Hong Kong's Wikimania 2013—failure to produce financial statement raises questions of probity
On 2 May 2012, the Wikimania jury announced that Hong Kong's bid to hold the 2013 event had beaten four other proposals. Moderator James Forrester wrote: "The Jury has confidence that the Hong Kong bidding team will pull off a magnificent Wikimania"—and indeed there were positive comments about the event from many attendees.
On the other hand, "Budget & Finances" was one of seven factors the jury focused on, according to the moderator—and among the key judging criteria for the competition were "financial logistics", "chapter support", and experience with "financial accountability for events of similar scope". The event enjoyed basic financial support from the Wikimedia Foundation of $300,000, with donors bearing additional costs of transport and accommodation for what appeared to have been at least 70 people; these include WMF employees and nine out of ten members of the volunteer Affiliations Committee—which by itself provoked a squabble on both Meta and the Wikimedia mailing list ("$40,000 Hong Kong junket")—and $17,000 for an associated WikiSym conference. Sponsorship apparently also involved serious cash: three gold sponsors were claimed in the bid, at $19,000 each; wikiHow was listed among seven silver sponsors ($10,000 each), and the company Dot.Asia was named as "co-host".
In late July the organising team declined to respond to the Signpost's request for an update on the finance and sponsorship arrangements in the bid.
Further half year of delaying
In the interests of probity and transparency, the organisers had agreed to a three-month deadline for delivering a financial statement. Well after the expiry date we made inquiries of the organising team; on 28 November, team member Deryck Chan responded that the treasurer [Tango Chan] was coordinating the process, and referred to the "many who handled money" as a difficulty in preparing the accounts. He also blamed the breaching of the deadline on the "WMF’s reluctance to fund administrative staff". This may have been a reference to the FDC's recommendation just months before the event to refuse funding for an annual grant to the Hong Kong chapter, due to concerns about "internal governance, financial management capacity, and capacity of its volunteers to manage a plan of this size", noting critically that "WMHK is currently out of compliance with its previous WMF grants." This had been followed by an angry protest from the chapter.
We sent a reminder email on 7 December. On 20 February, the WMF’s chief of finance and administration Garfield Byrd advised us that "Ellie and I have been working with the Hong Kong team to get a final financial report on Wikimania 2013. To date we have not received a report, but have received indications that they are working on it and plan on having it to us soon".
On 4 April, Byrd wrote to us: "I currently have an understanding in place to have a report on Wikimania 2013 completed by April 15, 2014. If the report is not complete at that time, then WMF is reserving the right to have an independent accounting done of the Wikimania 2013 grant and expenses." A week after that deadline, he told us that "I did receive the report and we are reviewing it now. Once we have agreement on the report with Wikimedia Hong Kong, we would expect the Wikimedia Hong Kong will post it on Meta where comments and feedback can be posted."
We followed up with a further email on 6 May, this time to four members of the organising team: Jeromy-Yu Chan (coordinator in chief), Tango Chan (treasurer), Simon Sheck (community coordinator of program and scholarships, and chief advisor, WMHK Advisory Board), and Deryck Chan. We received no reply.
A week later we wrote again—this time copied to the general email address of the Hong Kong chapter, which owns the Wikimania 2013 trademark—posing six questions about financial probity for the event. Nearly nine months after the event, we gave notice that unless, by copy-deadline, we received a reply or a prima facie satisfactory financial report was posted on Meta, we would publish these questions; we advised that "the story would raise the possibility that significant issues of probity and/or process may explain the non-appearance of the financial statement, and would call for a wider investigation by the WMF."
The six questions the organisers have not answered
In the absence of a financial report, these are the questions we put to the organisers of Wikimania 2013 concerning the finances for the event:
- Were adequate accounting procedures used for controlling, monitoring, and verifying income and expenditure?
- How many people had access to spending capacity from the budget, and how many people were involved in on-the-ground monetary transactions? Was this restricted to "section leaders", and how many such personnel were there?
- Did the recorded details of cost-centres and budget lines satisfy the WMF’s standards for financial reportage; if not, in what respect?
- Is any money unaccounted for?
- What was the nature of the financial and other relationships with sponsors of the event? Were there any exchanges of gifts or benefits in either direction? Were these relationships transparent?
- Why is it taking so long to produce a financial statement, and when will a full financial report be published?
Having copied the correspondence to the WMF's chief of finance and administration, Garfield Byrd
, the Signpost
asked him what steps the Foundation can take in future to avoid such a failure of financial transparency and possibly of probity:
||... we have already implemented some changes, based on our experiences with Wikimania 2013.
In cases where we do not have a team with a proven track record of accountability and reporting on movement funds, the Wikimedia Foundation will act as fiscal sponsor for the event and pay all expenses directly and take responsibility for the financial reporting on the event. In other cases, when possible, we will look at providing funding on a reimbursement basis upon submission of a complete event expense report or some combination of both of these approaches. ...
... The goal here is greater cooperation and pre-planning with the local Wikimania or Wikimedia Conference teams to resolve any issues with the awarded Wikimania bid or Wikimedia Conference proposal well in advance of the event. It is the objective of WMF to maintain Wikimania and the Wikimedia Conference as community events, led by local volunteers and adjusting the level of support based on the capabilities of the local team.
An additional process added to the Wikimania 2015 selection process, he said, is that key elements for an awarded Wikimania bid will be confirmed by the WMF within 60 days of the award announcement (30 days for Wikimedia Conference proposals) and that any material discrepancies will be reported to the jury to determine whether they are sufficient to prompt a review of the decision.
Check back for the next Signpost