Requests for Comment/Democratizing the Wikimedia Foundation

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The Wikimedia Foundation has helped the sister projects grow beyond expectations, but has also failed the community at many times. Some of these failures come down to a basic lack of accountability to the contributor and user communities, and even to its own staff.

Here are some questions about what might be going wrong here, and ideas about how to fix it. Please add your questions and thoughts, there is no owner of this RFC.

Question 1: Should the Wikimedia Foundation become a membership organization?Edit

Wikimedia Foundation is currently a "non-membership organization" under US law, although its original bylaws specify it as "membership".[1] The difference is that members (originally, editors, developers, and so on) would have legal rights to directly elect the full Board.

Discussion 1Edit

  •   Support as proposer. A fully-elected Board comes with challenges but is the minimum requirement for democratic oversight and accountability. Without this an organization is not responsive to its constituents and will not necessarily learn from mistakes such as premature release of new features.
I would personally like to see membership implemented as a wide range of natural contributors (editors, uploaders, people with a mop, developers with one or more changes merged, etc.), who don't pay to be members (I would be conflicted whether to include donors, let's leave that aside). These people would each have one vote which they could use to elect representatives and directly on various citizen-led referendums. Some of the trusted voices volunteering for our Board now could of course be included in this process, I don't mean for the proposal to equal a vote of no confidence, it's simply a structural fix.
How one thinks about this proposal is probably based on how one views democracy in general: if they would rather trust a small, independent leadership group or a broad, raucous community. Are experts the wisest among us, do we distrust our neighbors and colleagues on the wikis? Would our movement survive a transition of this magnitude? Would there be disorder? These are the same questions posed by a larger, societal push towards democracy and away from oligarchy (not to be disparaging, this is simply the name for government by the few).
Unfortunately, this change can't be accomplished without either Board self-reform or a legal challenge to the original change eliminating membership, but we can at least recommend the self-reform. —Adamw (talk) 19:56, 6 June 2021 (UTC)
Thanks for raising the idea. What are your thoughts on how members would identify themselves to the organisation? By legal identity alone, or legal identity plus user account? What are your thoughts on minimum requirements for membership – e.g. would you specify a minimum number of edits, or a minimum number of years of participation as an editor in good standing? --Andreas JN466 09:34, 8 July 2021 (UTC)
I think there are some legal guidelines for how a membership organization must identify its members, but these probably vary by state, so lawyers might be able to create the flexible structure we would need. My thoughts are that ideally, members should be able to choose how they are identified, either by legal name, username, other alias, or fully anonymous.
Taking my cue from voting rights struggles in the offline world, I would be in favor of lowering the requirements for membership. We have a persistent representation problem, where we hear a lot from a few editors who are very active on talk pages, and hear very little from readers. Membership and elections might be a good tool for increasing reader engagement. Of course, we would need to prevent fraud at the same time, which is at odds with not requiring documentary identification. It might be possible to give readers a token to prove that e.g. they have been reading on some browser and IP address combination, but without revealing their reading habits or identity. Finally, we would want to do analysis to detect and prevent systematic vote manipulation. This is a rough outline, so just to summarize what I would like to see: a) allow members to remain pseudonymous, and b) extending the franchise so many more people become involved and vote. Adamw (talk) 18:13, 8 July 2021 (UTC)
I don't think that is realistic. In such a system, it would be relatively trivial for a single tech-savvy person, organisation or nation state to register thousands of fake identities as members. --Andreas JN466 18:29, 8 July 2021 (UTC)
The real challenge is how to get more people interested in voting, improve turnout, these are things that will take time, empathy, creativity, and communication effort. Protecting against theoretical cyber-attacks is also necessary, but a much narrower mathematical task that is well understood. —Adamw (talk) 06:52, 9 July 2021 (UTC)

Question 2: Should we bring back the FDC?Edit

The Funds Dissemination Committee was an elected body which redistributed roughly 10% of the Wikimedia Foundation budget to smaller organizations.

Discussion 2Edit

  •   Support as proposer. In fact, let's increase the proportion of grants going back to smaller organizations. The Wikimedia Foundation plays an important role in redistributing resources—without its efforts, we might have even less equity, the larger and on-average-wealthier projects might simply take all the donations back into themselves.
Redistributing wealth is just. Without getting into how long-term, systematic theft explains most of the global wealth gap, we can say that donations from each country are arbitrarily related to how important those languages' wikis are, and whether they are deserving of resources. We should not prioritize English projects just because they are currently the largest and earn the most donations. I would like to see the donation campaigns run entirely by an organization entrusted with the trademarks, whose main responsibility was distributing the money to projects including what is currently the Wikimedia Foundation. In other words, the WMF should apply to the FDC for its grants as has been said by many before.
An example of more just distribution is that we allocate money to chapters according to how many people live in each country. But I suspect that a better approach is to go further, spending more to better establish in communities where the projects have been less successful so far. That would be a decision for the FDC and its electorate.
(Disclaimer: I have a conflict of interest, my current employer is Wikimedia Germany.) —Adamw (talk) 19:56, 6 June 2021 (UTC)
Ramzy Muliawan, no I was not aware, thank you for mentioning it! I would prefer to hear more from you, Anasuyas and others, but my initial reaction is that it seems like a great idea which is sadly lacking in democratic guarantees. Rather than an election, "there will be a review process to confirm the members of the committees", it looks like the WMF Community Resources and the Trust & Safety teams will decide the final appointments. I love that these committees will be "making decisions on proposals supporting the region", but from this text I don't expect them to have final control over funds distribution.
I don't mean to put everything in simplistic terms of "elected or not?"—if the Wikimedia Foundation continues to give out grants, this is good and means that some redistribution is happening. But if one central and undemocratic organization has all the control, then we have little recourse if we disagree with their grantmaking choices. The balance of power around these issues seems especially tricky, since many affiliates who might otherwise support counter-initiatives are dependent on WMF grants for their existence and may not feel secure standing up to the hand that feeds.
Another question I'm unqualified to answer is, are most community members happy with the current distributions? Are the right affiliates and programs being funded? Should the WMF reallocate more of their donation revenue, or is the proportion already just? —Adamw (talk) 18:24, 7 June 2021 (UTC)


  1. See Wikimedia Foundation membership controversy for historical background.