Jump to content

Chapters Dialogue/Einblicke/Herausforderungen

From Meta, a Wikimedia project coordination wiki
This page is a translated version of the page Chapters Dialogue/Insights/Challenges and the translation is 10% complete.


The Wikimedia movement is a complex and diverse system, a challenge for the WMF and not considered safe ground by affiliates. People have been trying to do their best possible job, and good faith should always be assumed, but mistakes have been made.

Some of the mistakes evolved into assumptions, rumours and “Wiki myths”. Some of them were reinforced by other mistakes. They were interpreted, discussed and sometimes broadened. New actions were then viewed in the light of past actions, which made the perceptions and myths grow: until some of them turned into taken-for-granted facts. The same topic can be seen from various perspectives and often, it’s a projection of our own opinion onto someone else’s behaviour that causes conflict, mistrust and anger.

What makes things even more complicated is that most Wikimedia communication takes place online and lacks the emotional aspects of personal communication: building trust, empathy and reading between the lines. A system that works perfectly for creating knowledge doesn’t always work for personal relationships. A common quote in the interviews was “Some people that I found to be really annoying online turned out to be great when I met them in person”. Online discussions become harsh easily and criticism is brought up very quickly. When having a face to face conversation, many of the accusations can be resolved before “manifesting themselves”.

The international character of the movement poses another challenge: It is commonly acknowledged that English is the language spoken by most people and used for all international communication. But it does not take into account that there is a large number of people in the world who don’t speak English or don’t feel safe enough with their English skills to engage in complex discussions. And while there are almost 300 language versions of Wikipedia, movement-related texts and discussions are hardly translated into other languages.

Speaking of language, there is not only the issue of the English centered communication culture. Over the years, the Wikimedia communities have developed their own language and style of communication. The vocabulary has grown constantly, with excessive use of abbreviations and insider jokes helping to forming bonds among close peers. Newbies were given the feeling as if they were clueless outsiders, and not welcome.

Another issue that was mentioned frequently is the geographical and emotional distance between many organisations (WMF and Chapters as well as among different Chapters).

Interviewees from Chapters said that they wouldn’t dare to simply call the WMF and ask a question. What happens instead is “hiding behind screens”, shifting the necessary conversation to emailing and postings on Meta. WMF and WMDE in particular are both seen as very professional players where one “doesn’t just call and ask something”. Personal communication is restricted to meetings and conferences, but meeting once a year is often not enough to create a culture of trust and openness.

Challenges for Chapters

Many interviewees mentioned the big number of challenges for Chapters. Kira tried to summarise them using sticky notes

In the face of all the odds and uncertainties, there is a dream: Wikipedians and Wikimedians want to change society, to make the world a better place. In order to do that, people choose to get organised. There is a great tendency among active Wikimedia volunteers to form groups, to connect with like-minded people, to create a framework for the urge to accomplish more than “just editing”.

Almost all of the Wikimedia Affiliates are set up by volunteers, most of them long-standing Wikipedians. But being a great Wikipedian does not necessarily mean being a great manager and knowing how to set up and lead an organisation. And there are a lot of things to cope with when starting a formal organisation: they need to find out why they want to be a Chapter, what they want to achieve and how they plan to achieve it. They have to get their value proposition and stakeholder network right. To sum up: they need a strategy and to figure out how to best make use of the precursory value of being local. They need to deal with planning, project management, accountability, governance, communications, evaluation and many more aspects. In fact, they are no longer building an encyclopaedia, they are creating a start-up.

Many Wikimedians embark on this journey. They try to comply with all the rules and requirements, in the Wikimedia ecosystem as well as in their home country. The administrative tasks plus the actual programmatic work quickly add up and become an overburden. Many of them still try to continue, to work even harder in order to succeed. Some said in the interviews that they were actually completely out of energy, but still felt “morally obliged” to continue their work for the Chapter. Many Wikimedians continue working hard until they cross the border into ill-health. The results are frustration, anger and, in the worst case, even burn-out.

If volunteers can’t cope with these things or don’t have the necessary skills and time for them, they require some sort of professional support.

In order to get professional support – in whatever form – funds are needed. But in order to apply for funds, a certain level of professionalism is required to cope with the necessary forms and procedures. For some Chapters, this becomes a chicken-and-egg problem.

As described previously, setting up a Chapter comes with a large variety of obligations and challenges that need to be considered. The following is not a complete list but shows the most common items that were mentioned in the interviews. Depending on the people involved and the local environment, they can differ from organisation to organisation.


Chapter founders and WMF agreed that these questions need to be determined when starting a Chapter:

  • Why do we want to create a Chapter? What is the motivation driving us?
  • What do we want to achieve? What does the Wikimedia mission mean for us?
  • What goals and activities are useful and meaningful in our local context? What activities are the Chapter founders interested (and skilled) in? What activities do we want to focus on? How do we make use of the precursory value of being local?
  • What resources are available in terms of manpower, time and skills?

The deeper they dive into the whole topic, the greater the number of questions that need to be addressed:

  • What problem do we want to solve?
  • Which target group(s) (e.g. specific community, school teachers, museum directors) are we serving?
  • What value are we creating for them? What value are we creating for the “general public”?
  • How do we create this value? What activities are suitable in order to create this value?
  • Who are our stakeholders?
  • How do our activities influence the Wikimedia movement?

To sum up, they need to find out why they want to be a Chapter, what they want to achieve and how they plan to achieve it. They need a strategy. This is not trivial and as any start-up they have difficulties answering all these questions. Wikimedia Chapters face a challenging situation as they don’t know what they are expected to do, what they can do and what they should do. There is no secure basis as they proceed along the way.

Activities and stakeholders

The interviews allowed us to distil and cluster a wide range of topics for the Chapters’ work. Again, these lists are not intended to be exhaustive but rather illustrating the variety and divergence of movement organisations.

Possible Chapter activities, relating to their stakeholders

WMF Movement committees Local editing community Offline-world institutions Local reading community
Explain and advise about local communities Create learning patterns Support community, e.g. with grants, equipment, programs Content liberation Disseminate free content
Give local volunteers voice and credibility Advise other affiliates Foster relationship between Chapter and community Explain Wikimedia and its projects, propagate its values Gain new editors, new volunteers, new members
Support WMF projects on a local level Providing input in discussions Explain values, goals and activities of WMF Political advocacy Provide opportunities to create content
Collaborative Software Development Collaborative Software Development Medien- und Pressekontakt Explain Wikimedia and its projects, propagate its values
Gain new members, gain new volunteers

Special issue: Target group “Community”

Most Chapters stated that they are adding value to the community. But when it comes to the following questions, answers are still rare or very divergent.

  • Do we actually know what the community wants and care about? How can we find out about it?
  • Does our community need representation? Do they want representation?
  • What do they need from us? What do they need from other stakeholders?
  • Do we want to pull people from the online world into offline activities?
  • Or do we want to help them to have a better editing experience?
  • What kind of volunteers do we need in the Chapter?
  • Do we want to “recruit” these volunteers from the editing community? Or elsewhere?
  • What can we offer so they have an incentive or reason to volunteer?
  • How can we enable and empower volunteers? What do we need to provide for them?
  • What do we want to do for them (rather than: What should they do for our organisation?)

These are questions that each movement organisation (even the WMF!) needs to deal with. For Chapters it is quite tricky because many editors are not even aware of their offers.

Building an organisation

There are established processes and documents available to help people build their organisation. The Affiliations Committee supports them on their way to becoming recognised by the WMF. Some Chapters have followed the Chapter Creation Guide provided by the AffCom which lists duties such as accountability, governance and project management. On top of these regular tasks, the interviewees mentioned the following challenges:

  • Group dynamics among Chapter volunteers and resultant personal conflicts.
  • Finding consensus and agreement in relation to strategic questions might involve conflict and be very draining in terms of energy and motivation.
  • Splitting tasks and responsibilities so that these burdens are not borne by only a few people.
  • Clashes with the offline world, which has different habits, rules, settings.


When setting up and leading a chapter, the founders and/or the board consider to have people with different roles and skills in their team to be a key of success. We clustered the different descriptions in their narratives and defined the following roles of success:

  • “The Showmaster”: for outreach, press, acquisition of partners, funds etc.
  • “The Not-Afraid-of-Law-Paragraphs-One”: bylaws and all things legal
  • “The Juggling Queen/King”: master of organising things and multitasking – perfect for events, workshops, holds things together
  • “The Documentation Freak”: all things archive, track record, filing system etc.
  • “The Numbers Cruncher”: accounting, financial planning, budgets, reports, metrics
  • “The Teacher”: patiently explaining Wikipedia, teaching, sharing his knowledge


At some point along the Chapters’ development path, money becomes an issue, at the latest when volunteers are fed up with paying for activities, travel costs or materials out of their own pockets. At that point it was stated to be essential for the Chapter to determine:

  • Movement-related funding: Start-Up support by AffCom, Grants via the Wikimedia programmes: Annual Plan Grants (APG; FDC advises WMF Board), Project and Event Grants (PEG; GAC advises WMF staff), Individual Engagement Grants (IEG, IEG committee advises WMF staff), Participation and Travel Support (PTS; WMF, WMDE, WMCH staff decide). An overview of all WMF grants is available on the grants portal on Meta.
  • Direct donations: Collected by the Chapters themselves, either via the annual fundraiser (WMDE and WMCH) or via their own websites, during events etc.
  • Membership fees: Chapter members pay a certain annual fee.
  • Funding via external grants: Sponsoring through foundations, corporations or other associations.

A note on external money

External funding is considered to be an opportunity to win additional sources of income and to reach a higher level of professionalism. It could provide the desired stability and bring in additional control mechanisms. Chapters strive for independence and the WMF encourages them to diversify their sources of revenue.

What was brought to the table were the risks that go hand in hand with exposing a young organisation with a strong brand to outside players that the movement has hardly any control over. These players might want to influence the work of a Chapter, jeopardise its integrity and even do harm to the Wikimedia values if there are no established mechanisms to prevent it. Could an approach that should, at first sight, lower the risk, actually do more harm than good to the movement as a whole?


Visual summary of the "The first employee" session at Wikimedia Conference 2011

The Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia Deutschland have both been an orientation point when it has come to the question of hiring staff. Both organisations have a considerable number of staff (WMF 180, WMDE 70) – and they are both perceived as professional and successful. Now younger organisations are aiming for the same. And in order to get along with the existing system it is thought to be essential to have staff. At the moment more than twelve Chapters employ at least one employee, ranging from one (e.g. Wikimedia Hungary) to seventeen (Wikimedia UK). Furthermore, at every Wikimedia Conference, training sessions about “The first employee” are remarkably popular.

There are different categories of reasons for hing staff:

  • Too many projects, need of support
  • Not enough volunteers, need of support
  • Lack of experience in certain areas
  • Staff is a status symbol in the movement

Challenges of being an employer

But hiring and employing someone isn’t a trivial thing. The role of the founding team (board) changes dramatically. To hire and to employ someone requires experience. The amount of work may increase, because the board needs to communicate, to delegate, to explain. In fact, hiring and training can be more work than the paperwork the board wants to get rid off.

With staff comes responsibility. Chapter founders are not “only” volunteers and board members anymore, but they are employers and managers (besides being editors, photographers, committee members and having a job, university, family on top). They need to provide leadership, purpose and advice. From having an executive role and running all activities and administration, they are supposed to move towards more of a governance, strategy-driven role, supervising the staff without interfering in their daily business. This is a huge challenge and no small wonder that so many active board members struggle with over-working and burn-out.

Questions therefore need to be addressed: Are we ready for this? Do we really need staff? Why do we need staff? What do we expect from staff? Are we ready to take the responsibility?

Sometimes the situation requires even more sensitivity: when a board member becomes a staff member. For them, almost their entire life becomes centred around Wikimedia and Wikimedia: friends, boss, colleagues, projects. On top of that, conflict of interest issues need to be handled especially carefully and a “club of friends” might not always be the best and controllable basis for professional cooperation.

Type of staff

Not all Chapters start with hiring an Executive Director. To get the best-possible professional support, they need to work out what type of staff best meet their initial demands:

  • Office manager
  • Executive Director
  • Project manager
  • Community support
  • Consultant for financial issues or projects

It depends on the individual needs and goals of a Chapter and should be planned carefully.

One question which is quite common among Wikimedians is: “How many edits do you have?” It results in reflection upon whether external people are a good fit for Wikimedia organisations. But what if having experience in running a non-governmental organisation is more important for a specific challenge than being a long-standing editor? On the other hand, as a WMF staff member describes it: “Editing equals getting credit. My Wikipedia instinct helps me in my job. I know exactly what’s accepted and what not.”

The criticism is made that many Chapter boards are “too closed”, only approving members who are active editors. Some people claim that it would be a healthy balance to include external people with beneficial qualifications on the board. On the other hand, it requires good alignment of strategic goals and values to create a strong and smoothly working board.

How to attract the right talent? This is an issue for every organisation in the world and so it is for Chapters. In order to attract skilled people who fit with Wikimedia values, they need to know how to become self-aware, how to create an image of themselves and how to communicate it properly towards others.

Was sollen die Mitarbeiter machen?

Closely connected with the question about the role of employees is the question of the tasks they are going to be assigned. This is particularly tricky, as most of the work has previously been done by volunteers.

Some board members consider staff as a chance to “give away boring tasks and to free up precious volunteer time”. After all, volunteer time is the scarce resource of the movement and the biggest worry is the lack of volunteers. “For the cool stuff, volunteers will jump in and help. For the boring stuff, no one wants to do it.” On the other hand, employees need to have a purpose for their job and interesting tasks. Several questions arise:

  • Is there a risk that staff will take away the “cool stuff” from volunteers?
  • Which tasks can be better done by volunteers?
  • Which tasks need a professional approach and are better handled by staff?
  • What is the right approach: staff producing ideas and volunteers implementing them or volunteers producing ideas and staff implementing them/providing support?

If there are not enough volunteers and not enough activities, it can be helpful to hire a motivated person who creates some momentum and runs events or programmes that attract new volunteers. On the other hand, it is considered more valuable if volunteers create their own activities and programmes and staff are only used for administrative tasks.

Several Chapters also reported that they were confronted with the question: Volunteers are proud of having achieved so much with only volunteer-power, so why do you need paid staff now? Staff members even reported suspicion towards them when they first arrived in the Chapter.

Conflicts between board and staff

Many board members struggle with expectations management towards their (first) employee(s). They need to clearly split tasks and responsibilities:

  • “We want our employee to do all the administrative work.”
  • “Staff is for support. For tasks that no one else wants to do.”
  • “When you pay someone, you can tell them what to do and they have to do it.”
  • “You can’t demand things from a volunteer, but you can and have to demand things from staff.”


  • “My board thought I’m an office manager. But I was hired as an Executive Director.”
  • “I don’t feel supported by my board.”

The transition is hard for many board members: Wikipedians of the project’s early days stated that it’s not easy for them to let go of their beloved tasks:

  • “We are involved in projects as we know what works and what not.”
  • “We are driving the projects, after all this has been created by us.”


  • “My board lacks strategic thinking.”
  • “My board still wants to participate in the day-to-day business. But they are supposed to rather think about strategy and leaving the operational tasks to me.”
  • “I spend too much time developing my board.”
  • “Some board members can’t separate their personal from their professional views – it’s unprofessional.”

It’s a long process for boards to find their new role, to find a balance between control and trust and to establish a good information flow:

  • “I want to know exactly what’s going on.”
  • “My staff isn’t reporting quick enough.”


  • “I need some space and freedom for the operative tasks.”
  • “I don’t have the capacity to report every single detail.”
  • “I have seven bosses.”

To sum this up, many people are quite frustrated with the internal controversies and power games and seem to be stuck in the established environments. When speaking to those interview partners who are also familiar with other movements or organisations, they all pointed out that these debates are not new or unique and that in the NGO world, the relations between paid staff and volunteers are always one of the most tricky issues.

Young professionals

But then again, there are always two sides to the same coin: young organisations depend heavily on personalities, their characters and thematic preferences. But personal passion and the board’s interest might interfere with the essential first step of creating a comprehensive strategy. Accommodating individual characters into processes and the organisation is tricky. How can Chapters balance the motivation to do cool stuff while ensuring that the organisation is built up in a proper way, step by step?

When starting a Chapter, people are pulled into different activities and administrative tasks which leave them with no time “to stop the machine and think about strategy”. One way to reduce this risk is to follow the paths of the older organisations. But newcomers might want to try out new things and find their own ways. Should they go through all those challenges and be bold, or should they learn from other organisations’ mistakes and benefit from their experience?

It’s a delicate path: an organisation needs to go from being an independent, spontaneously formed and motivated group of people who want to follow their passion to being a solid organisation with a clear purpose, operating in a professional environment and thriving with programs and projects. How can a Chapter remain volunteer driven but become professional?

Learn more about
Or go back to