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WMF bites the bullet on affiliation and FDC funding, elevates Wikimedia user groups

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By Tony1 and The ed17
Editor's note: last week (5 February) there was no edition of the Signpost.

In a bold move, the Wikimedia Foundation's Board of Trustees has announced a major change in policy concerning affiliated groups in the worldwide movement, and Funds Dissemination Committee (FDC) funding levels to eligible chapters and thematic organizations over the next two years. Both decisions were published last Tuesday after considerable post-meeting consultation with the FDC and the Affiliations Committee (AffCom). The core of the first decision is:

Here, “programmatic results” refers to activities that are likely to improve the quality and prospects of the Foundation’s online projects. The motion was put by Phoebe Ayers and seconded by Stu West—and since the voting of each trustee is now put on the public record as the result of a change in practice in early 2012, we know the details of the vote: seven trustees voted for the motion: Phoebe Ayers (community-elected), Jan-Bart de Vreede, Ana Toni, Stu West, and Bishakha Datta (all appointed for their "specific expertise", and the last-named a Board representative on the FDC), Jimmy Wales (co-founder), and Alice Wiegand (chapter-selected). Three trustees voted against: Sam Klein and Maria Sefadari (community-elected), and Patricio Lorente (chapter-selected trustee and Board representative on both the FDC and AffCom).

The logo of one of nine existing user groups, the GLAM-Wiki US Consortium. Like most user groups, it has a Facebook page and a presence on other social media.
Until now, a group of Wikimedians could go straight to the WMF's volunteer Affiliations Committee (AffCom) to apply to become a chapter (nation-based in almost all cases), or a thematic organization (which does not need to be nation-based but does need to be legally recognised in at least one national jurisdiction, with similar bureaucratic overheads to those of the chapters). Wikimedia user groups are a new type of entity, which the Board approved more than a year ago, along with thematic organizations. User groups are designed to be less formal entities that require no local legal recognition and few bureaucratic overheads.

The Board's announcement has put the concept of user groups on a new structural footing: they can function either as a means in themselves or as a stepping-stone towards eventual recognition as a thematic organization or chapter. By definition, user groups comprise at least three people who do offline work; they are eligible to use the WMF's trademark and to apply for funding through the Foundation's Project and Event Grants Program. Nine user groups have already been approved, covering Wikimedians in the following fields: Wikisource, Brazil, GLAM-Wiki US, Greece, Esperanto, New England, San Francisco, Nepal, and Groups/Promotion. A step-by-step guide explains the pathway towards affiliation by AffCom.

Wikimedia Nepal: sought to become a chapter, but settled for a user group for the time being.

The second major announcement by the Board caps the total amount of funding that can be allocated to eligible chapters and thematic organizations:

This motion was also put by Ayers and seconded by West. The voting was the same as for the previous motion, except that Alice Wiegand opposed.

Both decisions come after clear signs of growing concern by the Foundation about budget and staffing growth, lack of demonstrable impact on WMF sites, and governance among eligible affiliates, which are strongly weighted towards the global north. Last August, WMF executive director Sue Gardner asked "whether the benefits are turning out to be worth the costs" of "setting up bricks-and-mortar institutions". The Board is the only body with the power to make these decisions: it alone is charged with determining the mission, goals, long-term plans, and high-level policies of the WMF and its projects; ensuring the sustainability of the organization; and maintaining legal and ethical integrity. It was the Board that restructured the financial arrangements of the movement in 2012, in the process creating the FDC and forging the major policies that govern the WMF's evolving responsibility as grantmaker; it was also the Board that recently reformed the WMF's trademark policy, in the process making it more accessible to user groups and other members of the movement.

New England Wikimedians in January 2014, just after AffCom approved their application to become a user group.

Given the significance of the announcement, Ayers took the unusual step of explaining the decision-making process on the public Wikimedia mailing list (stressing that this was her perspective, not a Board statement). Her account suggested that there was extensive debate among the trustees about the issues, and that the ramifications of the motions were treated with considerable weight and care. We have summarized what Ayers wrote:

The board has been discussing the question of movement roles for years, and "started discussing the topic again specifically in October 2013. ... [This has included] the need to review new affiliates more thoroughly than we have historically done (as recommended by our legal team, and as indicated by the history of some chapters not staying active). [The key contexts are] the new trademark and user group policies which make different models for volunteers both possible and easier; and various trustee concerns over our increasing focus movement-wide on incorporation and administration. / The Board first discussed the general notions underlying the two decisions in October. ... before the November meeting, a recommendation to take these decisions was presented in a packet by the WMF Executive Director to the board, along with some context. ... The trustees discussed the recommendations on their email list for about a week before meeting, and then over two sessions in the two-day meeting. / After voting and recording the text, we then sent the text of the decisions to AffCom and the FDC, via the Board liaisons." The FAQ was written partly in response to questions raised by AffCom and the FDC, during which the Board debated additional questions, including AffCom's response. While there was no consensus on AffCom's response, the Board again considered the matter in the subsequent physical meeting, where a majority felt that the decisions should stand.

Initial reactions

With significant funding and shifts in movement structure at issue, it was understandable that the decision might have prompted criticism, although the personal nature of Rupert Thurner's opening shot was a surprise to many: "i am disappointed personally by you. you as a person, you as an american, and you as a board member of the foundation. especially about your inability to grasp international cultural differences in terms of funding, fundraising."

Subsequent commentary, while mostly critical, was more measured. Frédéric Schütz, of the Swiss chapter, argued that the trajectory towards chapter or thematic organization forbids a user group from incorporating and having bylaws. He wrote to the Signpost that in Switzerland that would mean "they first have to live two years in a legal limbo, which prevents them from handling any money or contract—and basically prevents them from doing anything useful as a group (except meetings as friends). / Contrary to what the board says, becoming an incorporated entity does not necessarily imply a large bureaucratic overhead, and then it makes sense in many cases for [a user group] to incorporate." On the mailing list, he wrote: "The burden of the proof should be on the WMF board to explain why this proposal makes sense, and what positive outcome it brings to the community—not on motivated community members who have to beg to get exceptions."

Trustee de Vreede's response to these points was: "We are saying that a track record is ... much more important that the previous focus on having bylaws. This because we know that a proven track record is a very good indicator of the [subsequent] chances of success of a chapter or thematic organisation. / Hmmm ... I would say that:

  1. We made a decision in which we took several factors into account
  2. We recognise that there might be situations which we might not have taken into account and we invite you to let us know it you think this is the case."

The chair of AffCom, Bence Damokos, wrote: "Speaking in my personal capacity, I echo the surprise that the Board has decided to move a motion before they had full or close to full consensus on the issue—which is in general a departure from the usual." This provoked comments that the Board makes decisions on a majority vote, by its constitution. The chair of the FDC, Dariusz Jemeilniak, stated that the FDC itself "have not participated in consulting or idea exchange in any systematic way" on the decisions.

Lodewijk Gelauff of the Netherlands chapter, who is also a member of AffCom, complained that the decision "is very bad for the volunteers", and that in his view, AffCom "was not consulted by the board on this topic [but] on a different (but related) proposal by a staff member, with very different arguments from those that the board used in their discussion. In my feeling the board is painting an unjust and unfair picture of the consultation that took place." In a long message, Nicole Ebber, the project manager of Wikimedia Germany, was critical of giving user groups an elevated role, "since there is hardly any structured support for these young and aspiring volunteer groups to grow, to develop and to become trusted partners, ... / The most pressing question here remains: In an ideal world, how would an organization model for Wikimedia look like? And does the restriction of choices for affiliations' models help us to reach this goal?"

Trustee Sam Klein wrote: "The WMF also wants to let all groups have easier access to trademarks and funds. This is what user groups were designed to allow, with minimal overhead. These two ideas were combined into "be a user group for two years". This garnered a positive response from one participant: "This part I do think is a good idea. There are many models of how individuals and groups participate and organize themselves within the global Wikimedia movement besides the umbrella Wikimedia Foundation, and imo the previous organizational/funding focus overlooked those who didn't fit one specific model: national Chapters, i.e. organizations seeking to represent Wikimedia-movement activities in a general sense, within the territory of one nation-state, and usually in a fairly "official" manner (paid staff, boards of directors, political visibility, etc.). I like that initiatives such as the individual-engagement grants, user-group recognition, etc. are opening up more avenues for Wikimedian organizations, organized along different lines, to find a more recognized (and funded) role in the movement.

To those who have expressed the view that becoming a user group imposes some kind of penalty, Ayers made the point: "If a group goes from no Wikimedia recognition to being a user group they go from no access to resources to access to the Wikimedia trademarks, access to grants big and small, listing with other official groups ... it's a big change. Of course groups might want to become a chapter later on, but that's not exactly always an easy process ...".

The debate continues on the mailing list.

In brief

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The pushback on the mailing list was heavy, but I imagine there is a silent group of less chapter-focused editors who aren't too bothered by this (if they paid much attention to this type of stuff; many are busy editing articles). Some of the comments on the mailing list don't seem quite right - for example, it's not clear to me that user groups cannot have incorporation and bylaws, but rather that they are not required to. II | (t - c) 16:04, 13 February 2014 (UTC)[reply]

Without commenting too much on the specifics, it looks like the WMF Board is getting a good handle on controlling the movement's finances, which is something it has to do. Willy nilly growth, especially of fixed costs, is a sure fire way to get into financial trouble. We have to make sure that spending money actually accomplishes something for the movement. I think we have enough fundraising ability that we can afford to make a few mistakes, but that is not a good argument for us to go and actually make the mistakes. Reasoning like "The burden of the proof should be on the WMF board to explain why ..." they don't allocate money, has got it exactly reversed. Smallbones(smalltalk) 19:15, 13 February 2014 (UTC)[reply]
.......and there are no doubt other editors such as myself that thinks its about damned time that WMF starts to take limiting access to its massive money teat seriously. The funded user groups are, one and all, disgustingly inefficient. Carrite (talk) 19:11, 13 February 2014 (UTC)[reply]
that's going a bit far, if they can spend the money efficiently there should be no problem funding them. Smallbones(smalltalk) 19:15, 13 February 2014 (UTC)[reply]
Well, there's no problem funding them, and they have no problem spending money. As for "efficiently" — show it to me, that will be the first. Carrite (talk) 06:26, 14 February 2014 (UTC)[reply]
  • "...after considerable post-meeting consultation with the FDC and the Affiliations Committee (AffCom)". I wonder how a brief email saying "we have decided to do this" and a reply saying "we do not agree for these, these and these reasons", with the decision being still unchanged by the WMF-Board, becomes "considerable post-meeting consultation". --Maor X (talk) 19:32, 13 February 2014 (UTC)[reply]

One thing I don't understand is why it is considered impossible to be an effective non-profit organization without incorporating in Europe? There are tons of effective non-profits in the US that aren't incorporated. In fact, most non-profits here start off as being non-incorporated for a few years first before incorporating. There are even some U.S. non-profits that have been around for decades and still aren't incorporated. Is this claim really accurate or an exaggeration? Kaldari (talk) 23:42, 14 February 2014 (UTC)[reply]

There might be no general answer to that, Europe is a big place. I can tell you about the situation in Hungary (I am no lawyer or accountant so I might be wrong, but I helped in the founding of WM-HU and looked into the situation a bit at the time): basically you are either incorporated or not an organization. A group of friends who call themselves a user group can go a long way, but it quickly becomes awkward when it comes to handling money. Grant money would have to be stored on someone's personal bank account; unlike a charity they would have to pay VAT on everything (27% currently I think); whoever owns the account would be personally responsible (e.g. any accounting problems would go on his record; if he has a private enterprise, that could loose tax benefits just because it is the same person); if something happens to him, the other user group members might not get to the money easily; if his private assets are seized (a divorce, his enterprise going to bust, whatever) the grant money could be seized as well. Not to mention if he actually had bad intentions, since he owns the account there would be basically no protection, as opposed to an incorporated charity. So as soon as money is involved, a non-incorporated user group is pretty much worthless (and if no money is involved, why bother with the bureaucratic overhead of AffCom recognition in the first place?).
That said, a user group could just incorporate when it is formed, and change its name and bylaws after two years when it seeks recognition as a chapter; that means some extra bureaucracy compared to the current process, but I don't see any serious drawbacks. --Tgr (talk) 09:29, 26 February 2014 (UTC)[reply]


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