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Opinion

The Wikimedia Endowment – a lack of transparency

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By Andreas Kolbe
Andreas Kolbe is a former co-editor-in-chief of The Signpost and has been a Wikipedia contributor since 2006. The views expressed in this opinion article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Signpost. Responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section.E
A Wikimedia email encouraging a donor to make a will, with the Wikimedia Endowment as a beneficiary.

In 2016, the Wikimedia Foundation established the Wikimedia Endowment, designed to "serve as a perpetual source of support for Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation". The Endowment's target was to raise $100 million by 2026, and it has been hosted as a "Collective Action Fund" at the Tides Foundation.

Financially, the Endowment appears to have been a runaway success, far exceeding communicated expectations.

Hosting by the Tides Foundation was intended to be a temporary arrangement, and the WMF has promised for more than five years now to transfer the Endowment to a standalone 501(c)(3) organization, which would then be legally required to make its own Form 990 disclosures of financial data each year – revenue, expenditure, salary costs, highest-paid contractors, grants, etc. – in line with the minimum standards of transparency for US non-profits.

On 29 March 2017, for example, Lisa Seitz answered community questions about the Endowment on Meta as follows:

"The WMF board has already given us the direction to move it into a separate 501c3 once the endowment reaches $33 million. ... WMF's Executive Director is supportive of moving it to a new 501c3 once it reaches $33 million."

But as the Foundation proudly announced last September, the Endowment passed $100 million in June 2021, five years early. The $33 million mark came and went years ago. The move to a standalone non-profit never happened.

Fast forward a few years, and WMF staff were still making the same sorts of public statements about moving to a 501(c)(3) soon. As Endowment Director Amy Parker and Director of Development Caitlin Virtue told me on Meta in April 2021:

"No grants will be made from the Endowment until its total revenue surpasses $100 million. Updates on funds raised are posted to this page. We are in the process of transitioning the Endowment to a new US 501c3 charity, after which it will begin making grants and will publish its own Form 990. ... As we approach the $100 million funding milestone, we are in the process of establishing the Endowment as a separate 501c3. ..."

"We are in the process of establishing a new home for the endowment in a stand-alone 501(c)(3) public charity. We will move the endowment in its entirety to this new entity once the new charity receives its IRS 501(c)(3) determination letter."

This was more than a year ago.

Promises, promises ...

Note that the promise to post updates on funds raised is no longer kept. The last update on Meta as of this writing was to say that the Endowment had surpassed $100 million in June 2021. There has been no update on funds raised since then. We, and donors around the world who are asked to contribute, or to include the Wikimedia Endowment in their wills, don't know if the Endowment now stands at $120 million, $150 million, $200 million, or higher ...

The Wikimedia Foundation also refuses to disclose how much money it has paid the Tides Foundation (incidentally, an organization the WMF's General Counsel Amanda Keton used to head before she moved to the WMF in 2019) for its administration and management of the Endowment since 2016, or indeed whether – and how much – any other consultants, law firms, advisors, staff, or other help have been paid from Endowment funds.

Asking about these matters yields the terse response:

"As a matter of practice, we do not disclose specific terms of contracts with our vendors."

We also don't know whether grants have already been made – as Amy Parker said could happen upon reaching the $100 million mark – nor do we know who may have received those grants. There isn't a lack of precedent: we have already seen millions of dollars of Wikimedia money being given to outside organizations via Tides without disclosure until months later.

Matters would be considerably more transparent if the Wikimedia Foundation had done what it said it would do years ago: transfer the Wikimedia Endowment to a standalone non-profit publishing its own annual Form 990, with a binding commitment to follow the guidelines of the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act (UPMIFA).

What is the delay? Is the Wikimedia Foundation having trouble getting the IRS to recognise the Endowment's qualifications for non-profit status? When will we see a Form 990? Will the Foundation make a retrospective declaration of all costs and expenses since 2016, if the Endowment is ever transferred to a 501(c)(3) non-profit?

How about voluntarily publishing properly audited financial statements for the Endowment, covering the period from 2016 to today?

As long as there is no such transparent accounting, anybody donating funds to the Wikimedia Endowment is effectively throwing money into a black hole.

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  • WMF is doing many good things, and maintaining and funding Wikipedia and the rest are certainly worthy endeavors. As for employees, the more the merrier, as long as each works to the best of their ability to maintain Wikipedia. As for sharing of funds, as I wrote below, the WMF should fund all of the conventions (national and international, including greatly expanded lodging and travel assistance), assist with bot expenses, and fund many other existing and new projects of Wikipedians (such as a well-reasoned research travel program for long-time creators) in order to further include the community into its monetary process. Randy Kryn (talk) 13:50, 31 May 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
    as long as each works to the best of their ability to maintain Wikipedia: FWIW, Wikipedia reportedly accounts for 30% of WMF expenses. The vast majority of Wikimedia’s value to ordinary people – the website we know and use – costs the firm about 30 percent of their $112.5 million operating budget ($33.75 million) to maintain according to Lisa Seitz Gruwell, Chief Advancement Officer at Wikimedia. Andreas JN466 15:01, 31 May 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
  • Investigative journalism? Is that even a thing? Unheard of in the real world, go back to Second Life or wherever you got such a silly idea. Randy Kryn (talk 21:44, 30 May 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Sorry to hear that you feel this way, and thank you for your great work here. Wikipedia, and the Wikipedian volunteers who create it, have the intention to inform (and in some cases misinform by omission) and share information with readers spanning the globe, and do not edit for the benefit of foundation personnel even though as the quality of the encyclopedia grows the foundation gains in acquired-value and respect as well. Within this symbiotic relationship WMF should certainly fund all of the conventions, bot expenses, and many other existing and new projects of Wikipedians (such as a well-reasoned research travel program for long-time creators) in order to further include the community into its monetary process. Randy Kryn (talk) 01:08, 31 May 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@Chris troutman: If I may ask, then why are you here? -Indy beetle (talk) 07:43, 31 May 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
To hasten the day, I guess. Gråbergs Gråa Sång (talk) 10:37, 31 May 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
If nothing else, a pretty blatant and explicit self-declaration of WP:NOTHERE. More or less to the letter of the definition, actually. Seriously Chris, you're not the only one with concerns about the direction and future of this enterprise, but your way of confronting that problem feels to me childish and tediously self-oriented/soapboxy at best, while also arguably disruptive at worse. If what you just said truly reflects your view of the project, I'd suggest you just disengage entirely, rather than hang on and contribute nothing but scornful commentary and grave dancing. Those of us with concerns (and even growing doubts about the future of the project) but who also still have the basic collegiate decency to try to frame any continued contributions constructively (or else bow out), will thank you very much, I think--particularly if the alternative is just having you stand around intentionally doing nothing of benefit for the encyclopedia and describing things as 'cancer'. SnowRise let's rap 12:08, 31 May 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@Indy beetle: I busy myself with WP:BDC and adding entries to WP:MIA. I revert vandalism on user pages and talk pages as W?F doesn't make money on those. I use The Signpost tagger to add metadata to The Signpost's content. There are ways to contribute to our community without creating a perverse incentive for SanFran to ignore and exploit us. Unlike Snow Rise, I maintain solidarity with our fellow editors even as they all undermine themselves. I wish I could have kept Wikipedia as a useful hobby but I cannot ignore the fact that the good work we do for free is being used by a malevolent cohort who only seek to line their pockets. I caution active editors to admit that their contributions come at a cost to Wikipedians, despite the desires and apparent obsessions of the editor base. Chris Troutman (talk) 22:53, 31 May 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
As much as I have problems with WMF management and politicking, a comment like I maintain solidarity with our fellow editors even as they all undermine themselves is deeply condescending, almost paternalistic and dare I say kind of what we feel like how the WMF treats us sometimes. Do you suggest we all go on strike? I have a hard time seeing the logic of your position from the standpoint of it being voluntary. If all we did was write The Signpost and clean up talk pages there'd be very little point to being here at all, but by supporting our editing efforts (indirectly as it may be) are you not still a "part of the problem" just like the rest of us? This posture you are adopting sounds like an attempt to virtue signal some sense of moral self-righteousness (and isn't virtue signaling another thing we generally dislike about WMF's style?). I probably tend to agree with some of your takes (if not your polemics) more than most here, but I have to say I'm more with Snow Rise on this one. -Indy beetle (talk) 00:11, 1 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
"Do you suggest we all go on strike?" Yes. W?F is safe in their rent seeking behavior because a strike is a coordination game which they know, in our collective compulsion to edit, we will never overcome. Let's remember I was publicly admonished by the community, so there's no virtue to signal, here. Chris Troutman (talk) 01:12, 1 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Your earlier poor behavior is something that should cause self-reflection, not a mark of pride to trot out to prove you're a real rebel. SnowFire (talk) 21:37, 2 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
I would second a genuine suggestion that we go on strike. I can think of only two instances in which the en.wiki community did something of the kind—the SOPA blackout and the FRAMBAN backlash. Where I would differ with Chris is this: strikes need organisation and collective action. Individuals retiring here and there is not the way to leverage our power. Nor am I endorsing the WMF in any way by editing Wikipedia, any more than I endorse my boss by working or endorse Bezos by visiting websites that use Amazon Web Services (most websites). All I endorse by volunteering is the mission of the Wikimedia community. We do have the power to stop the WMF carrying out actions that almost all of us disagree with; it is not through its sham democracy, but through co-ordinated rebellion. — Bilorv (talk) 23:23, 3 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Against a strike, which would not be even known by 99% of editors and would only hurt the readers. But why the chairman and many others from WMF haven't responded to this section (which I hope someone there is reading) seems almost incomprehensible. Randy Kryn (talk) 15:45, 4 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@Randy Kryn: a well-coordinated strike such as a blackout, protest banner or protest version of the Main Page, highly publicised, would be known by all editors and readers. Strikes are short-term, while the decline of our volunteer community in part due to the WMF is long-term and has more effect on readers. More volunteer hours will be lost by this long-term pattern of alienation than would be lost by a short-term activity. — Bilorv (talk) 19:13, 10 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Kind of reminds me of User:Yngvadottir, who adds "This edit is not an endorsement of the WMF" to every one of her edit summaries. Same problem, different solution. Andreas JN466 11:21, 31 May 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
But, that lengthy little introductory caveat made, I think that there are places where this story also leans a little towards the histrionic as well--and some of the comments above leap straight over that threshold. I'm not seeking to personalize the issue, but it has to be bluntly said that comments like "moving to a separate independent 501(c)(3) is not that complicated or difficult to do" are not just laughably misinformed, but clearly could not have come from anybody whose been within a mile of that process, for even a small organization, let alone one that is going to hold nine figure sums in trust for one of the world's most organizationally complex legal entities... Creating a nonprofit with any degree of large financial backing at the outset is a deeply complex administrative and legal process, and the Wikimedia context presents special complications. One legitimate reason for taking this process particularly slow is that once the new 501(c)(3) org is established, it's board members will be fiduciaries of that organization, with legal and institutional duties to respect it's mission statement, bylaws, governance norms, and organizational priorities--which will in turn govern how they decide to utilize and invest endowment funds once they are donated to them. If you do not harmonize such organizations with extremely well-considered documents and agreements, while also structuring things in a fashion consistent with administrative and fiduciary law, you can be begging for drama and choppy organizational (and even legal) waters, down the line.
Should five years be more than enough time to get that process ironed out, even considering the complications? Well, arguably yes. But we really aren't swimming in information here about the WMF Board's thinking is, nor the facts informing it. And I do appreciate that the very thrust of this article is that we need transparency on exactly those very questions (among others), and fair enough. But there seems to be an implication (in the subtext of the article and picked up on and amplified in some comments above) that the most likely explanation is something either outright dodgy or at least implying questionable competency and respect for the volunteer community. And frankly, that's a stretch as the likely explanation. There are plenty of reasons why the WMF might be hesitant to pull the trigger and is taking a slow approach on this matter. Look at it in these terms: right now, the WMF is sitting right on top of that $100m+ endowment, held directly in trust by it, presumably. It has a partner that it apparently trusts administering it, and possibly making very sound investment returns from the corpus. Why would they want to rush to hand that sum directly to a new institution before they have made sure that it has formed in exactly the fashion they need it to in order to provide the best chance that it's organizational culture will allow it to integrate with the needs of the foundation, the projects, and the movement? Honestly, dragging their feet is much better than having rushed in this situation, trust me.
Now, does any of that mean I feel comfortable saying that there aren't some shenanigans going on here that I would disapprove of, if I knew the details? No, not really. Like I opened with, there are details here that I think we can say don't make for a good look, at a minimum. But I also think we're a long way off from assuming malfeasance or incompetence based on where we are now and what we know. That said, it will be interesting to see where we are (or are not) in a year's time. SnowRise let's rap 12:08, 31 May 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@Snow Rise: I hope we won't have to wait another year for the next update. I also hope that the minutes of future (and past) Endowment advisory board meetings on Meta won't be as terse as the most recent ones available on Meta. They're for the July 22, 2021 meeting and consist in their entirety of this:
Agenda
3:00 - 3:05 pm UTC: Welcome (Lisa Gruwell)
3:05 - 3:20 pm UTC: Election of New Members (Lisa Gruwell)
3:20 - 3:30 pm UTC: Investment Update (Dhaval Patel)
3:30 - 3:45 pm UTC: Fundraising Update (Caitlin Virtue and Amy Parker)
3:45 - 4:35 pm UTC: Board Governance Discussion (Tony Sebro)
4:35 - 4:40 pm UTC: Confirm Next Meetings (Caitlin Virtue) Andreas JN466 22:28, 31 May 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
I'll grant you, that's underwhelming as minutes go. SnowRise let's rap 02:53, 3 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
I agree, the skeletal minute taking is a bit dissappointing (across multiple boards actually). It'd actually be worthwhile having a dedicated secretary to minute take at these and upload to meta or equivalent. Even if sensitive information is redacted, knowing more of the agenda and tabled items would be useful. T.Shafee(Evo&Evo)talk 08:27, 3 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Thanks for a very detailed, well-reasoned comment. The WMF certainly has problems with timely communication (as evidenced by not only this, but their well-documented engagement issues with WP:VPW), but the community is far too quick to jump to anger, accusations of impropriety, and statements about the "death of Wikipedia". ThadeusOfNazereth(he/they)Talk to Me! 09:47, 19 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Don't you think the community is entitled to know more about the Endowment than has been divulged? Well over $100 million have been collected on the strength of volunteers' work, yet the Endowment has not published a single audited financial statement, and the last update on the size of the fund described its status as of June 2021. Trasparency creates trust, establishes a feeling of partnership and expresses respect for volunteers' work. Andreas JN466 14:13, 19 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]

I would like to address two issues, one minor (but still annoying) and one preventable risk which may result in the death of the encyclopedia.

First the minor issue: In the thread above we once again see someone claiming that if you don't create articles you are WP:NOTHERE. As is clearly stated in WP:NOTNOTHERE, there are other ways of building an encyclopedia. Those who only write code are here to build the encyclopedia. Those who only help people at the refdesk, help desk, or teahouse are here to build the encyclopedia. Those who only "advocate amendments to policies or guidelines" are here to build the encyclopedia. Those who only deal with incoming emails are here to build the encyclopedia. And those who only oppose harmful behavior by the W?F are here to build the encyclopedia.

Now for the preventable risk which may result in the death of the encyclopedia. Consider what will happen if revenues stop growing every year and level out or even decline. Nothing can grow forever. Even cancer eventually stops growing when the patient dies.

Right now, the W?F keeps spending more and more every year to do essentially the same job they were doing ten years ago with far less spending. Will they finally reduce spending when revenues stop growing? Or will they assume that the decline in revenue is a temporary blip and dip into the principle of the endowment to support continued spending increases?

The W?F has two paths they can take.

The first path is to legally structure the endowment so that no future CEO or board can spend the principle down to zero. If we follow this path, there will always be enough money from the interest to keep the servers running and fund a few essential core functions. Maybe we wouldn't be able to have expensive Wikimanias in exotic vacation spots. Maybe we wouldn't have a headquarters in pretty much the most expensive city on earth. But we would still have an encyclopedia.

The second path is to continue to treat the endowment as a piggy bank to be raided whenever needed and hide where the money is going until debt exceeds assets and the W?F goes bankrupt. Don't worry, though. Someone will buy it. Maybe Google. Maybe Facebook. Maybe Apple. Maybe Microsoft. Maybe Elon Musk.

 October 24, 2029: Bankrupt online encyclopedia Wikipedia has been acquired by ExxonInfowarsMicrosoftCNNGoop. "We believe that we have the key to making Wikipedia profitable again" EIMCG CEO Xi Jinping stated. "For a nominal fee (determined by online auction) you will be able to own a particular Wikipedia page and have compete control over that page's content."  EIMCG stock rose 23% after the announcement.

--Guy Macon (talk) 02:38, 2 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Uh, no, Guy: that's not even remotely what I said, and someone who has been on the project as long as you should know to be more careful about imputing strawman arguments you believe you perceive as a subtext to another community member's comment, when they have in fact expressly said nothing of the sort. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for our volunteers who contribute their time and energy in areas outside of content creation, be they technical or policy contributions or indeed even rhetorical arguments about the direction of the project. So dismissing non-mainspace contributions is not even a small component of my observation. The reason I said that Chris seems to have self-declared as WP:NOTHERE has nothing to do with which namespace their edits land within, but rather because his own description implies his presence here does not in any substantial part reflect a desire to improve the encyclopedia, but rather to denigrate and discourage those editors who do so. He expressly states that his objective (or at least his hope) is to "see the encyclopedia crumble" and I'm sorry, but no matter how you slice the cake, and no matter what space he contributes in, that's pretty definitionally WP:NOTHERE.
As to the rest of your post, we can certainly agree that every enterprise of the scale of Wikipedia needs to be supported by sound financial policy, but all I see here is a vague assertion that the WMF is run by incompetents incapable of keeping expenditures in line with income and capital, rather than professionals in nonprofit administration with extensive experience in just that balancing act. And I'm sorry, but the rhetoric there is long on jingoism and short on particulars or evidence. And your argument is not improved by the "Wikipedia is going to end up sold to a corporation and become defiled by profit motives. I'm sorry, but that's just not even remotely within the realm of something that's ever going to happen. In the extremely unlikely event that the WMF became so insolvent that it had to administratively dissolve--which is a pretty cockeyed notion to begin with in the manner you imagine it, for numerous reasons, but let's put that to the side for the moment)--under U.S. nonprofit law, the worst case scenario would be that the remaining assets of the Foundation (including any IP associated with it's projects) would be donated to another nonprofit with a similar mandate, a process that (given the number of stakeholders involved, would almost certainly be overseen by a court to make sure said assets were redirected to a nonprofit purpose. Indeed, in a situation like this, a court would likely become involved (through one form of litigation or oversight or another) long before the corporation became completely insolvent, if there was such massive malfeasance as to bring such a large profile and flush organization to the brink of collapse.
Meanwhile, while the Foudnation exists, it can hardly just begin selling off the encyclopedia, the support and maintenance of which is baked into its bylaws, policies, culture, and ties with the larger movement. For that matter, even if the whole enterprise came crashing down tomorrow (again, histrionics, but let's assume its possible for the sake of argument), most everything of substance in terms of content and most of technical assets in terms of software, are open license, which means any number of members of this community could take every last word of the encyclopdia and most of the non-physical infrastructure and just recreate the whole thing under another name (or names). That's part of the very thinking behind how the movement was structured from the beginning. It would be a non-trivial undertaking, needless to say, but if we're talking about whacky, never-gonna-happen scenarios, it would be feasible, if the alternative was a commercialized Wikipedia. So no "Wikipedia, brought to you by Amazon" is not a realistic or reasonable concern.
Nor are the other presumptions that the WMF is incapable of adjusting its annual budgets to fluctuating circumstances particularly well founded, as far as anything in this thread so far is concerned. They've kept things reasonably in proportion for twenty years and they wouldn't be the first nonprofit to spend decades benefiting from steady growth in donations only to have to adjust to a slowdown. Even when that happens, and even if it happened extremely suddenly, the liklihood is that that they will be still sitting on massive investment capital. The assumption that the WMF staff are so horribly incompetent that they will be unprepared for such eventualities, or that their current administrative priorities constitute "raiding" of the endowment inconsistent with their fiduciary obligations seems to me hyperbolic and unsubstantiated by anything more concrete than vague hand-wringing. SnowRise let's rap 02:36, 3 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Res ipsa loquitur. You misapplied WP:NOTHERE.
"I stopped editing in mainspace awhile ago. I don't revert vandalism in the main namespace nor do I create content anymore. Let this encyclopedia crumble and starve out the cancer. If you write or improve articles you are part of the problem."[8] --Chris Troutman 21:37, 30 May 2022 (UTC)
"I busy myself with WP:BDC and adding entries to WP:MIA. I revert vandalism on user pages and talk pages as W?F doesn't make money on those. I use The Signpost tagger to add metadata to The Signpost's content. There are ways to contribute to our community without creating a perverse incentive for SanFran to ignore and exploit us"[9] --Chris Troutman, 22:53, 31 May 2022
"If nothing else, a pretty blatant and explicit self-declaration of WP:NOTHERE. More or less to the letter of the definition, actually."[10] --SnowRise, 12:08, 31 May 2022 (UTC)
You misapplied WP:NOTHERE, as you have done previously when criticizing me for writing WP:CANCER. Working to stop Wikipedia from going bankrupt or being bought by Google is also part of building the encyclopedia. --Guy Macon (talk) 06:04, 3 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Re "Nor are the other presumptions that the WMF is incapable of adjusting its annual budgets to fluctuating circumstances particularly well founded", has the W?F ever reduced spending? Are you sure that they can? Fun exercise: Pick any Wikimania. Tell me how much it cost, and where the money was spent. --Guy Macon (talk) 06:31, 3 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Right now, the W?F keeps spending more and more every year to do essentially the same job they were doing ten years ago with far less spending. The WMF had only 7 paid emloyees when I registered. TBH Snow Rise, and his further comment: the WMF is run by incompetents incapable of keeping expenditures in line with income and capital, rather than professionals in nonprofit administration with extensive experience in just that balancing act, is a perfectly apt description. I have been working as an unpaid volunteer consultant for 'do good' NGOs on and off here in Asia for longer than Wikipedia exists and their management/executive cohorts nearly all have the same things in common: enjoying high salaries and perks, little effective output during office hours, grossly disproportionate expenditure on their own infrastructure and comfort, paying external agencies for the work they are too lazy to do themselves, squandering the rest of their easy-come;easy-go donations, and a palpable disregard for the expendable community of the hundreds (or thousands) of volunteers who do the actual work. Kudpung กุดผึ้ง (talk) 05:30, 3 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
The WMF should really be in a position to be a leader in radical transparency in how it handles finances. I'd love to have a foundation that ran with the same level of hyper-auditability mindset that a wiki engenders. I suspect increased transparency would also help reduce the catastrophising where people sometimes read their fears into the information gaps, which is in their own interest! T.Shafee(Evo&Evo)talk 08:34, 3 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@Guy Macon:, Wikimanias have always been mainly a major junket for the WMF employees who make up anything up to a third of the presenters and attendees, and I'm sure they miss them. However, the local organiser group bid for their budget allocation which they get with what appears to be little due diligence. They then often cut corners, look after themselves for the work they have done, and one can only guess what happens to the cash left in the kitty after the event. The cost of the conference, even including the scholarships, doesn't make the slightest dent in the WMF's finances - it's only the equivalent of a few months of a very senior WMF executive's salary and perks. The vast savings that have now been made due to 3 cancelled years (and probably a fourth) in a row due to COVID-19, would enable an extra special super conference in visa friendly Thailand and its western tourism geared hospitality industry at a fraction of the cost of the USA, UK, Mexico, Stockholm, Ontario, and Esino Lario. But you can bet your bottom dollar that the WMF will do something else with the money. One sure fire way of killing volunteer editor enthusiasm, is to put an end to face-to-face conferences and meet ups. Continuing to use COVID as an argument would be a very poor excuse, but it's hardly surprising that with my 22 years of solid local knowledge and language here, the international team of organisers didn't want me on board... Kudpung กุดผึ้ง (talk) 09:03, 3 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
I wouldn't want to stop Wikimanias without good evidence as to how Wikimanias do or do not help to build the encyclopedia. What I would very much like is an honest accounting as to what was spent on just one of them. It's an old trick accountants use; pick some small item that is a drop in the bucket compared to the overall budget and is easy to audit. Document where every penny went and exactly what was bought in ridiculous detail. This catches that subset of financial mismanagement that drains a tiny amount from pretty much everything you do.
In my essay at WP:CANCER I make the following recommendations:
"If we want to avoid disaster, we need to start shrinking the cancer now, before it is too late. We should make spending transparent, publish a detailed account of what the money is being spent on and answer any reasonable questions asking for more details.
We should limit spending increases to no more than inflation plus some percentage (adjusted for any increases in page views), build up our endowment, and structure the endowment so that the WMF cannot legally dip into the principal when times get bad.'
If we do these things now, in a few short years we could be in a position to do everything we are doing now, while living off of the endowment interest, and would have no need for further fundraising.
Or we could keep fundraising, using the donations to do many new and useful things, knowing that whatever we do there is a guaranteed income stream from the endowment that will keep the servers running indefinitely."'
TLDR:
  • Make spending transparent; give the donors an honest accounting with details.
  • Put some sort of limit on spending increases. Even "Don't spend more than ten times what you spent last year" is better than the current complete lack of any restraint on spending increases.
  • Structure the endowment so that the principle will always be there and can never be drained.
I await the inevitable reply from W?F apologists explaining why the above recommendations are actually undesirable. I will make popcorn. --Guy Macon (talk) 13:55, 3 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Around this time last year, the Foundation had at least $330 million "in the bank" ($100M+ in the Endowment, and $230M in assets, not counting property and equipment); as fundraising has been going well this year, I estimate it is now $20M–$60M more.
WMF VP Erik Möller estimated in 2013 that Wikimedia's mission, beyond merely keeping Wikipedia online, could be sustained on $10M a year. Even if we double that 2013 estimate, to $20M, the Foundation would at that level of spending – bearing in mind the interest it earns each year on its investments, along with planned gifts – already have enough money to keep Wikipedia online and fulfil its wider mission, as imagined in that 2013 post, indefinitely, without ever asking the public for another penny. Andreas JN466 16:58, 3 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@Guy Macon: And yes, transparent accounting and protecting the principal is something I believe most volunteers would agree with.
With regard to making spending transparent to donors, as opposed to obfuscating it, see this mailing list thread. Andreas JN466 17:08, 3 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
I agree with your diagnosis and your concerns, Guy Macon. It may seem farcical that the WMF would sell Wikipedia off to the highest bidder, who would then proceed to systematically create the opposite of Wikipedia's mission. However, this is the logical endpoint of the profoundly capitalist and un-charitable logic being used to run the ever-expanding WMF at the moment. We could run with a bare-bones, 50-strong staff who are all paid a perfectly livable wage of one-tenth of what the CEO makes currently. And it is not as if you couldn't find 50 generous and qualified people willing to work for less money than they could make elsewhere—our volunteer community proves there is no end to the sacrifice people will make for a radically free encyclopedia. But the WMF will not change by itself, so I have to ask—now we know what the problem is, how are we (the community) going to solve it? — Bilorv (talk) 23:23, 3 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@Bilorv and Bluerasberry: You (Bilorv) mentioned collective action – a strike – above. This is one approach. The other is using the media, both the professional media and social media, to inform the public of issues of concern to volunteers. The two should ideally be combined, of course – the media could and would report on collective action supported by a significant number of volunteers.
Note that the WMF recently adopted a human rights policy. The right to form and join trade unions is one of the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the WMF says underpins its own human rights commitment. Moreover, in its policy, the WMF also endorses the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which in Article 8 explicitly includes the right to strike.
The first step would consist in formulating a statement of association that a large number of volunteers could and would sign up to ("We, the undersigned, are concerned about X"). This would form the basis of any collective action, and would also define membership in the union – which I would say should be a union of equals, without leaders. We have enough planned and existing "levels of government" already! What do you think? Do you want to have a go at formulating such a statement, or do you have alternative ideas? Andreas JN466 10:41, 4 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@Jayen466: I agree with your ideas and some of the above comment would be a good start at an outline to convince people to join a union. I think somebody else would be better than me at formulating a specific and actionable concern that could be provably resolved by the WMF in the short-term. — Bilorv (talk) 11:27, 4 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
I created three "specific and actionable concerns that could be provably resolved by the WMF" (make spending transparent, put some sort of limit on spending increases, make a real endowment instead of a W?F piggy bank) years ago and published my recommendations. I even created a specific step #1 (reveal a single Wikimania's costs). The problem isn't deciding what to do. The problem is W?F stonewalling. You can't get any sort of dialog started with anyone at the W?F who is authorized to take any action of any sort. All you will get is silence and a few self-appointed volunteers who act as if they speak for the silent W?F. --Guy Macon (talk) 14:40, 4 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
The primary point here is not to engage in a dialogue with the WMF. Such dialogue will continue, of course, and occasionally one may achieve a modest result, like here.
The point is rather to gauge how many volunteers are dissatisfied with the WMF's financial conduct. If this is a considerable number, then we have an alternative to talking to the WMF: the media.
To make as broad a church as possible, I wouldn't necessarily make the statement more specific than "financial conduct". Anyone signing up can express their particular misgivings or points of criticism. The media (including social media) can then be directed to a page where all these statements are recorded.
More specific points can be raised later on, but to begin with I would start with the broadest possible statement. Agreed? Andreas JN466 15:25, 4 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Wait...what? You are saying that instead of trying something that has never worked before again and again I should try something new? That's just crazy talk. :) Seriously though, the above makes a lot of sense. --Guy Macon (talk) 17:44, 4 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
@Jayen466: Some of us have been talking about similar things. Let's you and I talk by voice or video. Thanks for writing this piece and asking question. The trust that the public has in Wikipedia is because of community oversight and participation, and in your writing you have identified places in the Wikimedia Movement where various forces are blocking that community engagement. Bluerasberry (talk) 14:21, 4 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
  1. The money is being used for someone's profit
  2. The money is being used for a purpose other than what it was donated for
  3. The money is no longer under the control of the Foundation

Guess we'll find out when the IRS gets interested. StaniStani 05:45, 6 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]

WMF response

JBrungs (WMF) kindly has provided a brief response to an enquiry about this Opinion piece on Meta. She says,

Thank you very much for your comments and thoughts. We will be publishing an update on work for the Endowment, the Endowment Board, and governance later this month."

--Andreas JN466 13:32, 7 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Here is the promised update: m:Wikimedia_Foundation_Endowment/Updates/2021-22_Q4_Update
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In September 2021, the Foundation announced that the Wikimedia Endowment had reached its initial $100 million goal and that the process of moving the Wikimedia Endowment to its own, independent nonprofit by obtaining US 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status has been started.
We started off with establishing a new legal entity for the Endowment, which was the first step towards its independence. The Form 1023, Application for Recognition of Exemption Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, was then filed with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in late 2021. The IRS has posted an advisory1 that tax-exempt application processing is delayed. Our submitted application has not yet been assigned to an Exempt Organizations specialist for review, and we do not have an expected date for its processing to be completed. The Endowment continues to be under the management of the Tides Foundation.
Since its incorporation, administrative and regulatory controls have been a key point of focus to ensure the Endowment’s smooth transition from a managed fund to an independent entity. The Endowment Board has established bylaws that define the duties and purpose of the Wikimedia Endowment, the Wikimedia Endowment Board, and Wikimedia Foundation staff working to support the Endowment. The Endowment’s policies regulate activities of the Endowment Board and staff members. Bylaws and policies will be posted to Meta after minutes are approved at July 2022’s board meeting.
All this work helps us to guarantee that the Endowment will support our movement in the best possible way, ensure that the future of Wikipedia and the Wikimedia projects is secured, and that our communities can thrive.
[1] https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/wheres-my-application-for-tax-exempt-status
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I've asked how much money there is in the Endowment now. No reply to date, but if one should be forthcoming, I'll add a note here. Andreas JN466 14:17, 19 June 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Update: Financial statements for the Endowment, covering the period 2016-2023, have now been published on Governance Wiki. I
Quote from the linked page:

Wikimedia Endowment Financial Statement (June 30, 2016 - June 30, 2023) (PDF)

Summary

This is the financial statement for the Wikimedia Endowment for its first seven years when it was housed at the Tides Foundation, an organization that helps launch nonprofit and philanthropic organizations. During this time, the Wikimedia Endowment had $15 million in investment results (12.5% of total gross revenue that was under management at Tides from inception to June 30, 2023). The Endowment paid $1.5 million in total management fees to Tides over seven years (1.29%) in addition to $132K (.11%) in payment processing fees, bank fees, and transaction fees. In 2023, the Endowment made $4.5 million in grants including $3.2 million to support technical innovation of the Wikimedia projects and a $1.3 millon grant to the Wikimedia Foundation as reimbursement for expenses the Foundation incurred serving the Endowment in FY2022-23 as it transitioned to a 501(c)3. The Wikimedia Endowment moved to an independent 501c3 charity in July 2023.


IRS approval for the 501c3 was obtained in late June 2022. Most of the funds remained with Tides for another year; wikimediaendowment.org was edited in August 2023 to replace references to Tides with a reference to the new 501c3 nonprofit. Andreas JN466 06:12, 30 September 2023 (UTC)Reply[reply]





       

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