Chapters, fundraising, and “the movement”

I have to say, I’ve never been especially fond of the term “the Wikimedia movement.” Apologies to Anthere, who to the best of my knowledge coined it, but the term “movement” always seemed a little vague, and to connote a certain kind of social movement that isn’t quite right.

But maybe that vagueness is part of the power of the idea of the Wikimedia projects, contributors and groups being a movement, because the term has certainly stuck. And it’s as convenient a shorthand as any to refer to the complex ecosystem of partners, individuals, groups and organizations that make up what we call “Wikimedia” (the network that lies behind what most of the world sees simply as a set of reference websites).

There are many hard problems that come along with this complexity and decentralization. Communication is a major one — collectively we use open internet-based communication tools with more native facility and readiness than any other organization I know of, but it’s still not easy across cultures, languages and time. Determining roles is another — while this has naturally evolved over the years with a kind of “do it yourself” premise, there are real institutional questions facing particularly the Foundation, the chapters, and project groups about who should take on what; see “movement roles“, which has been working on this for some time. Another hard problem is that of how to collect and distribute resources — time, people, and money — among all of the parts of the Wikimedia movement.

The Board has recently begun again discussing this last question, and specifically the piece of it that relates to collecting money — that is, Wikimedia’s fundraising. Stu West, our excellent treasurer and vice-chair, recently started a public discussion by posting a detailed blog post with his thoughts and concerns. SebMol of the German Chapter quickly posted a thoughtful and philosophical reply.

If you are involved in chapters, fundraising, or the Wikimedia movement generally, I encourage you to read Stu’s post, and post your own thoughts and reactions as well. The WMF Board is thinking about this topic because it’s our job — part of the responsibility of the board is to be the ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the Foundation and the projects it runs. (It is not our job alone or exclusively — everyone involved in Wikimedia and fundraising should be thinking about these questions — but it is certainly our job specifically). That means worrying about the lifecycle of all donations that come in through the WMF websites (Wikipedia et al); and worrying about the financial health of the Foundation itself and our ability to keep those projects running. It also means — because we are a movement — recognizing that the Foundation doesn’t stand alone; that we need to think about the financial health of all of Wikimedia’s parts to truly understand and to be effective stewards of Wikimedia’s resources. While the Board delegates the job of running the fundraiser on a day to day basis to Foundation staff and volunteers, from approving banners to working on the various fundraising agreements, and largely delegates responsibility for chapter-collected funds to the chapters — it is our job to look at the big picture, financially, and make sure we are going in the right direction.

Stu raised four questions, all of which are serious ones:
* Is it right that 50% of rich country donations stay in those rich countries? [NB: the 50% figure is arguable, as Sebastian points out; it’s more accurate to say 50% of the contributions made to chapters per the fundraising agreement, which account for the bulk of non-US donations. Regardless, the point is that a lot of money stays in the global north for various reasons]
* How do we establish solid movement-wide financial controls to protect donor funds? How do we ensure transparency of the use of those funds? [this isn’t something we can shirk or put off; as I said, the Board’s job description is to be responsible for finances, and we will be failing at our job to not address it across Wikimedia, painful and boring as that may be].
* Who is ultimately responsible for stewarding donors’ contributions? [A philosophical roles question, but certainly practically related above — if we suggest certain controls, who implements them?]
* How do we address the above questions while maintaining the decentralization that has made our movement so great? [On everyone’s mind; it’s a Wikimedia movement, after all].

The board has been discussing these points on and off for a long time; and they are certainly not new questions for the chapters and the WMF. They are also not questions with especially easy answers. We welcome your thoughts about what you want and need to see happen, from your perspective in Wikimedia. And I personally would love to see some creative thinking about how we can make all aspects of fundraising — from collecting to reporting to distributing — easier, cleaner, more effective and more trackable everywhere, while holding ourselves to the highest ethical, legal and fiduciary standards that we can.

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5 Responses to Chapters, fundraising, and “the movement”

  1. Brad Patrick says:

    Phoebe, I left my comment on Stu’s page. But, to be honest, I am representative of the view (perhaps the most demanding view) of the chapters “earning” their way forward. WMF should be unflinching in its requirements that the chapters maintain the highest standards of financial responsibility, audit, internal controls, and so forth. Revocation is the ultimate sword, of course, but who seriously argues that lax controls are a right, or okay, or not a problem? I hold to the idea that those who would take exception to (in US parlance) GAAP and proper handling of monies *anywhere* need mentorship in non-profit governance, and simply to be taught what the right and best way is. The argument “that isn’t how we do things” doesn’t hold water – it *is* how *we* do things. You will respond to our requirements, not vice versa. Having a seat at the table doesn’t mean you get to willy-nilly go off half-cocked. That is what makes fiduciary responsibility different.

    Additionally, there is no doubt in my mind (ethically and legally) that it is WMF who is ultimately responsible to the world community of donors for its actions, stewardship, and full financial transparency. That’s why I favor more, not less, of the WMF central office in the roles debate. High performing chapters can develop strong systems of their own. Governance is ultimately the province of the Board. But, the opportunity to help guide programs and direct money should absolutely involve the chapters on a decentralized basis.

    You can’t just hand over the money and wish the chapters good luck. And you can’t rule the world from San Francisco, either. I strongly recommend sticking to first principles, doing things openly, transparently, and with community input, and keeping ultimate responsibility (as it must be) with the Board.

    And I’m really, really glad you are one of them. πŸ™‚


  2. Ilario says:

    The answer is very simple. Do you have never participated in a chapter jobs or in a General Assembly? In my opinion your questions becomes from a bad knowledge how the chapters work. In few words the only reply is to subscribe yourself to one chapter and understand how these funds are managed. I am member of Grant Advisory Committee and I know how grants work for WMF, but I am also member of two chapters and I know how chapters work and I can say that your main points seem to say that you suppose that there is no transparency in chapter because you don’t know chapters.

    When Columbus has started his adventurous trip, he has supposed that in the sea there were monsters, but after he has knew that in the other side of the sea there were some persons like him. Probably to know the truth the best solution is to verify if the legends are realistic, there is no sense to go around to report myths.

    In my opinion there in the chapters a good transparency but the difference is that (like any association) only the members should have the access to all data. In any bylaw (I would invite you to read them because these bylaws are public) there is the statement that the General Assembly approves the budget and the financial year and discuss the projects. The chapters give some microgrants and I can assure that I would appreciate if one person can have two opportunities: ask grants directly to WMF or ask grants to a chapter because in that way we can give to all persons different solutions, and I can assure that some chapters has given microgrants to some persons (also in the south of the world) who have knocked a lot of time to the doors of the WMF without any answer.

    So, I can open here a discussion for you: please check in the WMF not the transparency but the possibility for any person (also individual) to access to a grant, and say here if they have some opportunity.

    In the chapter it’s sufficient to be member to have the power to decide and to open discussions about the use of funds. I can support you only in one case: when the chapter is formed by few members, in this case there is no sense to manage big funds.

    Please keep it like an invitation to know better the question of chapters and to understand that a movement is formed by different pieces because to reduce the capacity of one piece is a devitalization of the whole body and not only of one single limb.

  3. phoebe says:

    Hi Ilario,

    Thanks for your response. I don’t think the questions (which came from Stu originally, not me) do show a misunderstanding of chapters though. They are generic questions, that apply to everyone, including the WMF. (And yes, I have been to a general assembly!)

    About the chapter members only having access to data — that makes no sense at all to me, and it seems like it would only be harmful (and against our general principles of free knowledge, too!) And what about donors? If you give money to a different charity, do you not expect that you will be able to see what their annual report looks like, and who is on their board of directors, and so on? We are legally required to publish financial statements for the foundation and keep an audit committee, but they are based on good principles of transparency too.

    And finally I don’t see the questions as being about reducing the capacity of chapters. Making fundraising better doesn’t reduce our capacity to fundraise.

    Brad, thanks for your comments too, we’ll keep the conversation over on Stu’s post πŸ™‚

  4. phoebe says:

    p.s. I have read many of the chapters’ bylaws — we approve them, remember? πŸ™‚ Not all of them refer to grants; but yes, certainly some do, and I know the grants program is ramping up (the board approved increasing it by a lot this year). That doesn’t actually help establish financial controls for donor funds though, for the WMF or for the chapters.

    Finally, you’ve got to have good faith that the board is taking decentralization as a serious principle πŸ™‚ I certainly believe in it; others do too. But that doesn’t make the questions of good accounting practice go away. I should not have to be a member of a chapter to be assured of that.

  5. Pingback: » Questions about Wikimedia Fundraising Faccio Cose Vedo Gente

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