Grants:Strategy/Wikimedia Foundation grantmaking review/Towards equity

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10 years of Wikimedia Foundation grantmaking

How do our grant programs perpetuate inequity?[edit]

There are many features of the Wikimedia Foundation’s grants programs that perpetuate inequity. Below we list some of the concrete structural obstacles and less concrete cultural norms that inform our grantmaking space and that serve to disadvantage or all together exclude a large portion of the world population. Afterward, we describe some of the systems and practices in our grantmaking programs that we believe are in service of greater equity.

  • Knowledge-legitimacy bias: Our grant programs reinforce the knowledge-legitimacy biases that inform Wikimedia projects. While the Wikimedia vision is to represent the sum of all human knowledge, our projects focus on specific genres of knowledge-banking, like encyclopedias, which define some kinds of knowledge as legitimate and exclude others. According to the Bestiary of Gaps[1] identified by Monika Sengul-Jones in her grant-funded research project, Full Circle Gap Protocol: Addressing the Unknown Unknowns: “Based upon what’s available as secondary sources — Wikipedia privileges “neutrality” as a type of knowing that seemingly is correct or factual, when in fact it replicates existing biases. A few examples include gender and racial biases and present-centric biases. Other ways of knowing are also excluded, including oral histories and feelings as knowledge. I’ll add that part of the exclusions are in the format. Certain knowledges will be excluded because they are not linear and textual, or can be summarized from a third-person point of view. While yes, there are wiki projects focused on images, these images also encourage the viewer to read the image in a particular way, as a documentation of a fact.”
  • Infrastructural access: The Wikimedia Foundation hosts almost all of our grants processes online. In doing so, we limit our programs to only that portion of the world population with access to electricity, a device and internet connection. Furthermore, access must be sufficiently consistent, stable and secure to allow someone to publish a proposal and reports on Meta, exchange sensitive contractual information, engage consistently with intermittent talkpage feedback and participate in online or telephone conversations with the Program Officer. Those without such access are excluded from even applying for grant funds, exacerbating the underlying structural inequities that inform who has infrastructural access to begin with.
  • Digital literacy skills: Participants must not only have access to the necessary infrastructure, they must also have sufficient digital literacy skills to be able to operate hardware (desktop computer, mobile phone, or other device), get connected to the internet, find and navigate appropriate software and use a keyboard well enough to type up complex ideas. Even when infrastructural access is not a barrier, lack of computer or digital literacy skills will be an insurmountable barrier for many. The fact that our processes are primarily conducted on wiki, a very specialized software, intensifies this problem.
  • English language bias: The large majority of communication in our grants programs is conducted in English, privileging those who are native English speakers or who have access to educational opportunities to learn English well enough to engage in our grants process. Language translation support is only available on a spotty and inconsistent basis, for the most part.
  • Orientation toward the written word: The large majority of our processes are conducted via written rather than oral communication. This privileges people who are not only literate, but have a robust enough educational background to be comfortable organizing complex ideas into a written form consistent with our proposal and report templates.
  • Intellectual mode of engagement: The Wikimedia culture, including the grants space, tends toward an intellectual mode of engagement that favors linear, detached, abstract thinking. This is likely to disadvantage people who are accustomed to a more relational style that lends itself to circular, attached or concrete engagement. Those uncomfortable with debate often struggle in our context.
  • Advantage for paid professionals (in regard to proposal development): Proposals submitted by professional staff, whether from Wikimedia chapters or other partner organizations, tend to have an advantage. Developing a well-developed grant proposal is time-consuming, often involving many complex activities like cultivating partnerships, soliciting feedback from relevant communities and logically framing ideas in writing. Because volunteers are working for free in their leisure time, they are likely to have less time and resources to contribute to these activities.
  • Preference for volunteerism (in regard to budget): An orientation toward volunteerism means that those who are unable or unwilling to donate their time and labor are marginalized. Proposals that focus on volunteer time tend to be privileged over those that request fees for services. This disadvantages those who do not have sufficient economic means and/or leisure time to be able to volunteer. It also privileges cultures that perceive volunteerism as a meaningful framework for altruistic contributions, and disadvantages those that do not (e.g. cultures that predominantly express altruism through informal family/community networks rather than through formal organizational contexts).
    • Significantly, all of our decision-making committee members serve on a volunteer basis. This means only those with sufficient privilege to be capable of participating without compensation for their time can determine how movement grant funds are spent. Consequently, fulfilling committee commitments has led to concrete tension with meeting livelihood needs for some committee members.
  • Bias toward Wikimedians with the longest tenure and most connections in the movement: The Wikimedia culture tends to reward long-standing volunteers with a deep history of participation in and contribution to the Wikimedia movement. In the grants space, this means grantees with historical access to funds generally continue to get funded, while new grantees tend to undergo greater scrutiny and face greater pressure to prove themselves. This tends to reinforce many structural biases since, for a variety of reasons, communities that are subject to social inequity are much less likely to have been early joiners in the Wikimedia community.
  • Lack of diversity in the grants team: The grants team currently consists of eleven staff members. The large majority (nine staff members) live in the United States while the other two live in Europe. Most of us are native English speakers. All of us are highly educated. By several other important demographic measures, there is a strong degree of homogeneity in our team makeup. This lack of diversity limits our capacity to get perspective on our own blinds spots and biases, and makes us much more likely to create grants structures that replicate and privilege our own cultural norms, disadvantaging those who come from different contexts than our own.
  • Lack of support for marginalized communities attempting to integrate in the Wikimedia culture: Through the Community Resources team actively encourages marginalized communities to participate in Wikimedia projects, we are not doing enough to prepare those communities to cope with the implicit and explicit biases in the Wikimedia culture, leaving new participants without adequate support. We hear often from members of marginalized communities that they struggle to find acceptance and belonging within the Wikimedia culture. Not only does bias make participation painful, but often this pain remains entirely invisible to those outside these communities.
  • Lack of communication and outreach to marginalized communities not yet represented in Wikimedia communities: We are aware that many marginalized communities are not represented in the Wikimedia space sufficiently, or at all. We do not have the capacity to initiate communication and build new partnerships with unrepresented or underrepresented groups and extend grant funding to them. Consequently, proposals are highly likely to focus on veteran Wikimedian communities. Since veteran communities often predominantly represent more privileged social groups, this undermines equity.
  • Urgency/efficiency often displaces equity: Significant Community Resources staff time is devoted to addressing situations that require urgent intervention, rather than the slow and nuanced work of cultivating high value partnerships that support equity. This is exacerbated by the fact that Wikimedians with more privilege are often more likely to be comfortable raising their voices in a crisis situation. Marginalized voices can be overlooked as a consequence.
    • Because Foundation grantmaking programs lack well-scoped strategic priorities, Wikimedians perceive Foundation grant funds as available to meet any and every Wikimedia-related need. This lack of strategic focus makes it very difficult for grantmaking staff to justify to the community choices that de-prioritize certain needs and prioritize others. By authorizing a more narrowly defined strategic framework, the Resource Allocation Working Group will empower Foundation staff to create stronger boundaries around where we direct Program Officer time. This will support us in building better practices in service of equity.

How do our grant programs support equity?[edit]

  • Participatory grantmaking: As opposed to the donor-advised distribution of funds common to many philanthropic organizations (which often serve to reinforce social inequity [2]), our funding decisions are based on recommendations from the communities most impacted by our grants. We share funding decision-making with volunteer committee members who represent diverse backgrounds and perspectives from the Wikimedia community. In addition to committee feedback, our grant processes actively solicit and incorporate wider community feedback on grant proposals and reports, particularly prioritizing those who are the focus of the projects we fund. Community feedback is a key component of both staff recommendations and committee decisions.
  • Flexible, relationship-based grantmaking: Our programs are designed with flexible programs that allow us to take an individualized approach to each grant. We often extend deadlines and make exceptions for those seeking additional support or with differing needs. Program Officers spend a lot of time communicating with applicants and grantees seeking to understand their individual contexts, communities, goals, etc. We see ourselves as partners and allies to our grantees and our goal is to develop fundable projects that are uniquely responsive to in-real-life needs and circumstances of our grantees and the communities they are seeking to serve.
  • Endeavoring to find pathways to fund in closing spaces: Many countries in the world are impacted by closing space issues. As governments put increasing pressure on civil society, these actors and organizations struggle to receive government accreditation or registration, they struggle to receive funding from outside of their country, they are targeted, surveilled, harassed or even attacked. These global trends are certainly impacting our communities, and make it more challenging for us to send funding. However, we have been committed, alongside our colleagues in Legal & Finance, to finding solutions, and have been pleasantly surprised by some of our findings in extensive research and learning from the larger sector.
  • Sending funds in local currencies: We make grants in dozens of local currencies, taking on the risk and burden of currency fluctuation, inflation and more. It is important to us to make grants as accessible, easy to receive and manage as possible.
  • Increased support for emerging and marginalized communities: Over time there has been a significant increase in funds moving to emerging and least developed communities. Although our grants budget has been consistent for the last several years, an increasing number of those funds are going to emerging communities.
  • Increased support for high quality events: Over the last several years, we have increased our financial and capacity support to events. We have funded an increasing number of events, routinely supporting regional and thematic conferences, and working with grantees to determine meaningful programs at these events. We have also funded an increasing
  • Continue to move towards more transformational understanding of impact: We do not see online metrics -- the number of edits, the number of participants at an event -- as impact, and rather understand impact to be transformational, not transactional. This allows us to recognize the value of projects where intrinsic forms of progress, like creating safety and connection for marginalized communities, may be more important than extrinsic forms like number of revisions on Wikipedia.