News and notes
WMF bites the bullet on affiliation and FDC funding, elevates Wikimedia user groups
- Editor's note: last week (5 February) there was no edition of the Signpost.
In a bold move, the Wikimedia Foundation's Board of Trustees has announced a major change in policy concerning affiliated groups in the worldwide movement, and Funds Dissemination Committee (FDC) funding levels to eligible chapters and thematic organizations over the next two years. Both decisions were published last Tuesday after considerable post-meeting consultation with the FDC and the Affiliations Committee (AffCom). The core of the first decision is:
||The WMF Board will only approve new chapters and thematic organizations that have been a user group for two years with demonstrable programmatic results, and whose application is supported by the Affiliations Committee.
Here, “programmatic results” refers to activities that are likely to improve the quality and prospects of the Foundation’s online projects. The motion was put by Phoebe Ayers and seconded by Stu West—and since the voting of each trustee is now put on the public record as the result of a change in practice in early 2012, we know the details of the vote: seven trustees voted for the motion: Phoebe Ayers (community-elected), Jan-Bart de Vreede, Ana Toni, Stu West, and Bishakha Datta (all appointed for their "specific expertise", and the last-named a Board representative on the FDC), Jimmy Wales (co-founder), and Alice Wiegand (chapter-selected). Three trustees voted against: Sam Klein and Maria Sefadari (community-elected), and Patricio Lorente (chapter-selected trustee and Board representative on both the FDC and AffCom).
The logo of one of nine existing user groups, the GLAM-Wiki US Consortium. Like most user groups, it has a Facebook page
and a presence on other social media.
Until now, a group of Wikimedians could go straight to the WMF's volunteer Affiliations Committee
(AffCom) to apply to become a chapter (nation-based in almost all cases), or a thematic organization
(which does not need to be nation-based but does need to be legally recognised in at least one national jurisdiction, with similar bureaucratic overheads to those of the chapters). Wikimedia user groups
are a new type of entity, which the Board approved more than a year ago, along with thematic organizations. User groups are designed to be less formal entities that require no local legal recognition and few bureaucratic overheads.
The Board's announcement has put the concept of user groups on a new structural footing: they can function either as a means in themselves or as a stepping-stone towards eventual recognition as a thematic organization or chapter. By definition, user groups comprise at least three people who do offline work; they are eligible to use the WMF's trademark and to apply for funding through the Foundation's Project and Event Grants Program. Nine user groups have already been approved, covering Wikimedians in the following fields: Wikisource, Brazil, GLAM-Wiki US, Greece, Esperanto, New England, San Francisco, Nepal, and Groups/Promotion. A step-by-step guide explains the pathway towards affiliation by AffCom.
Wikimedia Nepal: sought to become a chapter, but settled for a user group for the time being.
The second major announcement by the Board caps the total amount of funding that can be allocated to eligible chapters and thematic organizations:
||We expect to be capping the allocation for FDC Annual Plan funding at approximately its current amount, for the years 2014–15 and 2015–16. We want to make the FDC and all recognized movement entities aware of this now, so they can plan accordingly. The amount allocated to the FDC process will be revisited during the Wikimedia movement's next strategic planning cycle, and the number may therefore change in 2016–17.
This motion was also put by Ayers and seconded by West. The voting was the same as for the previous motion, except that Alice Wiegand opposed.
Both decisions come after clear signs of growing concern by the Foundation about budget and staffing growth, lack of demonstrable impact on WMF sites, and governance among eligible affiliates, which are strongly weighted towards the global north. Last August, WMF executive director Sue Gardner asked "whether the benefits are turning out to be worth the costs" of "setting up bricks-and-mortar institutions". The Board is the only body with the power to make these decisions: it alone is charged with determining the mission, goals, long-term plans, and high-level policies of the WMF and its projects; ensuring the sustainability of the organization; and maintaining legal and ethical integrity. It was the Board that restructured the financial arrangements of the movement in 2012, in the process creating the FDC and forging the major policies that govern the WMF's evolving responsibility as grantmaker; it was also the Board that recently reformed the WMF's trademark policy, in the process making it more accessible to user groups and other members of the movement.
New England Wikimedians in January 2014, just after AffCom approved their application to become a user group.
Given the significance of the announcement, Ayers took the unusual step of explaining the decision-making process on the public Wikimedia mailing list (stressing that this was her perspective, not a Board statement). Her account suggested that there was extensive debate among the trustees about the issues, and that the ramifications of the motions were treated with considerable weight and care. We have summarized what Ayers wrote:
- The board has been discussing the question of movement roles for years, and "started discussing the topic again specifically in October 2013. ... [This has included] the need to review new affiliates more thoroughly than we have historically done (as recommended by our legal team, and as indicated by the history of some chapters not staying active). [The key contexts are] the new trademark and user group policies which make different models for volunteers both possible and easier; and various trustee concerns over our increasing focus movement-wide on incorporation and administration. / The Board first discussed the general notions underlying the two decisions in October. ... before the November meeting, a recommendation to take these decisions was presented in a packet by the WMF Executive Director to the board, along with some context. ... The trustees discussed the recommendations on their email list for about a week before meeting, and then over two sessions in the two-day meeting. / After voting and recording the text, we then sent the text of the decisions to AffCom and the FDC, via the Board liaisons." The FAQ was written partly in response to questions raised by AffCom and the FDC, during which the Board debated additional questions, including AffCom's response. While there was no consensus on AffCom's response, the Board again considered the matter in the subsequent physical meeting, where a majority felt that the decisions should stand.
With significant funding and shifts in movement structure at issue, it was understandable that the decision might have prompted criticism, although the personal nature of Rupert Thurner's opening shot was a surprise to many: "i am disappointed personally by you. you as a person, you as an american, and you as a board member of the foundation. especially about your inability to grasp international cultural differences in terms of funding, fundraising."
Subsequent commentary, while mostly critical, was more measured. Frédéric Schütz, of the Swiss chapter, argued that the trajectory towards chapter or thematic organization forbids a user group from incorporating and having bylaws. He wrote to the Signpost that in Switzerland that would mean "they first have to live two years in a legal limbo, which prevents them from handling any money or contract—and basically prevents them from doing anything useful as a group (except meetings as friends). / Contrary to what the board says, becoming an incorporated entity does not necessarily imply a large bureaucratic overhead, and then it makes sense in many cases for [a user group] to incorporate." On the mailing list, he wrote: "The burden of the proof should be on the WMF board to explain why this proposal makes sense, and what positive outcome it brings to the community—not on motivated community members who have to beg to get exceptions."
Trustee de Vreede's response to these points was: "We are saying that a track record is ... much more important that the previous focus on having bylaws. This because we know that a proven track record is a very good indicator of the [subsequent] chances of success of a chapter or thematic organisation. / Hmmm ... I would say that:
- We made a decision in which we took several factors into account
- We recognise that there might be situations which we might not have taken into account and we invite you to let us know it you think this is the case."
The chair of AffCom, Bence Damokos, wrote: "Speaking in my personal capacity, I echo the surprise that the Board has decided to move a motion before they had full or close to full consensus on the issue—which is in general a departure from the usual." This provoked comments that the Board makes decisions on a majority vote, by its constitution. The chair of the FDC, Dariusz Jemeilniak, stated that the FDC itself "have not participated in consulting or idea exchange in any systematic way" on the decisions.
Lodewijk Gelauff of the Netherlands chapter, who is also a member of AffCom, complained that the decision "is very bad for the volunteers", and that in his view, AffCom "was not consulted by the board on this topic [but] on a different (but related) proposal by a staff member, with very different arguments from those that the board used in their discussion. In my feeling the board is painting an unjust and unfair picture of the consultation that took place." In a long message, Nicole Ebber, the project manager of Wikimedia Germany, was critical of giving user groups an elevated role, "since there is hardly any structured support for these young and aspiring volunteer groups to grow, to develop and to become trusted partners, ... / The most pressing question here remains: In an ideal world, how would an organization model for Wikimedia look like? And does the restriction of choices for affiliations' models help us to reach this goal?"
Trustee Sam Klein wrote: "The WMF also wants to let all groups have easier access to trademarks and funds. This is what user groups were designed to allow, with minimal overhead. These two ideas were combined into "be a user group for two years". This garnered a positive response from one participant: "This part I do think is a good idea. There are many models of how individuals and groups participate and organize themselves within the global Wikimedia movement besides the umbrella Wikimedia Foundation, and imo the previous organizational/funding focus overlooked those who didn't fit one specific model: national Chapters, i.e. organizations seeking to represent Wikimedia-movement activities in a general sense, within the territory of one nation-state, and usually in a fairly "official" manner (paid staff, boards of directors, political visibility, etc.). I like that initiatives such as the individual-engagement grants, user-group recognition, etc. are opening up more avenues for Wikimedian organizations, organized along different lines, to find a more recognized (and funded) role in the movement.
To those who have expressed the view that becoming a user group imposes some kind of penalty, Ayers made the point: "If a group goes from no Wikimedia recognition to being a user group they go from no access to resources to access to the Wikimedia trademarks, access to grants big and small, listing with other official groups ... it's a big change. Of course groups might want to become a chapter later on, but that's not exactly always an easy process ...".
The debate continues on the mailing list.
- Wiki-PR's half-step dance: Wiki-PR, the company extensively covered by the Signpost due to its paid advocacy in defiance of the English Wikipedia's policies, has rebranded itself as Status Labs Image Management. They appear to have much more of a Google-centered search engine optimization approach, though they still offer "Wikipedia Consulting" services. Intriguingly, they devote two sentences to the issues that ultimately caused them to be site-banned: "Our team helps you follow Wikipedia’s best practices for editors with a financial conflict-of-interest. We never directly edit Wikipedia, but we help you ensure your Wikipedia page is 100% factually accurate and up-to-date." Of further concern is their direct promotion, that they "can help you get into other language Wikipedias, too." (Editor's note, 20 January 2015: it has come to our attention that there is more than one company named "Status Labs". We are exclusively referring to Status Labs Image Management, a public relations firm with offices in Austin [Texas], New York City, and São Paolo, and not any other extant organization, like Status Labs Inc..)
- Finnish police investigate Wikipedia: In a developing story, authorities in Finland are investigating the Finnish Wikipedia for a fundraising banner that was placed on the site. Unusually, Finland's Money Collection Act requires individuals to apply for and receive a permit before soliciting donations. While it is unclear whether Finland would have jurisdiction over the Wikimedia Foundation, which is based in the US, their email was sent to wikifi-adminlist.wikimedia.org, the mailing list of the Finnish Wikipedia's administrator's core. This has been forwarded to the Foundation, whose legal team is investigating. A response is due by 21 February.
- US copyrights up for discussion: The US Copyright Office has called for public comments on orphan works, which are copyright-protected with the rightsholder either unknown or uncontactable. The Copyright Office is looking for legislative solutions on how to deal with these, which would possibly include a new ability to mass digitize them. There is a potential to push for more: in an email notifying the Advocacy Advisors mailing list, Ryan Kaldari expressed his desire for the Foundation to use the opportunity to "push for U.S. adoption of the 'rule of the shorter term', as this would solve our URAA problems on Commons and free millions of orphan foreign works in the U.S."
- IEG: The Wikimedia Foundation has published its initial conclusions from round one of the Individual Engagement Grants program, which focuses on individuals with experimental ideas that have measurable online impact. An accompanying blog post states, "Grantees ... were clear about their goals, eager to engage with the community to understand their needs and priorities and willing to take risks and experiment in search of pragmatic and scalable solutions. They incorporated experts and mentors into their process to build platforms that are larger than any one individual."
- Wiki Education Foundation: Frank Schulenburg, who was the Wikimedia Foundation's senior director of programs, has been named executive director of the Wiki Education Foundation (press release and Q&A).
- WMUK asks for input: The UK Wikimedia chapter has called for community input on its proposed five-year strategic plan.
- Libraries and Wikipedia: Wikipedians Jake Orlowitz and Patrick Earley have published an opinion article in the Library Journal's technology section, the Digital Shift. The piece trumpets the Wikipedia Library's significant gains in the last year, which include the first Visiting Scholars program (at George Mason University) and an agreement with OCLC to create an app that will "remotely connect a library user on a third party site, like Wikipedia, to a full text source just by affiliating the user’s IP address with a library’s proxy resolver, once a match on the article citation is made." While this statement alone raises a frightening number of privacy concerns, Orlowitz and Earley had OCLC agree to "build in whatever privacy protections Wikipedia desires to insure that any sharing of editors’ information with a third party such as a library or university would be fully disclosed and opt-in only."