Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2007-11-19/Anthere interview

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The Wikipedia Signpost

Signpost interview: Florence Devouard

By Ral315, 19 November 2007

Florence Devouard, or Anthere, has served on the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees since June 2004, and as Chair of the Board since October 2006. In her position as Chair, Devouard is responsible for overseeing many of the affairs of the Foundation. She also serves as an unofficial liaison between the Board and the community. The Signpost interviews Florence Devouard this week:

Color-free version

Wikipedia Signpost: As Chair of the Wikimedia Foundation, what is your official role, and what actions do you take in an official capacity?

Florence Devouard: According to the bylaws, my (theoretical) role (beside being a board member) is

"The Chair shall, when present, preside at all meetings of the Board of Trustees. The Chair shall have general supervision of the affairs of the corporation and shall make reports to the Board of Trustees at meetings and other times as necessary to keep Trustees informed of corporation activities <...> The Chair shall in general perform all duties as from time to time may be assigned to them by the Board of Trustees."

This is the theory. Now, what is the practice? I very much view my role as being a facilitator of the activities of the board. I try to encourage the board in strategic planning, helping Board to take actions, with respect to our priorities and governance concerns. Along with Sue Gardner, I set up the agenda of board meetings, chair these meetings, make sure the decisions are properly recorded through resolutions and minutes (We held 4 main, face-to-face board meetings since january 2007).

Depending on what needs to be worked on, I suggest the creation of workforces or committees (for example, the audit committee, the ED evaluation committee, the treasurer search group...). I serve ex officio on all board committees. I also try to make sure that board members get the information needed to set policies and evaluate the job done by the staff. And of course, I discuss issues with Sue to better estimate what our priorities are, so that both board and staff work together to achieve the organization's mission.

Last, the chair must be particularly involved in the evaluation of the performance of the Executive Director, in the evaluation of the overall performance of the organization, and at least informally, evaluate the effectiveness of the board members.

Contrariwise to what I hear often when I travel around, my job is not to control and validate all articles. I am not joking! You would not believe the number of people asking me if that's my job :-)

WS: What do you do outside your official role? (i.e. Press, community, and anything else you do that isn't really in your job description)

FD: I have been over three years on the board now, and a year as chair. In the first two years, I had more time for non official jobs. Today, I do not have a lot of free time.

My first year as chair has been real tough, as a good part of it was without any executive director. So, during the past year, I had to (along with other board members) assume part of that role. From a governance perspective, it is not a good idea, but we had no other choice in the interim period. It was also very tiring. I am glad this time is behind us :-)

Now that Sue has been hired, I have a bit more free time to do other things. I spend a significant part of my time with the press (mostly in France. For example, last week, I answered to possibly 10 journalists on the phone and I went once on television for the follow-up off the French lawsuit. I also spend a lot of time in conferences, workshops etc... I also try to go to some of the meetings organized by the chapters (such as most recently, the Dutch chapter meeting, reported in wikinews).

Last, I still edit the projects from time to time, often anonymously :-)

WS: What is the current status of the Wikimedia Foundation's audit? When do you expect a public release of financial statements for FY2007?

FD: The audit officially began on September 17, 2007. It is expected to be finished by the end of the calendar year (hopefully).

The audit is being conducted by a St. Petersburg firm called Gregory Sharer and Stuart. This is the same firm that conducted our ‘first-three-years’ audit report that was published last year.

On the Wikimedia side, the people involved are Oleta McHenry, preparing the books on behalf of the Foundation. Mona Venkateswaran, a financial consultant to the Foundation and a former auditor, is providing oversight and guidance to Oleta. Various others are helping Oleta by providing information and/or supporting documentation. We are also now actively looking for a new treasurer.

It is hard to plan completion date. It depends on the size of the organization, number of transactions, inherent risk in the audit work, and overall complexity of performing audit procedures. It’s fairly normal for audits to take longer to complete than was initially predicted. The Foundation’s projects (and their popularity) grew significantly over the past year, which meant that spending (number of transactions) increased. So there is more work to be done. Also, there has been some turnover in Foundation staff (e.g., the accountant), which has resulted in some loss of institutional memory that makes it harder to do the audit preparation. So it isn’t really all that surprising that the audit is fairly time-consuming.

WS: After the office relocation is completed, what do you think the Foundation's next big priority should be?

FD: It is impossible to limit one self to one priority...the main urgent priorities (beside relocation) are the ongoing fundraising and getting the audit done.

Last year, I indicated that the first priority of the Foundation was (re)organization, so that it could become sustainable. Much as been done already and I expect that the next six months will mostly be dedicated to further strengthening the new organization.

At the staff level, the biggest challenge for the few coming months will be to replace those of our staff members who are unfortunately not moving to San Francisco, as well as expand the staff. This has been delayed for too long and as you are probably aware, we are currently hiring! The challenge will probably not so much be to find people, as I am sure many will be excited by the opportunity to work for the Wikimedia Foundation. The challenge is that we will have many new people at the same time, most of them probably not from the community. They will need to learn very quickly our values.

Purely at the board level, the priority is to find a new treasurer for the board.

Other priorities for the coming year are license issues, strenghtening the Wikimedia network (relations with chapters, affiliates), developing financial controls, increasing and diversifying revenue streams, promoting less developped languages, and .... quality, quality, quality :-)

WS: Today, what do you think are the Wikimedia Foundation's strengths? What are its weaknesses? How can these be improved?

FD: People and good will are probably the biggest strengths.

I would currently consider understaffing the biggest weakness. We probably miss many great opportunities to do big and important things, due to lack of time. I expect this will be improved soon, when more staff is hired. However, the success of the fundraising will also determine our future hiring ability. And as I wrote above, new staff will need help from community members to understand what we are doing :-)

WS: What do you think is the public's biggest misconception about the Wikimedia Foundation and its projects? How do you think we can remedy this?

FD: In January 2007, I defined as one of my priorities the following message: we are not a commercial project. By and large, the public, the corporate world, the NGOs and governmental organizations had no idea what Wikimedia Foundation was about, and considered Wikipedia was held by a private commercial company.

As could be expected, such a belief raises questions (doubts...) about our (hidden) intents, about our independence etc...

For this reason, in 2007, a lot of efforts have been put to explain that we are a non profit, that wikimedia projects are here for the common good, etc. I can already see much improvement, not so much in the public mind, but definitely at the level of big non-profit organizations, big private companies and governments.

A remedy to improve that further? Messaging... explaining what we do, how we do it, why we do it etc...everyone can help push this message: "We are a non profit, we want to bring knowledge to people". I would also consider getting one big grant a very cool way to show the public where we stand.

WS: On a similar note, what do you think is the community's biggest misconception about the Foundation, and how do you believe it can be remedied?

FD: The editors least involved simply have NO idea there IS a Foundation. To a certain extent, I think that's fine. What is important is that they understand our mission, our principles and the fact we are not commercial, and that we are relying on donations.

Considering the number of emails I get from various people, I guess many editors also do not fully understand the difference between staff and board, and what the role of each is. These two pages may help them:

I guess we need to work on an organigram...

WS: You've gone on a few trips and conferences to promote Wikimedia. What was your favorite moment from these trips?

FD: I had several great experiences and precious memories. Let me tell you about the last one.

Last week, I was in Livingstone, Zambia. The World Agricultural Information Systems Project had been tasked by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to identify priority information needs of farm smallholders and their support network with special emphasis on the needs of women, in Africa and South Asia, then explore the application of new technologies to the "first kilometre" problems of communities of smallholders accessing up to date and relevant information; and last, to understand the institutional, economic and social context in which smallholders operate as a broader context for effective smallholder development.

The project consisted in two field trips and two international workshops. I was invited to participate to the second workshop, in Zambia. Participants were very diverse in expertise and in origins, and we shared fabulous experiences during the whole week. The outcome of the week was the production of 15-20 practical (well, some were practical, some were a bit more theoretical...) actions to help poor farmers in Africa and South Asia.

My group designed an action plan which would have as a goal, the development of online collaborative freely-licensed content modules that can be aggregated into handbooks, textbooks and other support materials for agricultural education & extension.

During this workshop, we had the opportunity to go and visit a village of 35 households, about 20mn away from Livingstone. The experience was eye-opening. It is one thing to hear about poverty on television, or to read about it in newspapers, this is entirely something else to see it and to talk to the farmers. Of 35 households, only 10 produce sufficient agricultural goods to be able to sell some of it and purchase other things. All others are just survivors. AIDS prevalence: 18%. This village had no electricity, they enjoyed clean water though, but at 1.5 km away. About half of the farmers had a radio system, working on batteries. A few of them had cell phones. There was a school in the village, 2 km away from most houses. The school was made of two buildings, inside which I could see only a few low banks and a black board. Nothing else. We also visited the "village information center". It was just a small house. Entirely empty. Because they have basically nothing to put inside, or if they do, books and leaflets can disappear since there is no glass window or door.

I have not uploaded yet all pictures, but you may find some of those here.

Zambian rural school

It is *really* hard to begin to imagine the life of these people. You could get all the cliches, the kids playing with an empty bottle of the coca you just brought them, the torn clothes, the chicken running around, the mosquitoes vibrating, the sticky eyes. But then you also have all the stories about the elephants ruining the culture. The mill, 7 km away, too far for the women to be really useful, the unique bicycle in a corner to bring the news to Livingstone, the request for a football balloon, so that the teenager boys could play football rather than going after the girls. The farmers were trying to set up a little intensive chicken battery-type system.

Whilst we were all seating together and talking about ways they thought we could most help them, I realized how painfully in lack of information they were. Oh, we are not even talking of an encyclopedia here. But simply stuff like booklets to teach them fertilization, handbook on a particular crop, videos to learn better disease management; SMS messages to tell them about the weather; community-based radio to communicate marketplace information. All this could be useful, but it is so far away from what we seem to be doing right now. One also fully understand the benefit of a free-license. In those places, no one can really easily access information on the net. Even in the four star hotel where we were lodged, internet was a looooong way to be reliable. However, small businesses could develop around printing leaflets in the nearby internet cafe, transporting the docs to the village by bicycle, and selling them at very low cost to the village extension officer. It is not only about bringing information to people, but also helping local business to develop.

My favorite moment on this trip perhaps was when we realized that one of the villagers was taking written notes of the discussions. When we asked why, he proudly answered he was the community journalist and had been trained to do so. He takes notes and travel to Livingstone so as to provide his notes to the local newspaper, and then bring back the journal to the village. What was he most dreaming for? A bicycle and a camera. So that he could better report on the village life.

WS: How do you feel the current fundraiser is going? Are there any current plans to team up with large donors or corporate organizations, either through matching funds donations or individual donations, during this drive?

FD: The fundraiser began October 23 and runs until December 23. In its first 25 days, we brought in USD 708K. If we continue to receive donations at the same average rate of ~28K per day, we will total just a little more than 1m in donations by December 23. However, we have at least two commitments for major donations expected, matching donation type. Some more in the works.

Currencies 16th of november 2007

Change in the sitenotice (more attention-grabbing, brighter, bolder) made a significant visible change. Therefore, we continue to make small changes/improvements, with the hope of maintaining people's interest and keeping donations. Some communication initiatives are also planned before the end of the fundraiser (new fundraising landing pages, more translations, bloggers outreach, information package for big donors, fundraising blog, more press releases, Edit Wikipedia Week, holidays gift certificates etc...).

My suggestion for a full fundraising report would be for the Signpost to interview Sue Gardner for an update on this very topic for the anniversary of one-month-fundraiser (<---- is not that cool ? I am setting up next week SignPost agenda)

But overall, my personal feeling is that it is not terribly successful. Though I do not have any actual figures to support this, I fear that the current pretty bad financial situation in the USA is impacting our fundraiser. My hope is that all the ongoing initiatives will in particular catch the attention of big donors.

WS: Is there anything specific you want to say to the community?

FD: I would simply recommend keeping the goal in mind. Bringing knowledge/information to as many people as possible. Sometimes, we get lost in details, or slightly useless debates, or endless disagreements on petty issues. It may be over the creation of a list or over the fine print on a contract, or the ending date of a vote, or whether to block a low-profile vandal. We should try to keep in mind the big picture.

I'd love us to spend more time working with these kids' future in mind than writing to the New York Times for the zillionth time, to fix a little license detail.

Also this week:

Anthere interview — Khobar plagiarism — WikiWorld — News and notes — In the news — WikiProject report — Features and admins — Technology report — Arbitration report

Signpost archives