appropriate?

Is this conflict a core driver of the failure of our movement roles effort, despite 18-24 months of effort, to drive any resolution? As someone not that involved in the movement roles effort, it seems the team has assumed that geographic chapters will be the core of our organizational design. Maybe that foundational assumption is just not the right one.

Legal entities, and fundraising activities under the Wikimedia name, create a huge amount of overhead. As the Board’s Treasurer and Chair of its Audit Committee, I have very high expectations for any legal entity granted use of the trademarks or access to donor funds. Do we get enough value out of having legal entities to justify the extra effort and overhead?

Let’s assume that fundraising or access to funds isn’t much of a priority for our movement now. Over the past 10 years our community has cracked the code on how to approach our global readership for donations. We are essentially now in a position where we collectively are able to raise all the money we can practically spend in pursuit of our mission.

Note:  The WMF Exec Director Sue Gardner has started to post some of her preliminary thinking on related issues on meta. She goes into a lot of detail and it might be worth a read.

3 Replies to “RfC: Geography and Wikimedia”

  1. Well, this is a very complex issue, and I am not sure a blog comment is the best format to discuss it, but I will try.

    First, I think one thing we are missing is cross-project collaboration. I mean there are wikiprojects, and some of them have enough critical mass, but others are just suffer from severe understaffing. To give a fictitional example, if you have two high-energy physicists on en.wp, one on fr.wp, one on de.wp, and one on ja.wp, they can not do much in their projects, but if they come together they will have enough power to organize smth. WLM is a good example of such collaboration, and it shows that (a) the language barrier is not so much of a problem and (b) even if individual projects are doing just fine, there is still some added value in collaboration. But I have never seen this collaboration going beyond GLAM. Chapters together with wikiprojects would be natural entities to organize this collaboration. Indeed, WLM was mainly done by chapters, though some were actively involved, whereas others merely agreed to have their name provided someone takes an initiative. (And some were not interested, and it was the end of WLM in their respective countries). These efforts can be one measure of success.

    The second issue is that often there must be a local organization legally representing WMF in a particular country. This is needed for organization, lobbying and other purposes. Chapter is obviously such an organization. Sometimes there have been huge success, like for instance with the German chapter. Sometimes there are problems, like for instance permanent scandals with WMF Brazil or complete untransparency of WMF Russia which does not accept members and doe not have a public mailing list. Obviously every chapter needs to convey some activity, for instance, filing a tax declaration with authorities, or have meetings of the chapter members, but if there is smth beyond this activity, which is clearly directed not to the maintaining the activity of the chapter, but to the legal and organizational activity in line with the WM mission, this is another measure of success. If the chapter only serves to maintain its own existence it is not successful.

    Concerning the separation, I believe we need all the branches: community projects, geographically oriented chapters, and also topical groups. We should not forget that bureacracy has a tendency to expand and it never shrinks, which always attracts people not really interested in WM mission, but rather in getting to the center of attention for free.


  2. 1)
    Political boundaries are a natural way to organize global activities although many companies follow a matrix model where they have a dual structure. One arranged according to political boundaries and another one arranged according to products or functions. This is what also do many nonprofits. In our case we could have vertical chapters according to geography and horizontal chapters according to languages and/or projects.

    But our movement is grassroots. I think that any fixed model has a root problem of being seen as a top down imposed one. I think what we should do is draw guidelines and ideas on few models how things can be organized and then let volunteers to go out of the model if they have good reasons to do it.

    I think nobody should have any special right without earning it. For example in Chapter elected board members I think it is not fair that chapters doing almost nothing have the same voting power than others working a lot. Also I cant understand why Glam wiki project that is more active than many chapters doesn’t have its voice. And this is not only a mater of being fair with them this is also a mater of having involved the organizations that can bring more valuable inputs.

    If we where to redesign the entire system my proposal would be let the power emerge from the editing communities and let them evaluate the results of each organization and grant those rights accordingly to this evaluation.

    My opinion is that chapters and other legal entities are tools to do the job. I think we must start from the end. Once a group has an idea of its goals then they can see what tool is needed and create the simplest one. I guess that the natural way could be start without a legal entity in an informal way. Then if the need of signing agreements and managing continuous flows of money appears go for a legal entity. When the activities of this legal entity continues growing then give them a formal recognition as long as they gain the confidence of the editing communities and then grant them progressively the special rights (or perhaps we should say the tools) they deserve and they need.


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