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Chapters Dialogue/Insights/Role of the WMF

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Chapters Dialogue

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Role of the Wikimedia Foundation

The Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation (at Wikimania 2013)

One of the biggest questions in the interviews has been about leadership in the movement.

Although most interviewees tended to emphasise that the movement is non-hierarchical, the wish for a stronger leadership was voiced several times. By many, the WMF is seen as the head of the movement.

The Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees oversees the Foundation and its work. It supervises the organisation and has the authority to exercise all corporate powers. It is responsible for determining the WMF’s mission, goals, long-term plans as well as high level policies of the WMF and its projects. The Board selects and evaluates the Executive Director, who oversees the WMF’s day-to-day operations and is primarily responsible for carrying out the organization’s strategic plans and policies. On top of that, Board members are representing the WMF and its mission towards the communities and the broader public.

At full membership, the Board includes ten trustees: Three members are elected by the communities, two members are selected by Wikimedia affiliates, four members are co-opted to fulfil the expertise needs in the Board, and one seat is designated for Jimmy Wales.

Some Chapters claimed that it is not clear what the Affiliate Selected Board Seats (formerly known as Chapter Selected Board Seats) mean for them. Even if they are allowed to select two people, there is no constant exchange ensuring their representation on the Board. However, Board members clarified that they are not representing the Chapters in the Board but that their decisions are all made for the benefit of the WMF in the first place.

On top of that, there was no common understanding among the interviewees of whether its Board of Trustees is a steering committee for the global movement or the overseeing authority for the Wikimedia Foundation itself. “Are they heading a global movement that is striving for free Knowledge or a Non-Profit company that is running a website?”

After all, the role of the WMF in relation to its main tasks is pretty clear for everyone and was described as straightforward by the interviewees: the WMF is responsible for the key resources and infrastructure of the movement. It develops and maintains software and servers and handles the traffic of the fifth largest website on the planet. They make the projects accessible for users and readers.

Besides their Engineering and Product focus, it also handles funds processing and grant-making and stewardship of donors’ money. It provides the legal framework for the projects and defends the mission and values of the movement. It is safe-keeping the most treasured asset: the Wikimedia brand and trademarks. All tasks receive appreciation from most interviewees and everyone can agree that WMF is doing a great job at those tasks.

The role of the WMF is not clear to movement affiliates

What appears to be less clear is the WMF’s own position in the Wikimedia movement. People’s statements range from leader, mom or boss through US chapter to equal partner, but one who has all the power. Some describe it as a leader who is not providing leadership.

Many Chapters see the WMF as leader. Subsequently, they expect a leadership role from it. In contrast, the WMF doesn’t agree unconditionally, but expects Chapters to initiate their own initiatives.“We consider Chapters as being our partners”. Hence, Chapters are confused. The “Haifa trauma” in mind, they are on alert for similar actions in the future and therefore wonder: How should we start our own initiatives, realise our own ideas, or even be equal partners for the Foundation, if we’re totally dependent from it? Is it really possible that we can be equal partners? The Foundation, in turn, is aware of the shock it caused by the Haifa letter and tries to show a more open and cooperative side, while shirking its responsibilities and its power at the same time.

Furthermore, there are issues where the Chapters feel unsure, or even unsafe, like funds applications or reports, and they expect and demand a teacher or leader role of the WMF. On the other side, they don’t want to be patronised and even react surly to “anything coming from San Francisco”. This doesn’t make it easy for the Foundation at all. How to strike the right note? How to react properly? They are forty chapters with so different characters and sensibilities and it’s impossible to do it right by all. The WMF says: “It’s a tough challenge for us to be a collaborative facilitator.”

Voices in the Foundation state that Chapters are responsible for themselves. Chapters respond that this is not possible. Particularly in terms of finances and trademarks, they are dependent on the WMF. Many don’t even want to be independent or responsible for themselves, but just want to be “part of it”. They ask and wish for more guidance, leadership and guidelines in order to be able fulfil all of WMF’s requirements.

The WMF wants Chapters’ to take a more proactive role. It says Chapters should find their own way and discover their strong points. And if they have trouble on the way towards finding those, they can ask the WMF for help.

The issue leadership seems to be like a hot potato passing from one to the other.

Growing pains

What makes things even more complicated is that the WMF has shifted its organisational structure several times. People perceive their path as a “zigzag course”, and have a hard time understanding what the WMF wants and what “these shiny new titles” actually mean. But what people brought up in the interviews as well – after having poured their heart out about their worries and objections – was that the WMF is actually a very young organisation and still has a lot to learn and go through. Like all organisations in the movement, it is facing growing pains, and taking small steps towards becoming more successful.

One of these steps was the narrowing focus debate, after which the WMF concentrated on two main areas: Engineering and Grant-making. One question that was raised a few times was whether an organisation that claims “We are a website” can fulfil their second duty of being a grant-making body for a global movement in the best possible way.

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