Research:Wikimedia Foundation Accountability Mapping

From Meta, a Wikimedia project coordination wiki
Duration:  2015-08 – 2015-10
This page documents a completed research project.

The Wikimedia Foundation provides technological and grantmaking products, as well as other services, to a network of organizations and individuals who are working toward the same, or similar, missions and visions.[citation needed] With this arrangement, the Wikimedia Foundation should have systems of accountability in place for those organizations and users that it serves. This project aimed to explore the accountability practices and processes of the Wikimedia Foundation. Results: there is no clear system of accountability at the foundation for choosing the decisions that it makes nor a system of accountability for following through on those decisions. For the current accountability and decision making tools in place (such as reports, community consultations, etc.) there is no assessment of their effectiveness nor if there are gaps between (a) the accountability/decision making tools that the Wikimedia Foundation currently provides and (b) the accountability/decision making tools that the community expects. We also do not have year to year comparisons of community measurement of WMF performance, products and support of communities. Recommendation: Continue to explore existing accountability processes and explore additional solutions to improve and measure accountability and performance.


  • Online research to search for reports and documentation aligned to specific Wikimedia Foundation work
  • Invite staff to contribute to the documentation

Current system of accountability at the Wikimedia Foundation[edit]

At its core, accountability represents trust in relationships among individuals and bodies. One World Trust in the United Kingdom has the following definition for accountability:

The processes through which an organization makes a commitment to respond to and balance the needs of stakeholders in its decision making processes and activities, and delivers against this commitment.[1]

Within the Wikimedia movement, these stakeholders generally include Wikimedia Board, Wikimedia Foundation staff, donors, funded organizations, external partners, and Wikimedia projects and Wikimedia organizations. Prioritization is key: it would be impossible to be held accountable to everyone for everything. This document focuses only on accountability between the Wikimedia Foundation and users of Wikimedia projects: these include Contributors, Readers and Donors. Within the Wikimedia Foundation's pages on Meta and, I was able to find one small piece of documentation that speaks to accountability at the foundation-level:

The Wikimedia Foundation wants to be accountable to the people who create the Wikimedia projects, to donors, and to readers. Our primary stakeholders are i) Wikimedia editors and other contributors, who have created the overwhelming majority of the value in the projects and who are responsible for the goodwill that the projects and the Wikimedia Foundation enjoy, ii) Wikimedia Foundation donors, who give funding that supports the projects’ technical and other needs, and iii) the readers of the Wikimedia projects. We aim to be careful with donors' money. We pay salaries that are fair but not lavish, and provide reasonable benefits (e.g., health and dental insurance) that are the same for all employees regardless of their title or position. We aim to incur only reasonable travel costs, and to keep work-related entertainment costs moderate.[2]

No further information is offered about what tools or processes the WMF uses to demonstrate the ways we are accountable nor any links to evaluation of our accountability efforts.

Mapping accountability processes in the WMF[edit]

The various tools and processes we use to remain accountable are scattered across various places at the organization. In mapping out the various tools and processes, we find that the tools and processes are not very coherent or systematic.

Since accountability is rooted in relationships and actions, it can be broken down into three broad parts: "Accountability for What", "Accountability to Whom", and "Accountability How".[3] Table 1 shows an overview of accountability at the Wikimedia Foundation. This mapping currently excludes external accountability to government and non-profit organizations (e.g. Charity Navigator[4].

To Whom For What How
  • Wikimedia Contributors
  • Wikimedia Organizations
  • Donors
  • Readers
  • Governance
  • Strategy/Mission
  • Finance
  • Fundraising
  • Software infrastructure
  • Software features
  • Funding organizations
  • Capacity Building
  • Expert Consultation
  • Legal and policy support
  • Communications
  • Community consultations
  • Board elections, other voting
  • Evaluation assessments
  • Public lists, talk pages
  • Disclosure reports
  • User surveys

In Appendix A, you can find a second table that examines the accountability aspects of each tool or process in more detail. One key method of gaining accountability is through different levels of participation, which is also included in the Table 2. Three levels were used in this analysis. A fourth level, external initiatives (e.g. Chapters Dialogue) are not included since this project is concerned at the moment with WMF accountability to communities it serves.

  • Information sharing (e.g. Community consultations) involves the public sharing of information without being decisionmakers
  • Community work (e.g. Grants programs) is involvement in the project or process
  • Decisionmaking (e.g. RfC's, Board elections) include direct power over decisions

Out of the mapped accountability tools and processes, three have direct community involvement in WMF decisionmaking: board elections, grants programs and product releases. While we know from our own perceptions the level of participation that communities are involved in various tools of accountability at the Foundation, we do not have any analysis to show the overall level of satisfaction/usefulness the community has with these accountability and decision-making processes, or if one process or tool is preferred over another.

Current levels of participation in accountability processes. More data and research is needed to know how many users engage with current accountability tools and processes. However, looking at some recent initiatives, we are seeing some patterns related to level of engagement of the individual user. Some users may not want to engage publicly through a strategy discussion, but may want to be involved in the process nonetheless. For the most recent board elections in 2015, we heard from over 5,000 registered users in 15 days, while with the strategy consultation, we heard from 312 registered users during 10 days of the consultation. As another example, for Reimagining Grants, the Community Resources grants consultation, has 15 users who have participated in the consultation public talk page, while 50 users answered survey questions about the consultation and over 100 who responded to the entire survey. We do not have data from product release discussions in this analysis yet.

Evaluation of current systems of accountability[edit]

Exploring accountability tools and processes[edit]


  1. Ebrahim, Alnoor, "The Many Faces of Nonprofit Accountability," Harvard Business School,
  2. Wikimedia Foundation Guiding Principles,
  3. Ibid