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Wikimedia Foundation partnership reflections

From Meta, a Wikimedia project coordination wiki

The Wikimedia movement spans nearly every country in the world, with over 30 million registered users who have made more than 3 billion edits to Wikimedia projects. And yet, the Wikimedia vision—to share the sum of all human knowledge with every person on the planet—is so vast that we cannot fulfill it alone.

Over the years, the Wikimedia Foundation has formed various types of partnerships with individuals and organizations, across industries and geographies. We'd like to share some lessons we've learned in this process. We hope it will be a useful page for the Foundation improving its internal practices moving forward and a document that inspires others to identify, develop, and implement meaningful partnerships throughout the movement.

Goals of this document[edit]

In short, this page's goals are to:

  • Provide transparency for the Wikimedia community about the Foundation's role in the development of partnerships with external organizations
  • Distill shared lessons from the Foundation's previous successful and unsuccessful partnerships for the purposes of improving practices moving forward
  • Share information about the Foundation's current partnerships-based work and how it may develop in the future
  • Contribute a resource to the broader Wikimedia community that helps volunteers and affiliates improve their own practices and partnership guidance while encouraging them to pursue more worthwhile opportunities

Partnership definition[edit]

For the purposes of this page, a partnership is simply any collaboration between the Wikimedia Foundation and a third party outside our movement, for the purpose of advancing our mission. Partnerships can be defined around specific timelines and deliverables, or they can be more general and involve developing relationships and capacity. Partnerships can be formal and involve legal agreements, or they can be more informal. Partnerships come in many forms, but the common thread is they involve Wikimedia Foundation staff working with people and organizations beyond the Wikimedia movement to advance our mission.

Of course, we are part of a movement, and partnerships play a critical role across many Wikimedia communities. The Foundation is only one actor alongside Wikimedia movement affiliates, Wikimedia's community of individual volunteers, and our external partners. Successful partnerships benefit from and make use of the unique strengths of each of these groups as necessary for that partnership (though not necessarily all participating at the same time).

Value-driven partnerships[edit]

In working with external organizations and individuals, we seek to apply Wikimedia values. We hope this overview of our driving values when working with partnerships will be useful in guiding decision-making.

Advance the Wikimedia mission and have measurable impact or documentable lessons[edit]

The Wikimedia Foundation's resources are supported by donor money, and partnerships supported by this money should have expected benefit for the movement in relation to the resources dedicated to that partnership. There are many reasons to consider a partnership, some tangible (e.g. number of new editors acquired, number of new readers) and some less tangible and harder to measure (e.g. collaboration with high-profile media effort leading to brand exposure). Both types are valid motivations and approaches. As a good practice, we strongly recommend setting up specific goals and/or metrics that will help us monitor and keep partnerships on track towards achieving their purpose. Even with clear planning and analysis, impact may not always be immediate: sometimes partnerships based on innovation and experimental ideas and programs can be an end in themselves, because the valuable insights we gain in the process help to inform future strategic decisions.

Align with the principles and guidelines outlined by the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees and volunteer community[edit]

See Wikimedia Foundation Guiding Principles

Whenever possible, we will partner with organizations that share our common mission, values, or goals. However, there are situations where access to resources or services can be best acquired from organizations outside such deep alignment. In those cases, we need to give extra scrutiny to the value gained from pursuing the partnership, weighed against benefits and weaknesses of other alternatives.

Provide sufficient transparency[edit]

The Wikimedia community operates on a culture of transparency. Within the limits of privacy, legal, and safety constraints, the Wikimedia Foundation aims to create as much transparency about Wikimedia Foundation partnerships as possible. The Foundation acknowledges that some partners will have limitations that prevent full transparency including confidentiality about exact partnership terms, or ability to disclose early planning about a developing partnership. For example, unrestricted donations are only disclosed with donor permission (while restricted donor funding is always disclosed). These constraints should be a consideration when creating new partnerships, and as much as possible, partnerships should create a meaningfully transparent representation of the relationship and the exchange.

Goals for partnerships[edit]

Various Wikimedia Foundation teams explore different types of partnerships that support the Foundation's institutional mission. Below is a list of examples illustrating possible areas for collaboration.

  • Creating or accessing new collections or types of free content: We welcome partnerships that substantially create or release free content. Wikimedia projects operate on multiple principles of freedom: a) freedom of access, b) freedom of reuse, and c) freedom of contribution through collaborative processes. (For more information, see the Wikimedia mission statement).
  • Disseminating knowledge: We welcome partnerships that help make our current knowledge base more accessible to more people, more easily or affordably. Wikimedia projects are about sharing the "sum of all human knowledge", and we want to expand the audience for that knowledge.
  • Raising awareness and deepening understanding of the Wikimedia movement, its values, and projects: The Wikimedia Foundation welcomes partnerships that bring its mission into the minds of new audiences and deepens understanding of the open knowledge movement; this develops basic skills for others to fully participate in and engage with our work.
  • Expanding Wikimedia's global reach: We realize that limits to access, such as access to internet and technological barriers, prevent us from from reaching all humans on the planet. We want our impact to be global, and partnerships that help us achieve that are very important. The Wikimedia Foundation welcomes partnerships that help us share knowledge with new or under-served audiences.
  • Deepening or growing volunteer participation: The Wikimedia Foundation relies entirely on a global community of volunteers for development of our shared projects. We welcome partners who can bring new volunteers into the Wikimedia community.
  • Supporting volunteer communities: Established volunteer communities are active around the world, both online and offline. The Wikimedia Foundation welcomes partnerships that strengthen, support, or provide appropriate incentives for established communities and affiliate organizations, by providing resources or services.
  • Advocating for free and open copyright: Wikimedia projects would not exist without legal frameworks that support free and open copyright licenses. The Wikimedia Foundation welcomes partnerships that help maintain open copyright licensing, and that advocate for growing and protecting the global availability of free and open content.
  • Improving digital privacy: Wikimedia projects maintain a high standard for digital privacy. The Wikimedia Foundation welcomes partnerships that help further improve privacy for our readers and contributors, through both improvement to our projects and to the global digital and legal infrastructures.
  • Developing/updating free software: Wikimedia projects run on the open source web platform MediaWiki, and our community relies heavily on other open-source software developed by both our community and external communities. The Wikimedia Foundation welcomes partnerships that support development of our free software ecosystem.
  • Supporting movement infrastructure: Wikimedia projects require servers, software developers, community support staff, financial resources, and many other resources to sustain their scale and impact. The Wikimedia Foundation welcomes partnerships which support movement infrastructure not otherwise listed in the goals above.

Partnership models[edit]

There are a remarkable number of partnership types that advance the Wikimedia Foundation's goals. Below is an incomplete list of partnership types with examples that illustrate them.

  • Legal partnerships: like working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on privacy/anti-surveillance advocacy, information sharing between technology company legal teams, or helping Medium.com implement Creative Commons licensing.
  • Technology partnerships: like working with NetBase to improve our social media analytics, working with mobile carriers to develop and place Wikipedia native apps on their devices, or working with Facebook developers to increase our page load speed using the HipHop Virtual Machine (HHVM).
  • Reference partnerships: like providing editors free access to research and reference materials through The Wikipedia Library.
  • Distribution partnerships: like helping Kiwix develop offline Wikipedia readers, or teaming up with the Library of Congress to post Wikipedia article headings in their catalogue.
  • Mobile partnerships: like Wikipedia Zero giving access without data charges to people in regions where mobile data charges would limit their use of Wikipedia.
  • Education partnerships: like helping Wikimedia movement affiliates work with universities, partnerships with the entire Ministry of Education of a country, or work with education programs run by independent non-profits like the Wiki Education Foundation.
  • Cultural partnerships: like helping place Wikipedians in Residence at the U.S. National Archives or the British Library.
  • Fundraising partnerships, like accepting unrestricted donations, restricted major gifts, or receiving a share of Humble Bundle's revenue.
  • Content partnerships: like receiving image donations from SpaceX, videos from Al Jazeera, or unlocking access to medical video content with Osmosis.
  • Community partnerships: like working with the Ada Initiative to improve community health and attract more women contributors, or working with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society to address friendly space policies and harassment.
  • Expert Wikipedian partnerships: like placing Wikipedians in Residence at Cochrane Collaboration or piloting a Wikipedia Visiting Scholar at Rutgers University.
  • Language partnerships: like working with Russian internet translation service Yandex to improve our Content Translation tool.

Tips for constructing a partnership[edit]

Good partnerships generally follow a reflective, iterative process. Not all partnerships go through each of the following steps, but most involve several of them.

  • Evaluate opportunity and need – Openly discuss and explore opportunities to advance and support our efforts to ensure that they align with the broader priorities of the Foundation and the movement. Continuously return to evaluation of whether impact is created by the partnership and meets broader goals.
  • Select a partner – Conduct initial partner assessment to ensure fit, value, and potential for impact, identify where partner interests overlap with our potential for making impact, and brainstorm possible objections or downsides.
  • Stakeholder engagement and review – Consult with relevant people and organizations, whether in the volunteer community, affiliates, or Wikimedia Foundation itself (e.g., Legal, Community Engagement, Partnerships, Communications).
  • Define a role for community involvement – Wikimedia partnerships operate best when the community is integrated into the process of both envisioning and executing partnerships, especially when the partnerships directly affect Wikimedia projects, their content, or their software. Plan early to know how much volunteers and affiliates will be involved, because many partnerships will rely on community execution, and at least community support.
  • Draft a strategic plan and process – Outline a plan of action to clarify the relationship and how it benefits both parties. Create a development roadmap in consultation with the partner based on a project timeline and intended outcomes, and measures of success.
  • Evaluate need for legal contract – Agreements range from informal approval email to formal legal contracts. At the Wikimedia Foundation, when formal partnerships are being considered, the Wikimedia Foundation Legal Department should be included to manage any contracts and make sure that agreed-upon terms are appropriate and in line with our Terms and Policies. In nearly all cases, some documented project plan is strongly encouraged, even if it is only shared and not signed by both parties. Agreements and Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) are not just protective but often make partners feel more comfortable, while conferring legitimacy to a relationship by outlining roles and expectations. They also allow the Foundation to more clearly keep track of the partnerships we enter, which can be helpful for transparency and future projects.
  • Enlist participants – Wikimedia projects work best when participation is wide: Wikimedia volunteers, partners, Wikimedia Foundation staff and contractors, movement affiliates, and new volunteer communities are all possible participants. In some cases the Foundation will initially play a catalyzing role but later bring in movement affiliates or individual volunteers to follow through. Creating roles for these participants strengthens contributions and ensures that the partnerships make the intended impact.
  • Implement – Actually running the program, while monitoring for issues as they arise, and collecting then sharing data as the program advances.
  • Respond to feedback – Like the talk pages on every Wikimedia wiki, partnerships need a clear and open forum or place to give and address feedback. We need to give consideration and be responsive to community feedback, providing appropriately timely and sufficiently clear explanations of our thinking and our progress. Responding to concerns and criticisms, and absorbing feedback, makes partnerships more resilient and sustainable.
  • Evaluate and document impact – Partnership work and its outcomes need to be recorded thoroughly. What went well? What could be done differently next time? What assumptions proved true or unfounded? Beyond simple documentation, impact needs to be analyzed to produce a deeper understanding of the costs, benefits, and risks of the project. Additionally, those results should be prepared to be shared.
  • Communicate to community and stakeholders – Before, during, and after partnerships, be sure to keep the volunteer community and other stakeholders aware, informed, and engaged. Communicating lessons from partnerships greatly improves the opportunity for our movement to create better partnerships in the future, as well as receiving support for the partnership as it is happening.
  • Evolve or terminate – Developing more lasting partnerships is about establishing a deeper relationship with a partner than a single collaborative project. Those relationships need to adapt as partnerships respond to results and challenges. Shifting directions is both appropriate and often part of growth. Not all partnerships, however, should be replicated or continued indefinitely: some may not prove fruitful, or simply have one-off outcomes that accomplish their goal.
  • Distill lessons – It is important to take time and devote resources to reflect on partnerships; the next step is substantially documenting them for both community input and for preserving institutional knowledge, with a focus on enabling future communities to effectively replicate that model of partnership. Organizationally, our valuable movement resources should not be spent replicating mistakes, or wasting time failing to repeat our successes.

Things to be careful about[edit]

Potential conflicts and concerns do not necessarily limit the Wikimedia Foundation from trying, failing, learning, or growing through partnerships, and partnerships often require experimentation, innovation, flexibility, and iteration to succeed. Some partnerships, however, may require additional review time from staff, additional community consultation, and broader consensus to proceed. The following potential issues encourage us to pause and reevaluate if we're on the right track.

  • Does not have outcomes beneficial for Wikimedia movement or equitable investment of resources – Wikimedia's brand can be influential and the Internet traffic generated by its projects creates phenomenal reach; organizations and individuals working with us frequently see added value in leveraging our movement and choose to work with us partly because of motivations other than mere goodwill. However, not every offer of collaboration will be mutually beneficial.
  • Work with a partner whose mission clearly conflicts with ours – The Wikimedia Foundation is deeply committed to its principles and mission. Although we don't expect to be completely aligned with all partnering organizations, we should not develop partnerships with organizations whose work directly violates our principles or conflicts with our mission in a way that negatively impacts our movement. Partnerships also work best when there is deep mission alignment between Wikimedia and the partnering organizations (for example: Europeana, Internet Archive, Mozilla, Public Library of Science. Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), The Centre for Internet and Society India (CIS India)).
  • Accept arrangements that prevent responsiveness to community concerns – The Wikimedia community is what allows the movement to function. Partnerships that cannot be, or are legally restricted from being, responsive to community concerns should be highly scrutinized in advance or avoided entirely.
  • Create an undisclosed and/or prohibitive conflict of interest with a partner – Wikimedia Foundation teams should reasonably assume that corporate and organizational partners do have a financial, commercial, or promotional interest in working with us, and that partners will not be able to suppress their organizational or fiduciary mandate to advocate for their own interests. Partnerships can be made with awareness of these motives: mutual benefit is not a bad thing in and of itself, but Wikimedia Foundation teams need to be particularly wary of conflicted benefit. Additionally, we should be mindful of any financial interests that members of the Wikimedia Foundation staff, Foundation contractors, or members of the Foundation Board may have with the potential partner. Any people with a financial interest in the partner should not participate in the partnership's development or implementation. The conflict and non-participation should also be documented and shared with the community promptly and where appropriate.
  • Require overly restrictive terms – The Wikimedia Foundation's primary work is to fulfill its core mission and strengthen the movement and its community. The Wikimedia Foundation should not create partnerships which restrict the Wikimedia Foundation from fulfilling this mission or unreasonably limit the scale of impact by which partnerships' outcomes can benefit the community (for example: providing funding that restricts which communities can benefit from a work product created by the Foundation).

Historically critical concerns[edit]

The following approaches have historically not worked, and when approached with these strategies we generally explore new directions for potential partners.

  • Creating processes that deliver poor user experiences for our editors or readers (e.g. clicking through to a site that only works in some countries)
  • Using technology that is not sufficiently secure to protect private user information
  • The inclusion of third-party embedded widgets, applets, or JavaScript code within Wikimedia projects that sends user information outside of our servers
  • Exposing private user information to a third party without deep alignment with Wikimedia's privacy policy
  • "Just placing links" to partners' content on project pages without added value to editors and readers
  • Linking to registration-only or download-required pages (where there is no other benefit to the reader)
  • Accepting donations of content that don't fully meet the community's definition of "free", such as Creative Commons Non-Derivative or Non-Commercial content, or content that is granted to "Wikipedia only"
  • Creating content within Wikimedia projects in a way that movement volunteers can no longer modify or contribute to it (such as "locking" an externally-approved version of a Wikipedia article on Wikipedia)
  • Engagement in electoral politics or public policy that doesn't directly affect Wikimedia's operations or is outside of the Wikimedia Foundation's public policy pillars—the Foundation has developed internal guidelines for its policy and political associations to help keep its public policy work mission-focused

Evolution of this page[edit]

We hope that this collection of lessons learned is useful to Wikimedia Foundation staff and contractors pursuing partnerships and to the community's understanding of that work. We are always experimenting and incorporating new lessons into our thinking. As such, this page is not static and should grow over time with new experiences and feedback. We hope to move forward with the freedom to innovate, develop effective new partnership models, and add what we learn from those experiences.

We encourage the community to comment on this page, compare and contrast it to their own organizational guidelines, and engage in a dialogue with us about how to be even more effective in our partnerships work.


Useful links to guidance on partnerships from around the movement: