Open main menu

Chapters Dialogue/Insights/Organisational and Chapter development

Other languages:
English • ‎español • ‎français • ‎العربية • ‎سنڌي • ‎தமிழ்
Chapters Dialogue

Chapters Dialogue Header.jpg

How did organisational structures evolve?

How did Wikimedia's structures evolve?

The setting-up and development of a Wikimedia Chapter is a complex and challenging task, demanding a high amount of energy and commitment by all founders involved.

As described previously, Chapter founders face high levels of insecurity due to the fact that there is no commonly agreed definition of the “right” goals, activities and metrics. What makes things even more complicated is the fact that there is no agreement about the structure of the movement itself. Herein lies another historical source of problems.

The question as to what structures are needed in order to define and reach the Wikimedia goals has never been fully answered. Which organisational model would serve the Wikimedia mission the best way? And what could each individual could contribute to it? These topics have never been clearly defined and there was no planned approach. Instead, things happened the wiki-way: structures grew organically and older entities were copied by the younger ones.

German volunteers created the first Chapter in 2004. After a long journey, Wikimedia Deutschland is today by far the biggest Chapter. For the founders, setting up a local organisation within national borders was just a natural step; they were not following any official recommendation or analysis, they just felt that this structure was the best way to continue for them.

Shortly after the German Chapter was founded, volunteers from other countries followed this example and also started creating national Chapters in order to get organised.

Being professional equals being successful?

Today, the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia Deutschland are considered as professional and successful organisations because they have offices and a considerable number of staff. These assets (office, staff, Executive Director) are widely considered to be the key criteria for success. Understandably, other Chapters aim for success as well, and therefore try to reach the same “asset level” as quickly as possible in order to be on the same professional level as the two “big sisters” WMF and WMDE. There is a widely spread perception that without being professional, there is no way to be taken seriously by the WMF.

What is often overlooked is that those “key assets” are only the tip of the iceberg. The hard work and the long time without money, staff or an office is invisible and often forgotten. For instance, WMDE didn’t have any funds for a very long time and only started hiring more people five years after its creation.

Steering into professionalism

On the other hand, the WMF fuelled this perception by steering young organisations into professionalism. They approved grants for professionalisation for various Chapters in 2011, hoping to direct Chapters away from being all-volunteer towards becoming professional, well governed entities.

In addition, the level of bureaucracy and complexity of movement processes is increasing (in parallel with the amount of donations that Wikimedia is collecting as a whole). Young organisations are “seeing what’s coming” and want to be prepared. Again, a common “easy fix” solution is to set up a professional organisation as quickly as possible, sometimes skipping the important step of addressing basic strategic questions.

Moreover, people assumed that there was no other alternative for volunteers who wanted to form an organisation. In order to cope with the existing system, one needed to be a Chapter to be part of the Wikiverse. As a consequence, a national Chapter has been the choice of organisational form when starting to expand volunteer activities from editing Wikipedia into the offline world. The question became “How do I create the same structures as others already have?” instead of “What structure do I need, if any?”. There was neither opposition by the WMF, nor collaborative thinking about what forms of organisations are needed and relevant for the Wikimedia movement.

Support in Chapter development

The questions around leadership within the whole movement can be applied to the issue of responsibilities around Chapter development: Who should help Chapters on their path towards becoming solid organisations? Who should take the lead?

Many people claim that the WMF is responsible for Chapter development: “They took the power, now they need to show responsibility.” The WMF is seen to be in the best position to help because they have the knowledge, skills and resources to develop Chapters. Being the only organisation in the movement with a truly global scope, the WMF is automatically considered responsible. On top of that, people add that it should be in the WMF’s own interest to develop solid organisations, with good governance and striving for impact.

Another line of argument claims the opposite: Chapters are in the best position to support each other and they should take responsibility themselves. There are experienced Chapters with resources who can help the newer ones. In the narrowing focus, the WMF clearly stated that it is not resourced to support organisational development or crisis support for chapters. They claim to not see the Chapters as their “children” but as their partners.

“Chapters provide us with an opportunity to invest and we should embrace these chances of investment. We want Chapters to succeed in forwarding the movement – they are a powerful tool for us to achieve impact. We want their attempts to be successful.“

In addition, WMF prefers to be a facilitator of knowledge exchange, rather that saying “This is how you should do it”. Instead of imposing rules and processes, WMF states that they can be invited to give input where it’s needed by Chapters. This can only work with a more proactive role of Chapters, who need take the responsibility for their own development and then draw upon the WMF’s resources and knowledge.

These contradictory positions point towards a leadership gap: Who should take responsibility for shaping and supporting movement structures? This leads to the awkward situation that both the WMF and the affiliations adopt a “wait and see” attitude: The WMF is waiting for Chapters to proactively approach it with concrete proposals or requests for support, while the Chapters are waiting for the WMF to provide facilitation and leadership.

This attitude is even more encouraged by the dilemma of distance in the relationship between Chapters and WMF. Among some Chapters, it is perceived that it is only possible to ask for help when a certain status is achieved, which is also due to the insecurity that was described previously. “We need to advance, then we will receive help”, „I can’t just call the WMF and ask stupid questions. It has all to go through official channels and therefore we need to work hard on building our organisation first“. This is again a chicken-and-egg problem.

The Affiliation Committee advises the Board of Trustees on the approval of new affiliates. Here at the Wikimedia Conference 2014

Different approaches have been put in place to try to fill this gap: the Affiliations Committee (AffCom) was created in 2006 (formerly known as Chapters Committee) and today it “is a Wikimedia community committee entrusted with advising the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees on the approval of new movement affiliates: national and subnational chapters, thematic organisations, and user groups.” The AffCom supports groups of Wikimedia enthusiasts who want to become officially recognised by the WMF Board to become a Wikimedia affiliate. They guide organisations through the founding process by helping them to prepare bylaws, answering questions about what the Foundation expects from an affiliate, providing help and advice on solving common technical, trademark, administrative and community-building issues.

The AffCom is held in high esteem among most Chapters, and WMF members have also complimented on their accomplishments. We only have heard a few critics about the length and fascination with details of the process. One remarkable quote that we heard in the interviews a few times in different force was that the AffCom does not have “teeth to bite the black sheep”. They support people before they become an affiliate, but do not have the means to steer them forward, or to set bounds if they develop in a harmful way. Some voices even claim that some of the existing Chapters would not be approved as Chapters today. There was no training for newly created organisations and no structured support for those who were struggling with their first steps. In fact, AffCom’s field of responsibility ends where support is now considered to be of utmost importance.

Board training workshop in London (2014)

Another approach to “clarify the roles and responsibilities of different groups working to support the international Wikimedia movement [...] developing recommendations to improve Wikimedia as a global network of organizations”was initiated in 2010 by different movement members: The movement roles project. It led to the introduction of two new affiliate models (User Groups and Thematic Organisations) in 2012 and the renaming of the former Chapters Committee to Affiliations Committee. Alongside the introduction of these two new organisational forms, the movement roles project recommended installing a “Chapters Council to reach consensus and resolve disputes among Chapters”. In 2012, the Wikimedia Chapters Association (WCA) was created but disappeared from the scene in 2013. In 2013/14, the movement has seen some more focused attempts, such as board training workshops, meetings of the Chapters’ Executive Directors and the AffCom’s liaison model to support younger organisations.

However, these initiatives have not directly addressed the remaining questions about the structure of the Wikimedia movement, but rather have cemented the existing model.

Questioning the organisational model of Wikimedia

As mentioned before, the movement tends to apply a lot of effort towards patching apparent symptoms rather than addressing the underlying causes. This is particularly valid for the question about the organisational model of the Wikimedia movement. Questions that are hardly ever brought up in public but which surfaced during the interviews include:

Are local bricks-and-mortar organisations needed at all?

Those in favour claim: yes, because...

  • we can only deal with external partners (GLAMs, media, legislative, political, educational, etc.) on an official level.
  • we need reliable structures to empower volunteers.
  • we need to keep (legal, financial) risks away from individuals.
  • we need solid structures that are able to understand local and to act global.
  • we want to put more vigour on our opinions, and want our statements to be seen as coming from organisations and not from individuals.
  • we need good governance and control over those who use the trademarks.

Those against claim: no, because...

  • structures and endless fights about bylaws, power and responsibilities drain volunteer enthusiasm.
  • communication and community work don’t need a legal entity.
  • fixed structures impede people from staying flexible and passionate.
  • building bricks-and-mortar organisations is a waste of time and money.
  • there is no evidence of their impact being bigger than that of volunteer groups.
  • Chapters can get drown in their self-perpetuation and structure itself becomes the reason to exist.
  • we shouldn’t lump people into organisations. It’s about individuals!

This is a major controversy, and pro and contra arguments have been voiced by Chapters’ stakeholders as well as by Chapter representatives themselves. Taking a step back and questioning the model that is taken for granted might help to come up with clear arguments for both sides: What would be if Chapters wouldn’t exist? How would that impact Wikipedia and how would that impact society? And how could alternatives look like?

Should organisations operate within national borders?

As mentioned previously, being local provides organisations with several benefits. Cultural institutions or educational partners would rather team up with a local organisation, cultural sensitivity is necessary to operate smoothly and successfully in a country and media and donors might prefer local points of contact. Chapters also mentioned in the interviews that local community members who are closely connected to them prefer being supported by “their own Chapter” rather than by one from another country.

The national concept of Chapters leads back to the creation of the first movement entity after the Wikimedia Foundation: Wikimedia Deutschland. The founders went for the national model in 2004 because at that time it just seemed the appropriate road for them to take. 39 organisations followed this lead and became a national organisation, too.

Looking back, some people now question whether this can be seen as a historical mistake. The Wikimedia projects are tied to languages; the internet as we know it today does not stop at national borders, nor does Free Knowledge.

Community members identify with their language projects, but language does not always equal country: If a language is spoken in more than one country, “one community” is spread all over the world. And on the other hand, there are countries with several different official languages. A national organisation then needs to “split” somehow in order to serve the different language communities.

What makes things even more complicated is that while all Wikimedia sites are operated under US law, national organisations are bound by their local laws. This exposes them to different risks, including censorship and political influence. Not only must the Chapter comply with these laws and know the threads, the WMF must also keep an overview of all the different jurisdictions.

This leads to the question whether organisations should be tied to countries, to languages or to topics. One attempt to solve the dilemma was the creation of User Groups and Thematic Organisations.

But again, it needs to be taken into account that they are still organisations and even if they are informal or have no bylaws, they need to invest efforts in strategic planning and all other issues that come with being an organisation. Will they end up with the same chicken-and-egg problem?

Wikipedia has a massive “new world” influence on the “old world” – but Wikimedia is still bound by the old world’s rules (formality, incorporation, business cards, titles, nations, etc.). How can Wikimedia create a framework that fits both – our new world and the old world? Does the framework need to fit with the old world at all? Can other movements and organisations be an inspiration?

Which framework does Wikimedia need in order to organise strongly and effectively, in a professional way which it can strongly and effectively work towards its mission in a professional way, and true to its grassroots and diversity.

Learn more about
Or go back to