Feb 13 2012

unknown things

Published by at 9:08 pm under books,librariana,wik-eh-pedia,wmf board

The Board has taken up two weighty subjects in the last few weeks and months: fundraising and funds dissemination (or, how should we best distribute resources — including fundraising resources — around all the many Wikimedia-related projects); and movement roles (or, what are all the moving parts in Wikimedia, and what roles do they play and what recognition should they get?)

Suffice to say that I’ve been taking a lot of headache relievers this month.

These questions are hard in large part because there’s no real accepted model or best practice we can follow; there are plenty of other international fundraising non-profits, but none quite like us — that operates almost entirely online and is volunteer-driven — and at any rate, other big international non-profits don’t have these questions entirely solved either. There are always issues.

So in large part discussions are being driven by a combination of both philosophy and gut instinct, and practical issues. For instance, accounting practices and funds transfer restrictions on the one hand, and a commitment to decentralization and openness on the other. This is not a statement meant to denigrate gut instinct; I’d say on balance, the group of people talking about these issues has as good an instinct for how to lead an open, online, international community as anyone on earth. But it does mean that we are often a bit lost in discussions, because there are multiple layers. Data won’t answer the philosophical questions; philosophical orientation won’t make data go away.

For my part, there are certain things that I do know; I know what behaviors I personally want to see emerge and be encouraged by our practices, both financial and recognition-oriented.

* I want to make it always clearer, easier, and more open for volunteers and editors everywhere to get involved in online and real-life Wikimedia projects, to take leadership of those projects, and to become involved in Wikimedia governance if they so choose.

This is often referred to as “empowerment” but I’ve never liked that word; it’s so nonspecific. And we use “decentralization” a lot too, but that can also be nonspecific. I mean very specific things: I want existing projects to be easy to find and clearly linked to online endeavors. I want it to be easy to identify gaps and propose new projects, and have those projects be peer-reviewed and taken seriously in defined processes, including funding processes. I want it to be easy and always welcoming to both volunteer for a project and to look for volunteers, and to find resources and information from work that has gone before.  And I want the processes of governance (including funding governance) and the ways that decisions are made on any given level to be open, transparent, non-discriminatory and welcoming. While they are open, our bodies and groups should be robust: not prone to takeover by a few strong personalities or outliers, and built on practices that can be replicated and taken up by new people who join. I want it to be possible for people from all parts of the projects and beyond to come to the table and help set the agenda, to bring up new ideas and then execute them without barriers and dependencies in their way from the existing structure. I want to encourage the personal pride and sense of ownership (in the best possible way) of community members in the projects.

I want it to be easy to be inspired to build things, and then to do so.

This covers everything. It covers chapters, informal projects, wikiprojects, and the Foundation.

* A variation of the same theme: I want an organizational structure — again, online and off — that anyone at any level can figure out how to participate in.

Say: I’m an editor. I love doing work in the real world in my community. I want to start a mailing list for the regular meetups I’ve been running. Also, I want to be able to apply for a grant to fund supplies for a conference. And I want to put up a geolocated notice on Wikipedia about my group, get the museum professionals in my group hooked up with international GLAM efforts for ideas, and there’s been talk of a mediawiki hackathon in my area and I’m interested in making that happen. Lastly, I want some ideas for presentation materials to teach teachers about Wikipedia. I don’t speak English. There is no chapter in my country. I should be able to do this, and I should be able to get help easily and efficiently.

Say: I’m an editor. I want to get a project funded to buy some reference materials. (“Wouldn’t that be nice? I think.) I live in a country with a national chapter. I want to contact them for help and propose my small project for funding, and get a reasonably fast answer.  I should be able to do this, and I should be able to get help easily and efficiently.

Say: I’m a new staffer at the Wikimedia Foundation. I am working on… well, let’s say new MediaWiki features. I want to get some community feedback from a wide variety of editors in different languages on a few different designs. I don’t know where to go or how to ask. I should be able to do this, and the structure of our organization should help me.

Say: I’m a reader. I’ve never edited; I want to. I also happen to be a real-life expert in something. I’ve heard there’s a Wikipedia conference in my area; should I go? Also, I want to give the project some money. This should be easy.

Say: I’m in a leadership role on the projects. I have been involved in Wikimedia for a long time. I want to help out editors; I want, also, to help make big-picture decisions about future strategy and large-scale funding. I am concerned about the direction Wikimedia is going in, and I think there are important classes of projects that haven’t been funded; I have big ideas. I want to have a say in not just overall governance but also strategy; and I want to be able to weigh in on whether budgets are appropriate and what new projects should be started; I want to help make these decisions even though I’m not on staff or the WMF board or on a chapter board.  I should be able to do this, in a respectful, open, and meaningful way; I should be able to lead as part of a community.

Say: I’m in a leadership role in a chapter. I have started a chapter, and nursed it through the first few years. I am thinking about the organization’s future: what kind of projects should we work on, how will we stay sustainable, and who will take over after me? I want to see us funded in a responsible way; I have an ownership stake in making this organization work. I feel I can offer a lot when it comes to peer review. I do not want to see what I’ve built be undermined or destroyed through neglect; I know we do important work. I should be able to participate in a community of peers, and get help building this group, and share my knowledge too.


* I want the projects — Wikipedia and her sisters — to be kept online and made available forever; to serve as a corpus of free knowledge that can be openly stewarded for the long haul.

I was around when we had the “Wikipedia forever” slogan in the fundraiser, and it amused me up too (4eva!) But I am reminded of our seriousness of purpose. We’re in this business in the first place to promote free knowledge, and our role is to be caretakers of the Wikimedia projects. Financially, that means that operating costs for the projects need to be covered without caveat for a very long time, because we are stewards of something important.  It also means that we should worry about the sustainability of the projects above all, whether than means losing editors or bad software or simple hosting needs. When it comes down to it, I’d place this financial goal above all others, with the additional notion that….

* I don’t want us to embarrass ourselves over money.

Seriously. That means we have better things to fight about, as a movement. It means that money is important, because it enables us to put this thing out to lots of people and do stuff that supports that — but we shouldn’t overweight it . We are worldwide famous, after all, for building the best reference work ever without paying anyone to do so and then giving it away. Money is not our motivation around here, in general, and we shouldn’t confuse it as a substitute for things that are hugely important to us — like autonomy and agency and collaboration.

It also means that when things get fucked up somewhere, for some reason, as they no doubt will someday in the largest online movement that ever was (and have in fact already in our distant and murky past), that we have good peer review, professionals, and accountability practices to deal with it, without crisis. That we don’t inadvertently put people who do have better things to worry about at risk, because they don’t know how we need money to be handled to meet unforgiving national tax codes. That we share what we know on this subject, and encourage sunshine. That we are not in a position of being stressed out by externally-imposed requirements, or ideally internally imposed ones either.

* I know that we will iterate, and that’s OK.

One thing that is hard in these conversations is I sometimes feel like there we all suffer from a lag between what we talk about — what was-once — and the reality of what it is today. Things are not the same as they were in 2009, people. For one thing, Wikimedia’s fundraising department is now even more kick-ass and getting more efficient by the minute (for those who haven’t spent an afternoon in the fundraising war room, I encourage it). We are regularly making choices that change the territory: having Global Collect means we can efficiently collect payments from all over the place in all sorts of mediums. This is new! It changes the territory! On the chapters side, we’re at nearly forty chapters which is a lot, and they are all sorts of different kinds of organizations, with different needs. And I haven’t heard anyone argue for a straight 50-50 split recently — we tried that, and it doesn’t really work in lots of situations. We are iterating. We will continue to iterate. And even this round will not be perfect, even though we (the board) are trying our damnedest to approach it with intentionality and thoughtfulness for the long term.There will be unexpected consequences for some of the things we do, and bad habits that we inadvertantly reinforce. We need to be able to name and fix these when they come up.

But: my dear friends and colleagues, you know what I don’t know? I don’t know what all of the above means when it comes down to making, say, decisions about payment processing criteria or how to build a funding decisions body or even if a funding decisions body is the right call (though at this point in my thinking I think it is). I just know what I, personally, want to solve for. And I think we’re actually on the right track, despite ourselves, to building a good and robust structure. But what I’m looking for is help figuring out how to build the right things. And if we are trying to solve for different outcomes, then I want that to be clear and explicit and on the table; this will take all of us.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “unknown things”

  1. Asaf Bartov says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It is thoughtful and candid.

  2. rupert says:

    i do not like the term “payment processing” so much, as it is referring to paypal, and banks. what we are talking about is (1) receiving donations and (2) spending money.

    receiving money includes providing a bank or paypal account. which is not a lot of work. it includes campaigning, which is organized globally, as there is only a couple of internet domain names/web sites place where banners can be placed. and it includes saying thank you, and inform about successes, which is a lot of work. and, it is less work if no international complexity is built into it. so let the donor and the receiver of the donation sit in the same country, donate to a chapter. criteria to be eligible may be as simple as: the bylaws should allow easy/cheap membership. make sure the members general assembly is the highest body of the organisation. make sure that officers (especially board) are not allowed to take money. assure the money goes to movement projects, even on dissolution.

    spending the money means to just pass it on to another chapter or the foundation who more desparately need it. there is a one time effort to make it legally compliant. spending also means set up and run projects, to give out grants, to support volunteers. spending money also means sometimes to ask somebody else to finance the spending, e.g. ask a grant from the wmf. which is also a lot of work :) there is also a part of the spending, which should be globally coordinated. to have a body for this seems a wise decision.

    and sometimes i am really wondering if not already have a good and robust structure :)

  3. > Say: I’m a new staffer at the Wikimedia Foundation. I am working on… well, let’s say new
    > MediaWiki features. I want to get some community feedback from a wide variety of editors in
    > different languages on a few different designs.

    When I was a new staffer, Erik hooked me up with a mentor. I’m not based in SF and neither was my mentor. This meant I had someone familiar with the development culture who I touched base with daily initially.

    I’ve been with the foundation for two years and I’m now part of TL;DR. I have some great contacts in the on-wiki community as well in the development community now, so I think I would be able to work with the new staffer to help them get community feedback. But I’m also thinking that my help wouldn’t really be needed since I think (please correct me if I’m wrong) that we do a really great job in this area.

    > Say: I’m a reader. I’ve never edited; I want to. I also happen to be a real-life expert in
    > something.

    My mother (a journalist for a small newspaper) fits this profile. I’ve been trying to help her get started.

    Great ideas.

  4. Samuel Klein says:

    This is a beautiful post, with lovely ideas. (I like rupert’s spare response as well).

    When dealing with such a nuanced landscape of issues, there are always dozens of frontiers along which thinsg could be better, clearer, more organized. We’re somewhere between casual anarchy and military precision in all dimensions. Often we seem to focus on one or two frontiers at a time as though they were the only issues in the world… without a proper map for our entire territory, so to speak.

    And when discussions actually impact multiple frontiers, differences of focus can produce apparently irresolvable differences. What might be a good idea in one direction can be mixed up with something that is a step backwards in another direction; two people, with similar principles, can focus on different aspects of the same idea and draw opposite conclusions about whether it is sensible or not.

    Avoiding this takes practice in disentangling assumptions, forward projections, and interactions of different parts of the movement. Like consensus building, this is closely aligned with our daily work in the movement.

    ps – You need a “for” in the penultimate sentence. :)