Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2007-12-03/Gardner interview

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The Wikipedia Signpost

Signpost interview: New Executive Director Sue Gardner

By Ral315, 3 December 2007

This week, Sue Gardner, who has served as special adviser to the Foundation since July, was named the Foundation's new Executive Director. In a mailing list post on Wednesday, Foundation Chair Florence Devouard said,

I think the title of the message says it all :-) ... There is very little to add really, but for the fact we have been very pleased with Sue's job so far (and have no reason to expect different for the future), so it is a real pleasure to announce this appointment.

The official resolution was approved last week and posted on the Foundation's web site on Wednesday. Four members voted in favor of the resolution, with two members (Michael Davis and Kat Walsh) missing, and Erik Möller recusing.

The announcement of Gardner's new position comes at a busy time for the Wikimedia Foundation, with the fundraiser just over halfway done, and the office's move to San Francisco beginning to take form. This week, the Signpost interviews Sue Gardner:

Wikipedia Signpost: First of all, you were officially named to the position of Executive Director this week -- congratulations!

Sue Gardner: Thank you :-)

As Executive Director, what are your immediate duties for the Foundation?

I have two major immediate priorities right now: the relocation, and ensuring we’re okay financially.
Financial stability is obviously critical – we can’t accomplish anything if we’re bogged down with money problems. So a lot of my attention is going towards fundraising. We have the online fundraiser underway right now, and that is important. And there are other initiatives as well – we’re doing some major donor cultivation, and I am hiring a head of fundraising whose job will be to develop and execute a sustainability strategy for us, etc.
The second big priority is the relocation: it’s my job to get us safely and successfully to San Francisco. Which involves more than just finding us an office and buying some furniture; it involves a fair amount of hiring too. You may know that when we decided to move to San Francisco we invited all the current U.S.-based staff to come with us. But obviously many people are in no position to do that - they have husbands, they have kids in school, and other constraints. So we will need to replace several of the current staff, and we will also be hiring for a few new positions, like the fundraising one. That's really exciting and fun work, building what is in some ways a new organization.
There are a bunch of other smaller urgent priorities – but those are the two major ones.

Prior to accepting the position as special advisor and then Executive Director, you served as the senior director of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's news site, What did that job entail, and how is it similar to what you do with the Wikimedia Foundation today?

At the CBC I ran the website. Which meant I had responsibility for the strategy, the money, the staffing, the quality of the content, technology, usability and accessibility – all that.
There are some interesting similarities between that and what I am doing now. First and most obvious are the public service element and the informational element. Both jobs are fundamentally about trying to support people in getting information that they want and need. The idea is –in my view- that better-informed people are able to make better decisions and live somewhat richer and more interesting lives. So that's the core of the work at both places, and that’s the part that matters most to me.
Beyond that, they are both obviously large and popular websites. CBC.CA was the most popular news media site in Canada, and the Wikimedia sites are in the top 10 most popular sites in the world. That implies similarities in the work – popular websites draw a lot of media attention and are often subject to criticism, particularly by people who feel a sense of ownership and personal investment in them. Popularity means capital planning is important, technical stability is important, redundancy is important; that kind of thing.
And both places, in my opinions, require a similar managerial style. The CBC workforce is about 85% unionized, and the union there is quite strong. There are some interesting parallels between a strong union shop, and a largely volunteer-driven organization. In both, command-and-control style management just doesn't work. And that is fine with me: I'm not particularly inclined that way regardless. In leading at both organizations, you need to lean quite heavily on influence, on persuasion, and sometimes as well -not always!- rational argument. Some people are very uncomfortable with that, but I like it.

While the fall fundraiser has raised over $1,000,000 so far, this number falls well short of the $4.6 million in the 2007-2008 Planned Spending Distribution. How will the Foundation ensure that the budget is balanced?

Yes, the online fundraiser will not cover our operating costs - nor did we expect it to. And that's okay. We have a couple of major donations coming in within the next few weeks: they’ve been committed to, and will arrive in the bank before the new year. I will be going on a mini-tour of potential major donors, starting in the middle of December. We’ll probably do another one in January. And the German chapter is doing its own fundraising, and will be pitching in to buy 15 new squid servers for Amsterdam – which is fabulous and will be very helpful.
In the short term, I will need to focus quite a bit of my energy on fundraising, to ensure we’re okay for the coming year. In the medium and long term though, I am not particularly worried. We are going to have a head of fundraising, whose job will be –mainly- to cultivate major donations. And I think she or he will have a lot of fun in that role, and will be able to be really successful. Lots of people love Wikipedia: there is an awful lot of warmth and good feeling towards it, and also – to a lesser extent because they are lesser-known - towards the other projects. And I understand that. If I were a philanthropist, I would want to put my money towards initiatives that were able to be effective on a shoestring. And there is no denying the impact Wikimedia is having with a ridiculously small staff.
I would also want to encourage philanthropists to attend Wikimania. It was incredibly inspiring to me to see those hundreds of very very different people, all voluntarily coming together for no reason other than to do something exciting and positive and good.

As a follow-up to that question: You mentioned "major donors", whose checks should be coming in by the new year. Without revealing anything confidential, can you give us an idea of how much these donations will be for?

Sure. The total is expected to be over US$1 million. I don't want to say anything more specific than that though - since some of the donors have asked to be anonymous, and others haven't specified.

Is the move to San Francisco still planned for late January/early February? What will be done over the next two months in order to guarantee a smooth transition?

The move will happen in December and January. Brion has already left St. Petersburg for San Francisco, and Cary will leave soon. We have begun hiring the new people, and you'll start hearing some of their names announced over the next few weeks.
Relocation is always clunky, and there will be plenty of noise and confusion. But I'm not worried. The heart and soul of the projects is the volunteer community, which will be almost wholly unaffected by the move. The servers are unaffected. And we have three staff members, Delphine and Mark and Tim, who are relatively unaffected. So all in all, I think there will be enough continuity and stability that for the readership and the volunteers, the move will not be terribly visible. It will be difficult for the U.S.-based staff, but that's unavoidable and I think in general those people are excited and happy about it.
The rough timeline is as follows: Brion, Cary and Mike will turn up in the Bay Area towards the end of December. The new hires will start at the beginning-to-middle of January, with the exception of the office manager, who will start earlier so that she can focus on getting the office set up. We are planning to have the office ready towards the beginning of January, although it will be a bit of a work-in-progress in the beginning.

What do you see as the primary obstacles facing the Foundation over the next year? How do you plan to handle these challenges?

If you look at the Foundation’s strengths, they are amazing: Wikipedia is huge, it is popular, it offers relevant information that people want. The community behind it is self-sustaining and engaged. Wikipedia provides the other projects with a preexisting community of engaged volunteers and a built-in readership. The public goodwill is amazing. We couldn’t ask for a better and more committed founder and ambassador than Jimmy. So we have lots to work with.
Our obstacles pale by comparison. We are a young organization that needs to grow up a little. We are missing lots of skills and experience: we don’t have a good understanding of the grants development process, how to fundraise well, etc. We need to do some serious thinking about a number of things – the relationship between the chapters and the Foundation, how to best tap into the volunteer community for work that goes beyond editing and governing the content of the projects, how to best get the material of the projects delivered to people who aren’t online.
And there are other, more external obstacles. One of our goals is to encourage other organizations –like for example the BBC, National Geographic, PBS- to free up their content. That is difficult and slow work. We have challenges on the legal front: the licensing situation is difficult and complex, and we are sometimes the target of people’s anger when they feel the projects depict them unfairly. And we have challenges on the public perception front: in my opinion, we are perceived as less credible than we actually are. In general, we are trying to encourage a freer and more open world, and obviously there are lots of countervailing forces to that. But I am confident we’re on the right side of history :-)

With the CBC, you handled the day-to-day operations of a website known for its quality and accuracy. How do you think the Foundation can overcome public perception of inaccuracy, and begin to foster a public image of quality growth?

First, let me thank you on behalf of my previous employer. CBC is truly well-regarded for its quality and accuracy: it is regularly cited in surveys as the most trusted news source for Canadians.
Regarding the perception-of-inaccuracy issue for us, I believe that part of the issue is simply time lag between perception and reality. First Monday published a study a few months ago that helped to validate our fundamental premise. It concluded that the best articles in Wikipedia had benefited from massive, open collaboration: working together in the way we do is critical to achieve high-quality articles.
So, although I don’t want to minimize quality problems where they actually exist, I do believe that part of this is a perception issue rather than a reality issue. And my feeling is, some of the attacks on us will subside as people get more used to the idea of projects like ours. My mother has learned to embrace Wikipedia. So gradually, will other people who have been dubious about us.
Part of the challenge is to make it clear to our readers that our core community of contributors is diligently working on building an ever improving reference work. Our fundamental openness is essential for that community to grow and thrive, but it also creates unique challenges. Recently we launched the quality portal, which lists some of the strategies we're supporting to make it easier for readers to distinguish high-quality articles from text that is in the draft stage or from random vandalism.

Before joining the Wikimedia Foundation, what experience did you have with Wikimedia projects? What was your initial impression of the Wikimedia projects, and what made you decide that working for the Foundation would be an enjoyable position?

My experience with the projects was a pretty normal and conventional one, I think. I had used them for years, like everybody. I made my first edit about five years ago, and edited anonymously intermittently since then. Mostly small fixes - I didn't do much new article creation or serious big edits. I liked the projects, especially Wikipedia and Wikinews: I would say I had a pretty shallow understanding of the rest of them, and Commons, which is less of a public-facing wiki, was invisible to me.
The first time I seriously considered getting involved was the day of the Virginia Tech massacre. I was out of the office at a conference, and catching up on the story during our quick breaks. CBC.CA had pretty good coverage - fairly thorough, fast and accurate. But I was hungry for much more, and I found myself, eventually, at Wikipedia. Which I was astounded by. It was much fuller, richer and more thorough than what any of the conventional news sites were offering. And when I went to the talk page, the conversation there was every journalists' dream: intelligent, thoughtful people analyzing the story from every possible angle to ensure it was as fair and accurate as possible. I remember reading it, hoping that back at the CBC they were having an identical conversation in our newsroom there.
That was a big moment for me. Like everyone in a conventional newsroom, I had been doing a lot of thinking about the future of news and information, the power of collaboration, how to involve the news audience in productive ways. And we had been trying various experiments, some of which had worked well, and some of which had not. But the Wikipedia coverage of Virginia Tech was unmistakably, unignorably excellent. I wanted to be a part of the organization that had created that – it was that simple.
So I did a little research and I determined three things that mattered to me:
  1. The Wikimedia mission is compelling and important. Free information for the world, to me, is a necessary recondition that paves the way to great cultural changes we can't even necessarily imagine, but which are unambiguously good. For example: people's decision quality will improve, and their lives will be better as a result. Institutions will get a little more transparent. The world will be a little more collaborative.
  2. The projects are making an impact. People are interested in what they’re offering. They make a difference in people’s lives. We are not very good yet at actually telling those stories, but we know they exist. So it was important to me that Wikimedia be not just well-intentioned, but that it be effective. Which it is.
  3. The final thing for me: I wanted to be somewhere where I personally could have an impact – an organization that needed what I could bring to the table. And that has absolutely been the case. So it’s all good. :-)

What are your long-term goals for the Foundation? Ideally, what role do you see the Foundation playing 10 years from now?

I look at the mission and I ask myself, where are we currently failing, where can we do better? And I think there are a couple of areas where I’d like to see us focus:
  1. One goal I have, is I would like to make it easier and friendlier for new people to contribute. This is not uncontroversial: I know there are people who think, particularly about English Wikipedia, that it is “full” or “done” or “mature” – that the presence of new people poses more risk than it offers reward. And that may be true. But I know a man in his seventies who has an enormous amount of primary-source information on the Canadian fur trade, which is an important piece of Canadian history. He has Jesuit missionary diaries, he has original maps, he has first-edition histories dating back 50, 100 years. And the English Wikipedia is weak on the fur trade. But I cannot in good conscience encourage him to get involved with Wikipedia, because it is not friendly enough - and I find that sad.
  2. I would like to see us continue to increase quality, and better label quality - through both technical and non-technical means. I’d like to see us develop lots of partnerships encouraging institutions who own informational material to contribute it to Commons. I’d like to see us develop ways to encourage contributions of particular kinds of material from schools and individuals – stuff like illustrations, diagrams, particular types of photographs – whatever is missing. I’d like to see us stage 50 Wikipedia Academies around the world every year, targeting potential contributors who we think could really offer something valuable, either because of the language they speak or their particular expertise.
  3. And lastly, I would like to see us make it much easier for other organizations and individuals to use our material in different ways. This is important, because our goal here isn’t to build a website, it’s to make information available to people – and a significant number of people are not online, or are better served by DVDs or books or USB sticks. So I would like to see us develop strong partnerships and linkages to organizations who can help disseminate the materials. And I would like to see us make the material accessible to them in different ways – by fixing the database dumps so they are reliably and regularly available, by enabling offline readers/editors, by facilitating all kinds of different outputs in different formats.
The Wikimedia projects are the most important educational initiatives in the world, in my opinion. Our goal together is to provide free information for people anywhere in the world, for free. We do a pretty good job today of some aspects of that mission, but there are areas where we’re weak. And those are where I think we should focus our attention.

Also this week:

Gardner interview — Arbitration series — License compatibility — Staffing features — Software issues — WikiWorld — News and notes — In the news — WikiProject report — Features and admins — Technology report — Arbitration report

Signpost archives