On October 11, a Twitter user pointed out that millions of dollars donated "to Wikipedia" had been used for non-Wikimedia grants. Above two pictures of Wikimedia fundraising banners, the user (@echetus) said:
If you use Wikipedia, you've seen pop-ups like this. If you're like me, you may have donated as a result.
Wikipedia is an amazing website, and the appeals seem heartfelt. But I've now learnt the money isn't going where I thought...
The tweet attracted well over 10,000 retweets and more than 35,000 "likes" (NB: perhaps helped along by OP's tasteful Haruhi av).
The thread attached to the tweet focused on the Knowledge Equity Fund, "a new US$4.5 million fund created by the Wikimedia Foundation in 2020, to provide grants to external organizations that support knowledge equity by addressing the racial inequities preventing access and participation in free knowledge".
The money was transferred to an outside organisation, Tides Advocacy, sometime in the 2019–2020 financial year when the Foundation found it had a large amount of money left over because of an underspend. This transfer of millions of dollars of donated funds to Tides Advocacy bypassed established grants processes, and was not publicised at the time.
The creation of the Tides Advocacy fund thus remained unknown to the community and the public at large until December 2020, when the Wikimedia Foundation's 2020 Audit Report and associated FAQ were published, leading to instant controversy. Concerns expressed then focused on the secrecy of the grant, the break with the participatory grantmaking principles the Foundation had until then embraced, and the fact that the transfer coincided with Amanda Keton's move in the 2019–2020 financial year from General Counsel of the Tides Network and CEO of Tides Advocacy to General Counsel of the Wikimedia Foundation.
Subsequently, in 2021, a little over $1 million was given to three U.S. grantees as well as one Brazilian, one West African and one Jordanian organisation in the first round of grants from the fund, leaving several million dollars in Tides Advocacy's accounts to this day.
This October (the 12th to be precise), Wikipedian and former Wikimedia UK trustee and fundraiser Chris Keating inquired on the Wikimedia-l mailing list about the fund's status, specifically referencing the Twitter thread:
Meta (1) suggests 6 grants were made in September 2021 and that a second more community-focused round of grants would be made in 2022. No details of a second round have been published that I'm aware of; is this still active? Are there any public details of impact or progress reporting from the September 2021 grants?
There is also a somewhat-viral Twitter thread which focuses, alongside some general criticisms of Wikimedia fundraising, on two grants specifically from this fund and the WMF making itself a participant in US 'culture wars'. (2) I wonder if there is any response from the WMF to that?
(For what it's worth, my perception is that the Knowledge Equity Fund was initially a deliberate attempt led by US-based staff to have the WMF 'do something' to align itself with a broader progressive movement in the USA. I believe the main advocates for this have now departed, that it was never a particularly good fit with the WMF's overall approach to grantmaking, that the evolution of the WMF's approach to this fund was positive, but still if the whole thing is now forgotten about that's probably no bad thing).
The short answer is that because the Equity Fund is a pilot initiative for us without any dedicated staff, it has taken us longer than we anticipated to hit some of our milestones. It’s been a learning process. [...] Our goal is to choose grantees for a second round of grants and to make that process visible. I can share more about the timeline there when I have more details.
Hi Nadee, when I said I supported Steven's proposal, I meant specifically "Given that this is a pilot and there have been serious concerns expressed about the ROI and ethics of funding grantees not doing any work that has a direct measurable impact on Wikimedia projects, I would encourage you to stop". I've recently seen enough voices online expressing concern about the fact that they thought they donated to keep Wikipedia's servers running, but ended up having funded some other organization and cause. I think this is a reasonable question and I'm interested in hearing what the Wikimedia Foundation will be doing to ensure that the Knowledge Equity Fund is in line with generally accepted principles of ethical fundraising. --Frank Schulenburg
The discussion is ongoing at the time of writing.
On Twitter meanwhile a user shared that they cancelled their donation after reading the thread and received the following response from the Wikimedia Foundation:
I can confirm your monthly donation has been cancelled, and you will see no further charges from the Wikimedia Foundation.
We always appreciate fair criticism and questions about our practices, as well as the opportunity to make our processes clearer and more transparent. With that said, the recent messages shared on Twitter about our fundraising practices and the growth of Wikipedia are misguided and don't reflect an accurate understanding of what it takes to sustain a top global website.
Since Wikipedia first started, the needs of the site have significantly evolved, and the Wikimedia Foundation has adapted in response to meet those changing needs. For example, the growth of Wikipedia to more than 1.5 billion visits a month has required making steady investments in our product and technology work to ensure the site loads quickly, is available across devices, and in readers' preferred language.
Because of our volunteer editors and the support of our donors, Wikipedia has become a go-to resource for millions of people across the world. We want everyone, everywhere, to experience its benefits and have the world's knowledge reflected in its articles so it's a better resource for you. That's why we are working to address gaps in knowledge in our projects. Part of that work includes increased support to volunteers, affiliate groups and other organizations working on issues like diversity and women's history.
Over the past fiscal year, we have increased grant funding to volunteers and groups working to address barriers to free knowledge by 51 percent year over year. We distributed grants across more than 90 countries around the world to help ensure Wikipedia continues to be a trusted place for reliable, relevant, and trustworthy knowledge.
We hope this provides more information about our fundraising practices and how we steward reader donations to best support Wikipedia, Wikimedia projects, and our free knowledge mission.
What stands out in this response is the claim that the Foundation "distributed grants across more than 90 countries around the world". The first thing to say here is that according to its most recent Form 990 tax filing, the Wikimedia Foundation spent over 95% of its money in North America and Europe. Grantmaking in the global South accounted for just 1.2% of revenue (see previous Signpost coverage for figures).
Moreover, a look at the overall budget shows that grants to the community, emphasised in the above response, are a very minor part of the overall budget and not constrained by any budget shortfall. In the Wikimedia Foundation's most recent audited financial statements, "Awards and grants" amounted to $9.8 million, of which $5 million (possibly $5.5 million) represented a grant to the Wikimedia Foundation's own Endowment held by the Tides Foundation. This leaves somewhere between $4 and $5 million for actual grants made to the community – a figure dwarfed by the Wikimedia Foundation's $50 million budget surplus in 2020–2021. There was no lack of money for grants.
The auditors also point out on page 14 of the financial statements that the actual sum transferred to Tides Advocacy was $8.723 rather than $4.5 million. They add that a part of this money ($4.223 million, presumably) would be used "to fund the annual operating expenses of other Wikimedia chapter organizations".
A side effect of this arrangement is that neither the Wikimedia Foundation's audited financial statements nor its Form 990 filings will now show if, when, or how this money is or was spent by Tides Advocacy to fund chapter organisations – just like there has never been any public accounting for the over $100 million in Wikimedia Endowment funds held by the Tides Foundation (see previous Signpost coverage as well as the WMF's Governance update in this Signpost issue). Whatever purpose these arrangements with Tides organisations serve – it is not transparency. – AK
Wikimedia CEO Maryana Iskander announced last month that longstanding Chief Advancement Officer Lisa Seitz-Gruwell now also serves as Deputy CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation, in addition to her responsibilities for fundraising, strategic partnerships and grantmaking. Moreover, a recent advertisement looking for at-large directors of the Wikimedia Endowment described Lisa Seitz-Gruwell as President of the new Wikimedia Endowment organisation, whose application for 501(c)3 non-profit status has now been approved (see News from the WMF).
Other C-level changes announced by Maryana Iskander included Stephen LaPorte taking on the role of Deputy General Counsel, working closely with Amanda Keton, and Maryana Iskander herself temporarily heading up the Talent & Culture department in addition to serving as CEO. Nadee Gunasena's role as Chief of Staff has been broadened to include supporting the entire organisation and movement rather than just the CEO. As previously reported, Product/Technology is now headed by Selena Deckelmann, who came to the WMF from Mozilla, where she was head of Firefox.
Iskander said that while the Wikimedia Foundation's headcount had grown by over 200 since 2020, this growth would not continue. Instead there would now be a period of stabilisation. – AK
Nadee Gunasena, the Wikimedia Foundation's chief of staff, has announced that the WMF will no longer publish the presentation decks from its quarterly reviews or "tuning sessions" providing an update on each WMF department's progress against Annual Plan targets. Instead of this year's fourth quarter tuning session decks, which in the past were posted on Commons by mid-July (the WMF's fiscal year runs from July to June), there will now only be an unspecified but most likely very abridged "update" posted on Meta-Wiki "by mid-November" – a delay of at least four months.
The community and public are thus deprived of timely information that the WMF had been happy to provide for the past ten years – including reports of financials, staffing levels and partnerships that formed the basis of Signpost and media reports in the past. – AK
The documentation consists of a description and summary of each conference session of each of [the] three days and topics to follow up on. Additionally, a short summary of the documentation provides an overview of the topics discussed, and has been translated into 6 languages by our colleagues from the Wikimedia Foundation.
The Wikimedia Summit is an annual meeting of Wikimedia Foundation leadership – both trustees and executives – with affiliate representatives and members of movement committees. The event is usually held in Berlin, Germany. It was cancelled last year due to COVID; this year, around 150 people from around the world attended in person, with a similar number participating online.
Early indications are that this hybrid format – mixing in-person attendance and online participation – worked better this time round than at the recent Wikimania (see previous Signpost coverage). Survey results on this aspect will be reported around the end of next month, along with the event's budget.
The run-up to the Berlin Summit also saw WMF board members coming together in person for a quarterly board meeting. During the meeting, it was decided to keep the size of the board at 12 members for the next two years, this size being deemed more effective than a larger board.
The minutes of the previous quarterly board meeting held in June 2022 were approved and are now online here. In addition to updates on the Universal Code of Conduct Enforcement Guidelines and the Movement Charter, the minutes also spell out the board's expectations for the 2022–2023 financial year:
FY22–23 is not anticipated to be a year of rapid growth. The Foundation anticipates 17% growth to a budget of $175 million with moderate growth in terms of staffing. Next year, the fundraising team will be increasing targets in each of their major streams, with a particular focus in Major Gifts. A motion was made by Tanya Capuano and seconded by Nataliia Tymkiv to approve the Wikimedia Foundation 2022–23 Annual Plan. The motion was unanimously approved.
The Annual Plan, as shown in the Resolution, envisages total expenses of $175 million. Total expenses in 2020–2021, the most recent year for which figures are available, were $112 million; the most recent projection for 2021–2022, in the third-quarter Finance and Administration tuning session deck, forecast total expenses of $142 million for the financial year ended June 30, 2022. – AK
An open letter was published on Commons on 10 October, asking the Wikimedia Foundation to invest in Wikimedia Commons:
We, the undersigned, are involved with Wikimedia Commons, the central media platform of the Wikimedia movement. Commons is where the movement comes together: we take pictures, we upload files, we embed images in Wikipedia articles, we deal with legal questions, we teach others how to use Commons, we work with cultural institutions (GLAM), or we support Commons in other ways.
Commons is one of the largest online media collections in the world. It offers freely licensed files to everyone: via Wikipedia and other Wikimedia wikis, and also many other websites and individuals in the world. This makes Commons vital for millions of people on the planet.
But we are concerned about the present situation and the future of Wikimedia Commons. Our platform is fighting to remain relevant in a world that is dominated by visual platforms (such as YouTube, Instagram, flickr etc.) that are constantly evolving. Commons, in contrast, fails modern standards of usability and struggles with numerous foundational issues. [..]
At the time of writing, the open letter has attracted well over 200 signatures. – AK