User:Sue Gardner/Narrowing focus
I'm creating this page here for me to work on the "narrowing focus" recommendation I'm creating for the October Board meeting. Purpose of having it here is just transparency: there's no reason for it to be private. But, it's not a collaborative process—it's from me, for the Wikimedia Foundation Board. If people want to make questions or comments on the talk page that's totally fine, and I'll respond as much as I've got time to. Thanks Sue Gardner (talk) 19:26, 1 October 2012 (UTC)
Background and context
Beginning 1 November 2012, the Wikimedia Foundation will be revamping some of its activities to narrow its focus. The purpose of the revamp will be to cease some activities (or possibly distribute them to other movement players), in order to enable the Wikimedia Foundation to focus more tightly on high-priority activities that are central to its mandate and mission. This will, we hope, narrow the mandate and responsibilities of Wikimedia Foundation staff in ways that make their jobs more manageable, thereby increasing individuals' ability to be accountable and reducing the risk they will burn out. A narrower focus will therefore enable the Wikimedia Foundation to execute on core priorities more effectively. After the revamp, we expect the Wikimedia Foundation to be somewhat less over-mandated and thinly stretched, and therefore better able to plan, predict and execute.
The Wikimedia Foundation operates in a context of complexity and boundless opportunity. It is no longer a small and immature start-up organization operating in experimentation mode: it's a competent well-funded mid-sized non-profit that wants to be increasingly deliberate and execution-oriented. Currently, the staff of the Wikimedia Foundation are over-stretched and over-mandated: people join the organization because they love the mission, and they commit themselves to it wholeheartedly, working very long hours in an attempt to achieve the organization's goals. The major bottle-neck at the Wikimedia Foundation at this point is not money: it is organizational attention.
We operate in an environment in which it's always tempting to add a new mandate. In just the past six months, we have launched the funds dissemination committee (FDC) and committed to significantly strengthening our grant-making, we have green-lighted a travel site, and we have agreed to supporting the creation of new types of Wikimedia movement entities ("thematic organizations"). In addition, like any organization, we need to respond to the unexpected: for example, recently we have chosen to defend community members against a lawsuit related to the new travel site, and over the past six months we have needed three times to put resources towards chapter-related crisis management.
We don't regret any of this: we think the new initiatives will be good for the Wikimedia movement, and we see it as our responsibility to protect the movement in the face of legal threats and crises. Particularly in a volunteer-driven decentralized global context like ours, there will always be unplanned and time-sensitive events that require resources, and there will always be a wealth of opportunity for starting new initiatives. In that context, it's critical that the leadership of the Wikimedia Foundation seriously evaluate any opportunity to expand the mandate, and only add a new mandate when its impact against our targets would exceed that of the work it will displace.
The Wikimedia Foundation has spent significant effort in the last few years to pilot new programmatic work, and to develop a body of qualitative and quantitative findings supporting it. It has also played a "pinch-hitting" role in the Wikimedia movement, responding to opportunities that might otherwise be ignored, or doing work because it would otherwise not get done.
We have focused significant energy on the organizational structure of the Wikimedia movement: attempting, with others, to create the conditions in which new organizational types can develop and be supported. We have has also expended quite a lot of energy on lengthy (and sometimes acrimonious) discussions with the Wikimedia chapters, mostly centering around issues related to roles and responsibilities, chapter independence, regulatory and agreement compliance, transparency and accountability, and fundraising and funds dissemination.
We believe much of the work of the past years has created both the preconditions, and the requirement, for the Wikimedia Foundation to now make a renewed commitment to its core priorities, on behalf of the movement and in support of the movement. It needs to reduce emphasis on experimentation and discovery, and increase emphasis on execution and delivery; it needs to restrict itself to its own core work rather than pinch-hitting for others, and it needs to shift from a focus on developing movement structures, to encouraging and supporting activities that directly advance the Wikimedia Foundation's mission. Based on what we know now about the Wikimedia movement and the work that needs to be done to achieve the mission, we believe the Wikimedia Foundation should understand its core responsibilities to be engineering and grant-making.
- We are a website (set of sites), so engineering (including product development) is core. We need the sites to perform well and we need to continually improve the user experience for both readers and editors. As an open source project and an open community, we also need to create the conditions for volunteer developers and third parties to extend, enrich, and leverage the MediaWiki platform. To do all this, we will need human resources capacity and funding to recruit and on-board engineering talent, and we will need to continue to develop mature structures supporting these activities.
- We are also becoming a grant-making organization. We have some existing capacity to execute on international grant-making, but we want to do more of it, and we want to do it better (by iterating to continually improve the overall process, by increasing up our compliance-monitoring, improving evaluation, and sharing of best practices among grantees). To do that, we will need to increase investment in related capabilities.
If we move to simplify our mandate to these two core activities, we believe we will be able to develop deep competence in both. This shift would move us away from carrying out a large number of different types of activities, each one custom-crafted and unique, and towards a world in which we'd be carrying out multiple versions of similar activities, each benefiting from the accumulated expertise of what's happened previously.
This would result in increased specialization of roles (essential as the organization grows and matures), an increased sense of team (rather than people feeling they're working in isolation as some currently do), and increased predictability and better productivity (due in part to economies of scale). It would also create the conditions in which innovation can flourish, because the funds dissemination committee is a mechanism designed to reward and support successful innovation.
Highest priority initiatives
- Visual editor — creating a first-rate editing experience for users that no longer requires complex document markup
- Editor engagement — finding and developing ways to engage new users
- Mobile (Wikipedia Zero + mobile engineering) — enhancing the user experience for users who use mobile devices
- Funds dissemination committee and grant-making — improving the funds dissemination processes to be more transparent, democratic, and accountable
We plan to convert the catalyst projects into grants.
- Background: The five-year strategic plan had called for the Wikimedia Foundation to invest in geographies, particularly India, Brazil, and the Middle East/North Africa (MENA), where there was potential to recruit large numbers of new editors. During the past several years, therefore, the Wikimedia Foundation has begun to support independent editor recruitment teams in those geographies. A team in India was fully built, a team in Brazil has been partly-built, and we began to lay the groundwork for a team in MENA. (Global Development/Catalyst Program Strategy)
- What will change now: Our commitment to recruiting editors in high-priority geographies continues, but our mechanism for doing it will be different: we have decided to convert the catalyst projects into grants, rather than directly leading or commissioning activity on-the-ground. We believe this will be significantly less burdensome for the Wikimedia Foundation, and will result in as-good or better impact.
- Rationale: As originally structured, the catalyst projects were administratively very burdensome on the Wikimedia Foundation, we were unable to support them as fully as we wish we could have, and it would never have been possible to support them at scale (meaning, dozens of countries). Meanwhile, we are developing very good grant-making capacity as an organization, and we have been coming to believe that the catalyst projects would benefit from being more locally-oriented and less San Francisco-oriented. Therefore we have decided to put the emphasis on grants, in order to support the Wikimedia Foundation in narrowing its focus, and to (we hope) increase the projects' likelihood of success.
- Current state: In August 2012, we decided to support the India project with a grant to the Centre for Internet and Society. In Brazil, the Brazilian community and catalyst staff are currently exploring possibilities and timelines for doing something similar to what we did in India. In the Middle East/North Africa, we have decided not to recruit a program director and build a team, and instead will be exploring opportunities for partnerships with an on-the-ground organization, similar to India. The decision has been made to convert these projects to grants, and executing on the decision will happen on a reasonable timeline. We do not have a target date for converting Brazil and giving a grant in the Middle East/North Africa, but we expect both may happen between June 2013 and December 2013.
- Cost of making this change: From an impact standpoint, as we convert the catalyst projects into grants, we will still aspire to achieve the same results we had been seeking previously, but we will be less able to shape and control the work done in those geographies. From a financial standpoint these changes will be more-or-less cost-neutral: instead of spending money ourselves on the ground, we will be giving it to an on-the-ground entity to spend. From a staffing standpoint making these changes will alleviate some burden on the Wikimedia Foundation, particularly Legal, Communications, Human Resources, Finance & Administration and the Office of the Executive Director. The resource commitment from Global Development itself will be more-or-less unchanged, although the nature of the engagement will be different.
We plan to wind down the fellowships program.
- Background: The Wikimedia Foundation launched its fellowships program in September 2010, and to date about 20 people have been Wikimedia fellows. The fellowships have had a number of good outcomes in terms of generating information and insight into the challenges and opportunities facing the projects, as well as other positive effects. (Wikimedia Fellowships)
- What will change: Existing fellowships will continue until they reach their natural conclusion (meaning, we aren't cancelling any existing fellowships), but new fellowships will not be launched. We may be able to carry out some simplified version of fellowship-type activities under the Wikimedia Foundation's individual grants program: we're currently considering whether it makes sense to try to do that.
- Rationale: The fellowships program has positive effects for the Wikimedia movement, and if we had the organizational capacity we would want to continue it. But we can't currently support the fellowships program at the level we'd need to for it to be really effective, and at a time when the Wikimedia Foundation needs to focus on execution of top-priority overdue projects that are primarily engineering and interface-related, we need to reserve our organizational resources as much as possible for that.
- Current state: Existing fellowships will continue until they have all reached their natural conclusion, roughly in January 2013.
- Cost of making this change: From an impact standpoint, we are reluctant to shut down the fellowships program because there is very little other support in the Wikimedia movement for activities tackling hard community health problems such as dispute resolution and policy simplification. That said, as described above, the Wikimedia Foundation was never able to resource the fellowships to the point where they could achieve significant impact: the loss will be primarily experimentation, insights and incremental changes to the culture. From a financial standpoint there will be some small savings, although we will likely simply redeploy cash saved, to further support individual grants. From a staffing standpoint making these changes will free up some resources at the Wikimedia Foundation, particularly in Finance & Administration and Human Resources.
We will reduce time and effort spent on staging and supporting complex international events.
- Background: The Wikimedia Foundation supports a number of international events currently, in some cases by handling all event logistics, in some cases by working with partners and volunteers on the ground. Examples include the comprehensive Wikimania scholarships program, international hackathons, and subject-matter focused conferences, e.g. for the Global Education Program.
- What will change: We will reduce the number of events we organize directly. For example, we will reduce the number of hackathons from what was originally planned, and look for more opportunities to participate in existing events rather than creating our own. We will also more carefully consider where e.g. an internally-focused engineering sprint is more appropriate than a public event. We will aim to reduce the time spent internally on managing the Wikimania scholarships process, and on supporting the Wikimania team, through a combination of community capacity development and reliance on professional contractors.
- Rationale: The Wikimedia Foundation's core competency isn't the organization of public events, and when we make it a priority, it draws a lot of resources (administration of travel, venue and vendor logistics, design and production of event collateral, event registration management, etc.), which would otherwise support core priorities. Recognizing that we are part of a larger movement implies trusting in local movement partners to support events that are in our shared interest, and developing the movement's capacity to fully administer related processes such as scholarships.
- Current state: The hackathons and other Wikimedia events can be scaled back, and benefits realized, immediately. Scaling back the Wikimedia Foundation's support for Wikimania will take longer, and will not affect 2012–13.
- Cost of making this change: From an impact standpoint, making this change will have a number of small costs, including i) we won't have as much influence over the timing and content of events we participate in, ii) in staging fewer hackathons we risk damaging our ability to attract engineering volunteers and recruit engineering staff, iii) in offering less support for Wikimania we risk damaging Wikimania's ability to be a successful smoothly-run conference. From a financial standpoint, this change will be roughly cost-neutral: we will save some cash, but that will be partly or fully offset by the need to increase spending in contract services. From a staffing standpoint, if we are able to successfully make this change (particularly related to Wikimania), we will free up resources in Finance & Administration and in Global Development, as well as a small amount of resources in the engineering department.
We will focus our support for movement-wide organizational development on grant-making and crisis response.
- Background: Historically, the Wikimedia Foundation has provided a wide variety of types of support to Wikimedia chapters, including funding new and established chapters via the Wikimedia Grants Program and other mechanisms, negotiating and maintaining various agreements, arranging legal and PR advice, leading the Movement Roles process, participation in chapter events, partnering on fundraising, running a pilot program designed to support chapter organizational development, and providing legal, PR and governance advice to chapters in times of crisis.
- In March 2012, the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees passed resolutions establishing new models of affiliation (Board resolution) and the Funds Dissemination Committee (Board resolution), creating a new framework for the growth and development of the Wikimedia movement. This necessitates carefully re-assessing Wikimedia Foundation's role towards the movement.
- What will change: Wikimedia Foundation's role vis-à-vis other movement players will primarily be as the single largest grant-making entity of the movement, through the existing grants program and through supporting the community-led funds dissemination committee. The Wikimedia Foundation will increase focus on drafting, establishing and enforcing grant agreements that ensure high standards of transparency, accountability and governance. The Wikimedia Foundation also has a key support role in providing access to metrics/analytics and standards of evaluation.
- With many organizations participating in the Wikimedia movement, it is to be expected that some will experience growing pains or even serious misconduct. We do not consider it our responsibility to prevent growing pains, or to provide individual hand-holding to new organizations in the Wikimedia movement. (We hope that the new Wikimedia Chapters Association and similar networks will provide some of that support.) We do consider responding effectively in case of a serious crisis part of our core work, and will reserve for it organizational capacity and funding.
- Rationale: The core purpose of the Wikimedia Foundation is not to ensure the chapters grow and develop, nor is it to support the chapters in their growth and development: rather, chapters are our partners in supporting editors and other content creators. The chapters are independent entities, and they are responsible for their own futures. Where chapters and other movement organizations are grantees, Wikimedia Foundation's fiduciary responsibility as recipient of donated funds necessitates oversight, in partnership with the community. Moreover, as the most experienced movement entity and the one responsible for safeguarding the global reputation of the movement, we believe that the Wikimedia Foundation can and should take a leadership role in crisis management.
- Cost of making these changes: There will be no impact on the Wikimedia Foundation's ability to achieve its targets. The Wikimedia Foundation is not currently resourced to meet the various expectations of chapters for organizational development and other support: where they exist, those expectations represent an "unfunded mandate." That means this change will have little impact on the actual working activities of the Wikimedia Foundation: it's intended to make clearer roles-and-responsibilities, and to take off the table unfunded mandate. From a financial standpoint, the impact will be small: no resources that are currently dedicated to chapter development will be cut, and we will likely in future begin to budget for crisis intervention costs, which we have not done to date. From a staffing standpoint, the impact will also be small: as we have been doing to date, we will continue to not systematically support chapter growth and development, and we will continue to dedicate some executive and non-executive resources to crisis management. To the extent that our efforts are shifting towards grant-making as an organizational core competency, we will likely need additional staffing to ensure that the aforementioned oversight responsibilities can be met.
Implications for Wikimedia Foundation 2012–13 targets, spending and staffing
The purpose of this initiative is to narrow the focus of the Wikimedia Foundation to enable it to execute on its core priorities. Our goal is not radical change: we do not want to shut down activities now, only to discover in a year or two that we want to revive them. Our goal is not to achieve reductions in spending or staffing, and we are not looking for a quick urgent hack. The implications of these changes will extend past 2012–13, and are intended to result in a more focused organization.
That said, here are the immediate implications:
- From an impact standpoint, we believe the changes to the catalyst projects may constrain our ability to achieve the 2012–13 plan targets related to increasing the number of active editors in priority geographies (India, Brazil, MENA). Partly that's because the course-correction itself will consume some energy that otherwise would have gone towards programmatic activities, and partly it's because grantees will take time to spin up their work. However, we aren't going to re-open the 2012–13 targets, because we don't know enough right now to create new ones with sufficient confidence to be useful. We don't believe any of the other changes will negatively affect our ability to hit the targets in the 2012–13 annual plan.
- From a financial standpoint, we believe the changes will be roughly cash-neutral. We will save money in some areas (e.g., lower direct costs in catalyst geographies, fewer hackathons, lower fellowship costs) but those savings will likely be offset by increased costs in other areas (e.g., grants in catalyst geographies, attendance at other organizations' events, increased funding for individual grants), and/or by in-year transition costs.
- From a staffing standpoint, the changes will primarily free up administrative resources—mainly Finance & Administration, Human Resources and Legal (including Communications), as well as resources in Global Development. We estimate this to be the equivalent of about 11 full-time employees and full-time employee-equivalents total: this is a combination of existing staff whose roles will be changing, reclaimed capacity of executive management and administrative staff (some of which, it should be noted, has been over-capacity to date), and planned new roles that will be converted to ones supporting solely the FDC and engineering. This newly freed-up capacity will be redeployed towards support of core work, either by working directly for the FDC or engineering, or by supporting the FDC or engineering primarily through supporting the recruitment and on-boarding of staff and through increased attention of executive leadership.
If we make these changes, we will have reduced 2012–13 activities (from the plan) from 17 to 13. We will have narrowed our focus to two major types of activities—engineering and grant-making—and going forward, we will continue to optimize the organization to that end. We believe that dual focus will position us to responsibly execute the core work of the Wikimedia Foundation, and to achieve our top priorities. We also believe that through strengthening our grant-making capability to include the ability to better align resources with strategy and to assess impact and progress towards goals, via mechanisms that are understood by the Wikimedia community to be fair, transparent and accountable, the conditions will be created for innovation and excellence throughout the movement.
Implications for the movement
The Wikimedia Foundation will only be able to address challenges of the Wikimedia movement that align well with its core competencies (essentially, software engineering/product development, site operations, grant-making).
Important community-internal challenges (e.g. a broken process for appointing administrators) will likely not be addressed by the Wikimedia Foundation, except insofar as they are influenced by technology and product decisions, or by grants to individuals and organizations. The Wikimedia Foundation trusts in the ability and desire of the community as a whole, and of Wikimedia organizations, to be willing and able to solve these challenges.
The importance of Wikimedia chapters, as well as new models like thematic organizations and movement partners, will continue to increase, including:
- organizing international events supporting Wikimedia movement activities;
- developing partnerships with educational and cultural institutions and supporting in-person outreach; and
- supporting technology changes outside of Wikimedia's core priorities.
Questions and answers (detail)
Why is the Wikimedia Foundation revamping to narrow focus?
The Wikimedia Foundation has an ambitious five-year plan, created in 2009–2010. It has followed through on almost all of the specific activities listed in the plan to support the high-level "big hairy audacious goals". In order to do so, the organization has grown its capacity very significantly (from about 30 staff in July 2009, when the planning process started, to about 140 today). It has piloted and completed many new projects programs, conducted research, and developed new capabilities.
Aside from supporting Wikimedia's continuing growth in unique visitors and pageviews, we've achieved important successes through our work. Examples include a complete overhaul of our previously rudimentary mobile infrastructure and the launch of successful mobile apps (leading to dramatic growth in mobile pageviews), significant improvements to upload usability (leading to significant growth in uploads and uploaders), and a global education program with thousands of students contributing high-value content as course assignments.
The Wikimedia movement as a whole has grown and matured in the same time. Chapters and volunteers have made great progress in building relationships with cultural institutions (leading to large content donations and collaborations), organizing movement-wide competitions like "Wiki Loves Monuments", organizing events bringing together practitioners from various disciplines, and more. Wikimedia Germany is even laying the groundwork for a new Wikimedia project, Wikidata.
As a movement, we now have a robust movement roles framework allowing for different models of affiliation, and new mechanisms for supporting both individuals and organizations through grants.
Much of the work we do as a movement is either completely new (because Wikimedia is unique) or new to us (because we are a growing, learning organization). Through the execution of the strategic plan so far, the Wikimedia Foundation has learned more about difficulty, cost and impact of different types of projects, and about who in the movement is best-suited for certain types of work. To achieve success on our highest priorities, now is a good time to re-assess how we should best focus our energy, and what activities we should not continue at this time.
What has the Wikimedia Foundation learned?
About features development
Our best path to significantly increasing number-of-editors is clearly through usability and interaction improvements to the site itself, since that type of change touches all editors and prospective editors, rather than just a subset. The Wikimedia Foundation has historically under-invested in engineering and product development—we only really started investing in engineering in about 2009, and in product in about 2010. This means we've got a lot of technical debt, and long-overdue platform engineering and user experience work. Engineering and product is where we are most constrained resource-wise.
There are several factors which increase the complexity of engineering for Wikimedia projects relative to other websites:
- we aim to ensure that community members can influence the design and development of Wikimedia software, from requirements to code and exact configuration in a given wiki;
- we want our software to be usable in all Wikimedia projects and languages, which means ensuring, for example, full readiness for internationalization and compatibility with a variety of configurations;
- we want most of our software to be usable by third parties, which means ensuring configurability of aspects that are specific to Wikimedia;
- our sites are maximally open to participation (including anonymous editing), which means that most features with write capabilities need to be protected against malicious use, and need to allow some form of community moderation of content;
- we operate a top-five web property and need to ensure that newly deployed software doesn't cause significant performance degradations, doesn't open up attack vectors, etc.
- we allow a high degree of user-driven customization and development on our sites, e.g. through mechanisms like site and user scripts, which can cause compatibility issues with new features; and
- we are expected to maintain clear communications through multiple channels and multiple languages about all development, even work-in-progress, continually explaining what we're doing, why we're doing it, and how people can get involved.
All those things define what makes Wikimedia unique and can't be traded off. At the same time, in combination with accumulated technical debt, insufficiently mature release/development practices, and resource constraints, this has often led to a painfully slow development process. We've needed to spend significant time and effort to bring our development and deployment practices up to the standards of world class engineering organizations, and we're not done yet.
We've learned that "communicating with the community" about changes to the interface, design and interaction of Wikimedia is a real job. Engineers can't squeeze it into their other work: it needs to be handled by staff dedicated to that work, or by product and communications managers.
About "on-the-ground" work
- The Wikimedia Foundation is not ideally situated to do "on the ground" work in specific geographies. We don't have a lot of institutional knowledge about how to operate effectively in different geographies (hiring, administration, operations, legal), and supporting on-the-ground projects poses a very heavy administrative burden on the organization, as well as not-insignificant costs. It also raises considerations in a context in which laws related to freedom of expression online are continually changing.
- When the Wikimedia Foundation supports on-the-ground activities in specific geographies, it looks like those activities may receive extra scrutiny and criticism from community members simply because the Foundation has such an interest. This is probably because community members don't expect the Wikimedia Foundation to offer support for such activities, and also may sometimes perceive the Wikimedia Foundation as competing with the chapter work. We haven't done a great job of positioning on-the-ground activities in a way that makes sense to all community members.
About the chapters
- In general, over the past several years, the Wikimedia Foundation has supported the Wikimedia chapters in a variety of ways: by liaising with ChapCom/AffCom to support the creation of new entities, by funding new and established chapters via the Wikimedia Grants Program, by negotiating, maintaining and tracking compliance with various agreements (chapter agreements and fundraising agreements), by negotiating trademark agreements in support of chapter activities, by offering or arranging for legal and PR advice to chapters, and (via the Movement Roles process) by working with the movement at a meta level to clarify the roles and responsibilities of different groups working to support the international Wikimedia movement, and to improve Wikimedia as a global network of organizations.
- Many chapters have asked the Wikimedia Foundation for help with organizational development, including asking for support related to financial and strategic planning and reporting, fundraising, staff recruitment and retention, legal and regulatory compliance, communications and media relations, programmatic activities and the measurement of impact, etc. The Wikimedia Foundation has not offered this support in any kind of systematic way, although in 2011 it did stage a pilot project for what was called the Organizational Growth & Development Network, in which Sebastian Moleski worked with four chapters (Wikimedia Czech Republic, Wikimedia Hungary, Wikimedia Netherlands and Wikimedia Sweden) to aim to catalyze their organizational growth and development through a deliberate combination of grant-giving and consulting assistance.
- Over the past several years, in general the chapters have begun to publish activity reports more regularly, adhere more closely to the requirements of agreements with the Wikimedia Foundation (include fundraising agreements and grant agreements) and in general increase their levels of transparency and accountability. We attribute this in part to the movement-wide discussions we've all been having about these issues, and also to intentional signaling from the Wikimedia Foundation that compliance with agreements is generally expected and valued.
- The chapters are young organizations that suffer normal growing pains and problems. Over the past several years, a small number of the 39 Wikimedia chapters have experienced challenges including legal threats, allegations of improprietry, discoveries of misconduct, international media crises, and forced resignations and other unplanned turnover at senior leadership levels. During times of trouble, some chapters have asked the Wikimedia Foundation for guidance and support, and some have not.
- The general public does not distinguish among the different Wikimedia entities. We can see this clearly in media coverage. Scandal does not damage only the entity that's directly involved: it can cause spillover damage elsewhere. The Wikimedia Foundation has occasionally stepped in to try to mitigate damage when we felt the movement overall risked being damaged, regardless of whether we had been asked for help or not.
- The Wikimedia Foundation is not resourced to support organizational development or crisis support for chapters. When such support is given, it comes at the cost of other work. To date, this support has fallen primarily to the Wikimedia Foundation's Executive Director, General Counsel (and legal department generally), Chief of Finance and Administration (and finance department generally), Chief Global Development Officer (and global development department generally), and on the Wikimedia Foundation's resources dedicated to media relations and human resources. Providing crisis support in particular has been disruptive for the Wikimedia Foundation, because it is urgent and cannot be planned for or controlled: when crisis support is required, everything else necessarily takes a back seat.
- There is a base level of Wikimedia Foundation work that is inherently community-responsive. (Examples of this are the anti-SOPA blackout and the requests for comment to launch a travel wiki.) The Wikimedia Foundation needs to reserve some energy for responding to unplanned community initiatives.
- We cannot responsibly dedicate engineering/product resources to the fellows at this point, which has constrained their scope of activity and (to some degree) limited their effectiveness.
- With the launch of the Funds Dissemination Committee, the Wikimedia Foundation is rapidly developing expertise in international grant-making. This is going to become a core competency for the organization, and will require significant investment.
The Wikimedia Foundation has put a lot of energy over the past several years into the catalyst projects, and now you are considering changing your approach to them in a fairly dramatic fashion. First, can you describe the catalyst projects, and second, can you explain the thought process that's led the Wikimedia Foundation to change its approach to them?
One of the big lessons of the 2010–15 strategic plan is that Wikipedia has flourished fairly easily in the developed world (in terms of number of readers and number of editors), but Wikipedia has struggled in the developing world. And yet, we have a big opportunity to reach lots of new people in the developing world, as both readers and editors. The catalyst projects have been an attempt to recruit new editors in the three geographies that the Wikimedia Foundation assessed to have the highest potential for doing that: in India, Brazil, and the Middle East/North Africa.
To get the catalyst projects underway, we commissioned new, independent teams of people who had no official or persistent links to other local entities such as chapters or like-minded non-governmental organizations. We worked closely with those teams, to help orient them (bringing them up-to-speed on the opportunities ahead of the movement, and our best thinking about how to make the most of them), and to help develop with them plans, goals and targets.
Now, we are constructing those projects as grants: the Wikimedia Foundation will give funding to an on-the-ground (local) entity, to carry out editor recruitment work in their geography. Here is some of the thinking behind the change:
- When we started the catalyst projects, we knew they'd be fairly resource-intensive from an administration standpoint, because each would be custom-crafted for its unique context. We guessed they might be even more resource-intensive than we were imagining, because we had no institutional experience in those geographies and were bound to run into problems we hadn't anticipated. This turned out to be true: from an administrative standpoint, for Legal, Human Resources, and Finance & Administration, the catalyst projects have been significantly more resource-intensive than we'd expected.
- We expected Wikimedia Foundation staff would help contribute to helping shape the programmatic activities carried out by the catalyst projects, and we expected that would be resource-intensive for the organization. That turned out to be true. External, independent "non-movement" people engaged to work on the catalyst projects needed to be oriented to the Wikimedia movement, and both Wikimedians and non-Wikimedians needed to be brought up-to-speed on everything the Wikimedia Foundation had been learning about editor behaviours. It turned out that acculturating the people working on the catalyst project was fairly resource-intensive. This meant that to the extent that acculturation happened, it diverted energy from other areas. And to the extent it did not happen because it was resource-intensive, that hampered the effectiveness of the people working on the catalyst projects.
- When we started the catalyst projects, we aspired to work in partnership with local chapters where they already existed, and perhaps also to stimulate their creation where they did not already exist, and we aspired to eventually hand over leadership of the catalyst projects to local chapter organizations. We still would like to see that happen, but we now believe that in some geographies chapter development may just never occur, and even in geographies where there is a chapter, the path to handover will likely be slower than we originally expected:
- In India, the relationships among the Indian chapter, the Indian editing community and the Wikimedia Foundation have been difficult. The chapter is quite young and has been in some ways struggling, and we don't believe it will be able to take over leadership of the India project anytime soon.
- In Brazil, there is no chapter at this point.
- In the Middle East/North Africa, there is no chapter at this point, and there are indications that suggest there may never be a chapter.
- When we started the catalyst projects, we believed it was important that on-the-ground activities be run by people in those geographies, as opposed to being run by staff in San Francisco. We did not run the programs out of San Francisco: we commissioned local people to do the work. That means our hypothesis (local<SF) is untested. Nonetheless, we still believe that local people should run programs in their geographies: on-the-ground activities should not be run from San Francisco.
- We believe that in India the catalyst team's ability to be effective has arguably been somewhat hampered by its relationship with the Wikimedia Foundation—we think that some people believe the Wikimedia Foundation shouldn't operate inside a specific geography (particularly one where there is a chapter) rather than globally, and therefore are inclined to oppose the catalyst team activities on principle because of the Foundation's open support. To the extent that this is true, we wish we'd done a better job of persuading Indian editors and chapter members to support the project, and we believe that if we're not involved, that support may be easier to earn. We believe the Indian project will be seen as credible to the extent it's understood to be an Indian project, managed and run locally and independently.
- When we started the Catalyst Projects, the Wikimedia Foundation was not a very experienced grant-making organization. We did not have mature processes for soliciting and evaluating grant applications, distributing money in compliance with relevant regulations, and managing reporting on activities. Since we established the catalyst projects, we have significantly grown our ability to effectively distribute funds for programmatic activities, and we've committed to continuing to develop grant-making as a core institutional competency, via the development of the Funds Dissemination Committee. That infrastructure, and the expertise that fuels and supports it, makes it possible for us to fund the catalyst projects effectively as grants to third parties, in a way that would not have been possible for us several years ago when we began those projects. It makes sense for us to leverage and deepen an existing core competency that we are committed to further developing.
- We also believe there are good potential partners for the Wikimedia movement in the high-potential geographies we're interested in. We've got a few more years' experience now understanding ourselves and what types of organizations fit best with our values, and we think we're in a pretty good position today to identify and recruit great NGOs to work with.
Upshot: Our experience over the past several years has taught us that our approach to the catalyst projects was not likely to succeed. As originally structured, the projects were administratively very burdensome on the Wikimedia Foundation, particularly at the senior leadership level. We were unable to support them as fully as we wish we could have, and there is no way we'd ever be able to do them at scale (meaning, dozens of countries). Meanwhile, we were developing very good grant-making capacity as an organization, and we were coming to believe that the catalyst projects would benefit from being more locally-oriented. Therefore we decided to support them as grants, in order to help the Wikimedia Foundation narrow its focus, and to increase the projects' likelihood of being successful.
What will our Global South engagement look like, with this narrowing of focus?
Through this process we are not cutting the amount of resources the Wikimedia Foundation dedicates to the developing world—resources will be used somewhat differently, but they won't be diminished. And, we believe that strengthening our grant-making (through both the funds dissemination committee and the Wikimedia Grants Program) will result in us identifying and funding new movement partners in emerging regions, languages and communities, as well as investing in Wikimedia Global South entities. This will not happen immediately, but over the next few years we will be exploring and supporting the conditions for different entities in the developing world to work on movement goals (whether chapters, user groups, thematic groups and allied organisations). Lessons from the partnership model for the catalyst projects will help us do this better, and overall, we hope to significantly increase our editor and community engagement in the developing world. Upshot: shifting our Global South engagement to happen in the context of grant-making will enable us to operate at a scale that we previously couldn't have.
What is the thought process that's led the Wikimedia Foundation to want to shut down the fellowships program?
- The fellowships program has a number of good effects. It has served as a mechanism for surfacing volunteers who the Wikimedia Foundation later ends up hiring for staff positions. It has built community goodwill for the Wikimedia Foundation, and generated useful information and insights that get shared among community members at Wikimania. It matches up knowledgeable, engaged individual volunteers with hard problems, particularly ones related to community health. It is a fairly lightweight way for the Wikimedia movement to experiment and learn, and it was particularly useful in helping to generate insights into the problem of editor decline. The Wikimedia Foundation values the fellowships program and does not want to shut it down.
- The Wikimedia Foundation's engineering/product resources are limited and need to be reserved for our highest-priority projects: the Visual Editor, mobile, and editor engagement work. This means we can't dedicate any engineering or product resources for the fellowships. Any small-scale Wikimedia initiative that can't get access engineering resources is unlikely to achieve significant impact.
- The fellowships program has helped the Wikimedia movement to generate good insights into editor decline and other high-priority issues. One thing individual fellows could do (in the absence of engineering resources) is to generate research and analysis, but, this is at odds with the Wikimedia Foundation's general shift away from a 'research' phase and into an 'execution' phase.
- One potential good effect of the fellowships program would be to have some activities develop into full-fledged programmatic activities supported with ongoing resources. At this time though, the Wikimedia Foundation has a backlog of high-priority projects, and we're unlikely to be able to launch anything new in the immediate future. An example: If the Wikimedia Foundation were in a position to launch new projects at this point, the Teahouse—an interesting project that's tackling a hard and important problem, and which is showing some promise—would be a candidate worth looking at. At its current level of resourcing the Teahouse won't be able to "move the needle" on editor retention. But, we don't currently have the organizational capacity to expand and make it permanent. The fellowships program does generate and test ideas for the Wikimedia movement. But, at this point in our history our primary constraint isn't 'good ideas'—it's 'resources to execute.'
- Meanwhile, the fellowships program does consume non-negligible resources at the Wikimedia Foundation—primarily, Siko's time, some analytics resources, and also HR and Finance & Administration resources processing and maintaining contracts, O-Desk costs, and so forth. The fellowships program generates results that would ordinarily justify those costs. But at a time when the Wikimedia Foundation has a backlog of core, high-priority engineering projects that it needs to make progress on, it makes sense to reserve our support resources for those projects.
Upshot: The fellowships program has positive effects for the Wikimedia movement, and if we had the organizational capacity we would want to continue it. But we can't currently support the fellowships program at the level we'd need to for it to be really effective, and at a time when the Wikimedia Foundation needs to focus on execution of top-priority overdue projects that are primarily engineering and interface-related, we need to reserve our organizational resources as much as possible for that.
What is the core work of the Wikimedia Foundation?
The Wikimedia Foundation is a group of people who facilitate and empower editors (and others who directly support them) to create free, high-quality educational content on Wikimedia websites and make it available to everyone in the world.
This translates first and foremost to responsibility for the Wikimedia sites (hosting and code), which in turn means that Wikimedia Foundation first and foremost should strive to be a world class engineering and product development organization:
- ensuring reliable core operations of all sites and services;
- continually improving site performance to reduce wait times;
- modernizing the user experience, making participation in Wikimedia projects enjoyable and efficient;
- creating a platform and data products that others can use to build innovative applications; and
- developing MediaWiki and related projects as a healthy, vibrant open source ecosystem.
These are also the primary mechanisms we have to influence the size, health and effectiveness of the Wikimedia community.
To support and protect the sites, we manage the trademark and domain name portfolios, respond to media inquiries, and work to ensure the movement's reputation overall is protected, as well as the legal conditions that enable the projects to continue.
Secondarily but importantly, as stewards of the Wikimedia trademarks and the annual site-wide fundraising campaign, the Wikimedia Foundation has ultimate responsibility for extending affiliation and financial support to individuals and organizations seeking to support Wikimedia above and beyond direct participation on the websites. In doing so, the Wikimedia Foundation does not want to be the decision-maker evaluating each organization's programs on a line-item basis, but we do have a fiduciary obligation to ensure that donated funds are spent consistent with our mission, and that participating organizations are subject to good governance.
This means that our grant-making role is a hybrid role consisting of a strong administrative and compliance focused piece, and of a community engagement piece to ensure fair and impact-oriented evaluation of proposed programs by the larger Wikimedia movement.
What is not the core work of the Wikimedia Foundation?
The Wikimedia Foundation is not a think tank or a research institute. We're not an advocacy organization or a lobbyist, and our core mission isn't to keep the internet free and open. We are not a general educational non-profit. (We are a website, or set of sites, and everything we do needs to be understood through that lens.) We don't just reactively "support the community"—responding to requests from editors and doing what they ask us to do. Our purpose isn't to provide MediaWiki support for third parties (but it's in our interest to ensure that a healthy third party ecosystem develops around MediaWiki). We're not, ourselves, content creators. Our purpose is not to ensure the chapters grow and develop, nor is it to support the chapters in their growth and development: rather, chapters are our partners in supporting editors and other content creators.
The Wikimedia Foundation is not the only fish in the sea of free knowledge; not everything that needs to be done must be done by the Wikimedia Foundation, and it's not our job to do work that other individuals or entities are better positioned or mandated to do, however important that work may be. When we try to do work that more properly belongs to other individuals or groups, we imperil our ability to get our own core work done, and we arguably make it less possible for other entities to do what they're supposed to be doing.
How do Wikipedia Zero, the Global Education Program, and the Community Advocacy team fit into this?
Those three initiatives are ones that don't fit easily into either engineering or grant-making, and so it could be argued that for coherency/consistency reasons, they should therefore be shut down. That would be a reasonable argument to make, and yet we are not going to do it.
There is a larger question about whether the Wikimedia Foundation should engage in programmatic activities in general, perhaps acting as a kind of program incubator, in addition to engineering and grant-making. There are good arguments in favour of that and against it, and it's not a question that's going to be resolved immediately—and so right now, we want to hedge our bets: it isn't easy to develop successful programmatic activities that scale globally, and we don't believe we should shut successful or necessary programs down purely out of a desire to achieve consistency.
With regard to these specific programs:
- We are not going to shut down Wikipedia Zero, because it's giving free access to Wikipedia for mobile subscribers, particularly in the developing world. This matters because the projects are not as successful in the developing world as we would like, and because mobile is the best way to reach internet users there. Wikipedia Zero's got an engineering component, but even if it didn't, we would keep it going because we think its impact will warrant it, and because if we don't do it, nobody else could or would.
- We are not going to shut down the Global Education Project because it's having a significant positive impact on the amount and quality of material available in the Wikimedia projects, and because it scales: the small team at the Wikimedia Foundation is enabling and supporting the work of thousands of volunteers around the world, making the project very good bang for the buck.
- We are not going to shut down the Community Advocacy project, because Wikimedia's success depends on successful two-way communication across projects and languages. While we've made great progress in improving support for translation of key documents, and are working on technical improvements to messaging and notifications, this does not address the human factor of ensuring that we're able to have an ongoing dialogue with all major communities. To do so, the Community Advocacy group will nurture and cultivate volunteer ambassadors who help to "carry the mail" and bridge gaps among Wikimedia communities, Wikimedia Foundation and other movement actors. We view this as a necessary core activity, and investments on this front as remedial.