The Wikimedia movement is a complex and diverse system, a challenge for the WMF and not considered safe ground by affiliates. People have been trying to do their best possible job, and good faith should always be assumed, but mistakes have been made.
Some of the mistakes evolved into assumptions, rumours and “Wiki myths”. Some of them were reinforced by other mistakes. They were interpreted, discussed and sometimes broadened. New actions were then viewed in the light of past actions, which made the perceptions and myths grow: until some of them turned into taken-for-granted facts. The same topic can be seen from various perspectives and often, it’s a projection of our own opinion onto someone else’s behaviour that causes conflict, mistrust and anger.
What makes things even more complicated is that most Wikimedia communication takes place online and lacks the emotional aspects of personal communication: building trust, empathy and reading between the lines. A system that works perfectly for creating knowledge doesn’t always work for personal relationships. A common quote in the interviews was “Some people that I found to be really annoying online turned out to be great when I met them in person”. Online discussions become harsh easily and criticism is brought up very quickly. When having a face to face conversation, many of the accusations can be resolved before “manifesting themselves”.
The international character of the movement poses another challenge: It is commonly acknowledged that English is the language spoken by most people and used for all international communication. But it does not take into account that there is a large number of people in the world who don’t speak English or don’t feel safe enough with their English skills to engage in complex discussions. And while there are almost 300 language versions of Wikipedia, movement-related texts and discussions are hardly translated into other languages.
Speaking of language, there is not only the issue of the English centered communication culture. Over the years, the Wikimedia communities have developed their own language and style of communication. The vocabulary has grown constantly, with excessive use of abbreviations and insider jokes helping to forming bonds among close peers. Newbies were given the feeling as if they were clueless outsiders, and not welcome.
Another issue that was mentioned frequently is the geographical and emotional distance between many organisations (WMF and Chapters as well as among different Chapters).
Interviewees from Chapters said that they wouldn’t dare to simply call the WMF and ask a question. What happens instead is “hiding behind screens”, shifting the necessary conversation to emailing and postings on Meta. WMF and WMDE in particular are both seen as very professional players where one “doesn’t just call and ask something”. Personal communication is restricted to meetings and conferences, but meeting once a year is often not enough to create a culture of trust and openness.
Challenges for Chapters
In the face of all the odds and uncertainties, there is a dream: Wikipedians and Wikimedians want to change society, to make the world a better place. In order to do that, people choose to get organised. There is a great tendency among active Wikimedia volunteers to form groups, to connect with like-minded people, to create a framework for the urge to accomplish more than “just editing”.
Almost all of the Wikimedia Affiliates are set up by volunteers, most of them long-standing Wikipedians. But being a great Wikipedian does not necessarily mean being a great manager and knowing how to set up and lead an organisation. And there are a lot of things to cope with when starting a formal organisation: they need to find out why they want to be a Chapter, what they want to achieve and how they plan to achieve it. They have to get their value proposition and stakeholder network right. To sum up: they need a strategy and to figure out how to best make use of the precursory value of being local. They need to deal with planning, project management, accountability, governance, communications, evaluation and many more aspects. In fact, they are no longer building an encyclopaedia, they are creating a start-up.
Many Wikimedians embark on this journey. They try to comply with all the rules and requirements, in the Wikimedia ecosystem as well as in their home country. The administrative tasks plus the actual programmatic work quickly add up and become an overburden. Many of them still try to continue, to work even harder in order to succeed. Some said in the interviews that they were actually completely out of energy, but still felt “morally obliged” to continue their work for the Chapter. Many Wikimedians continue working hard until they cross the border into ill-health. The results are frustration, anger and, in the worst case, even burn-out.
If volunteers can’t cope with these things or don’t have the necessary skills and time for them, they require some sort of professional support.
In order to get professional support – in whatever form – funds are needed. But in order to apply for funds, a certain level of professionalism is required to cope with the necessary forms and procedures. For some Chapters, this becomes a chicken-and-egg problem.
As described previously, setting up a Chapter comes with a large variety of obligations and challenges that need to be considered. The following is not a complete list but shows the most common items that were mentioned in the interviews. Depending on the people involved and the local environment, they can differ from organisation to organisation.
Chapter founders and WMF agreed that these questions need to be determined when starting a Chapter:
The deeper they dive into the whole topic, the greater the number of questions that need to be addressed:
To sum up, they need to find out why they want to be a Chapter, what they want to achieve and how they plan to achieve it. They need a strategy. This is not trivial and as any start-up they have difficulties answering all these questions. Wikimedia Chapters face a challenging situation as they don’t know what they are expected to do, what they can do and what they should do. There is no secure basis as they proceed along the way.
Activities and stakeholders
The interviews allowed us to distil and cluster a wide range of topics for the Chapters’ work. Again, these lists are not intended to be exhaustive but rather illustrating the variety and divergence of movement organisations.
Possible Chapter activities, relating to their stakeholders
Special issue: Target group “Community”
Most Chapters stated that they are adding value to the community. But when it comes to the following questions, answers are still rare or very divergent.
These are questions that each movement organisation (even the WMF!) needs to deal with. For Chapters it is quite tricky because many editors are not even aware of their offers.
Building an organisation
There are established processes and documents available to help people build their organisation. The Affiliations Committee supports them on their way to becoming recognised by the WMF. Some Chapters have followed the Chapter Creation Guide provided by the AffCom which lists duties such as accountability, governance and project management. On top of these regular tasks, the interviewees mentioned the following challenges:
When setting up and leading a chapter, the founders and/or the board consider to have people with different roles and skills in their team to be a key of success. We clustered the different descriptions in their narratives and defined the following roles of success:
At some point along the Chapters’ development path, money becomes an issue, at the latest when volunteers are fed up with paying for activities, travel costs or materials out of their own pockets. At that point it was stated to be essential for the Chapter to determine:
A note on external money
External funding is considered to be an opportunity to win additional sources of income and to reach a higher level of professionalism. It could provide the desired stability and bring in additional control mechanisms. Chapters strive for independence and the WMF encourages them to diversify their sources of revenue.
What was brought to the table were the risks that go hand in hand with exposing a young organisation with a strong brand to outside players that the movement has hardly any control over. These players might want to influence the work of a Chapter, jeopardise its integrity and even do harm to the Wikimedia values if there are no established mechanisms to prevent it. Could an approach that should, at first sight, lower the risk, actually do more harm than good to the movement as a whole?
The Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia Deutschland have both been an orientation point when it has come to the question of hiring staff. Both organisations have a considerable number of staff (WMF 180, WMDE 70) – and they are both perceived as professional and successful. Now younger organisations are aiming for the same. And in order to get along with the existing system it is thought to be essential to have staff. At the moment more than twelve Chapters employ at least one employee, ranging from one (e.g. Wikimedia Hungary) to seventeen (Wikimedia UK). Furthermore, at every Wikimedia Conference, training sessions about “The first employee” are remarkably popular.
There are different categories of reasons for hing staff:
Challenges of being an employer
But hiring and employing someone isn’t a trivial thing. The role of the founding team (board) changes dramatically. To hire and to employ someone requires experience. The amount of work may increase, because the board needs to communicate, to delegate, to explain. In fact, hiring and training can be more work than the paperwork the board wants to get rid off.
With staff comes responsibility. Chapter founders are not “only” volunteers and board members anymore, but they are employers and managers (besides being editors, photographers, committee members and having a job, university, family on top). They need to provide leadership, purpose and advice. From having an executive role and running all activities and administration, they are supposed to move towards more of a governance, strategy-driven role, supervising the staff without interfering in their daily business. This is a huge challenge and no small wonder that so many active board members struggle with over-working and burn-out.
Questions therefore need to be addressed: Are we ready for this? Do we really need staff? Why do we need staff? What do we expect from staff? Are we ready to take the responsibility?
Sometimes the situation requires even more sensitivity: when a board member becomes a staff member. For them, almost their entire life becomes centred around Wikimedia and Wikimedia: friends, boss, colleagues, projects. On top of that, conflict of interest issues need to be handled especially carefully and a “club of friends” might not always be the best and controllable basis for professional cooperation.
Type of staff
Not all Chapters start with hiring an Executive Director. To get the best-possible professional support, they need to work out what type of staff best meet their initial demands:
It depends on the individual needs and goals of a Chapter and should be planned carefully.
One question which is quite common among Wikimedians is: “How many edits do you have?” It results in reflection upon whether external people are a good fit for Wikimedia organisations. But what if having experience in running a non-governmental organisation is more important for a specific challenge than being a long-standing editor? On the other hand, as a WMF staff member describes it: “Editing equals getting credit. My Wikipedia instinct helps me in my job. I know exactly what’s accepted and what not.”
The criticism is made that many Chapter boards are “too closed”, only approving members who are active editors. Some people claim that it would be a healthy balance to include external people with beneficial qualifications on the board. On the other hand, it requires good alignment of strategic goals and values to create a strong and smoothly working board.
How to attract the right talent? This is an issue for every organisation in the world and so it is for Chapters. In order to attract skilled people who fit with Wikimedia values, they need to know how to become self-aware, how to create an image of themselves and how to communicate it properly towards others.
What are the staff supposed to do?
Closely connected with the question about the role of employees is the question of the tasks they are going to be assigned. This is particularly tricky, as most of the work has previously been done by volunteers.
Some board members consider staff as a chance to “give away boring tasks and to free up precious volunteer time”. After all, volunteer time is the scarce resource of the movement and the biggest worry is the lack of volunteers. “For the cool stuff, volunteers will jump in and help. For the boring stuff, no one wants to do it.” On the other hand, employees need to have a purpose for their job and interesting tasks. Several questions arise:
If there are not enough volunteers and not enough activities, it can be helpful to hire a motivated person who creates some momentum and runs events or programmes that attract new volunteers. On the other hand, it is considered more valuable if volunteers create their own activities and programmes and staff are only used for administrative tasks.
Several Chapters also reported that they were confronted with the question: Volunteers are proud of having achieved so much with only volunteer-power, so why do you need paid staff now? Staff members even reported suspicion towards them when they first arrived in the Chapter.
Conflicts between board and staff
Many board members struggle with expectations management towards their (first) employee(s). They need to clearly split tasks and responsibilities:
The transition is hard for many board members: Wikipedians of the project’s early days stated that it’s not easy for them to let go of their beloved tasks:
It’s a long process for boards to find their new role, to find a balance between control and trust and to establish a good information flow:
To sum this up, many people are quite frustrated with the internal controversies and power games and seem to be stuck in the established environments. When speaking to those interview partners who are also familiar with other movements or organisations, they all pointed out that these debates are not new or unique and that in the NGO world, the relations between paid staff and volunteers are always one of the most tricky issues.
But then again, there are always two sides to the same coin: young organisations depend heavily on personalities, their characters and thematic preferences. But personal passion and the board’s interest might interfere with the essential first step of creating a comprehensive strategy. Accommodating individual characters into processes and the organisation is tricky. How can Chapters balance the motivation to do cool stuff while ensuring that the organisation is built up in a proper way, step by step?
When starting a Chapter, people are pulled into different activities and administrative tasks which leave them with no time “to stop the machine and think about strategy”. One way to reduce this risk is to follow the paths of the older organisations. But newcomers might want to try out new things and find their own ways. Should they go through all those challenges and be bold, or should they learn from other organisations’ mistakes and benefit from their experience?
It’s a delicate path: an organisation needs to go from being an independent, spontaneously formed and motivated group of people who want to follow their passion to being a solid organisation with a clear purpose, operating in a professional environment and thriving with programs and projects. How can a Chapter remain volunteer driven but become professional?