Two days ago, Sigrid and I have submitted a paper on community governance in the realm of Creative Commons and Wikimedia to this year’s Academy of Management Annual Meeting. Today, I have learnt about major upcoming changes in governance of the latter of our two cases. Wikimedia is at the brink of abandoning its decentralized and geography-based network of Wikimedia chapters and replace it with a much more centralized network of different types of movement organizations.

Logo of the Wikimedia Foundation

The current governance structure of Wikimedia, the formal organization behind the global community of volunteers responsible for Wikipedia, had emerged comparably unplanned. The focal Wikimedia Foundation itself was founded two years after Wikipedia had been launched as a side-project of the quality-controlled “Nupedia“. And while Wikipedia had been transnational from the very start with versions in German, Catalan, Japanese, French and Spanish only two months after its launch, the Foundation was not. The first local Wikimedia branch in Germany was founded independently from Wikimedia headquarters and only formally recognized as a formal Wikimedia chapter after the fact. Following the German example, so far 38 membership-based chapter associations have been founded and formally recognized. Together, these chapters nominate two members to the Foundation’s Board of Trustees.

With the exception of two US chapters in New York City and in the District of Columbia, all these chapters are related to countries. One of the main reasons for tying local chapter organizations to countries is a financial one. Many Wikimedia chapter organizations such as the German, the Polish or the Swiss chapter receive tax exempted donations. This is one of the big advantages of local chapter organizations and even a rationale for founding them as grassroots organizations in the first place. The same time, however, this also restricts the flow of funds within the organizational network. Donations to the German Wikimedia chapter, for example, cannot easily be transferred to the focal Wikimedia Foundation in the US due to legal restraints.

Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner (Photo by Lane Hartwell)

Moreover, this geography-based governance structure  is not without pitfalls for most of Wikimedia’s projects such as Wikipedia, which are structured mainly along different language versions. Adminstrators in Wikipedia, for example, are elected by editors of the respective language versions. And while the content of the English Wikipedia is provided by a globally dispersed community of English-speaking volunteers, chapters in English-speaking countries such as Australia or Great Britain do not profit from fund raisers to the same extent as chapters with a better match of language and geography. But this mismatch between geography- and language-based governance structures is about to change.

Having been asked by the Wikimedia Board “to make recommendations about fundraising and funds dissemination”, Sue Gardner crafted an extensive suggestion (Permalink) for re-drawing the borders of governance within the Wikimedia network. And her suggestions are fundamental:

The chapters are an important player in the Wikimedia movement. Having said that, they are not the only important player in the movement, and they are not the right tool for every purpose. I would argue that the Wikimedia Foundation has throughout its history overlooked the importance of other movement players, while over-emphasizing the role of the chapters. I believe the Wikimedia Foundation has behaved as though geography-based chapters are, and should be, the Wikimedia movement’s primary mechanism for getting things done globally in pursuit of the mission. I think that’s a flawed assumption for a number of reasons.

In what follows, Gardner forcefully advocates for abandoning the geographic structuring of the Wikimedia network:

Essentially: I believe that a model that privileges geography above all else is the wrong one for our movement: it doesn’t really support who we are and what we do. I believe this is why the number of editors involved with their chapter is fairly small: because chapter work is specialized and particular: it isn’t for everyone.

And Gardner seems well aware that her suggestions will not be welcomed everywhere. Particularly the German chapter role model is likely to resist such changes. Preempting German resistance, Gardner calls Germany a somewhat special case:

Pushing everything (or most things, or even many things) through a geography-based filter doesn’t make sense. It works pretty well in Germany, because the language/geography overlap is unusually high there – practically everyone in Germany speaks German, and only a relatively small number of people outside Germany speak German. It works less well in most other countries.

At the end, Gardner makes the following concrete recommendations:

  • Recommendation #1: All donations received from visitors to sites operated by the Wikimedia Foundation should be received and processed by the Wikimedia Foundation.
  • Recommendation #2: All movement entities should be free to fundraise outside of the wikis operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, in ways that are consistent with the guiding principles for fundraising laid out by the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees.
  • Recommendation #3: The Wikimedia Foundation should commit to significantly expanding grant-making activities to support decentralized work by movement members (including chapters, other groups, and individuals).
  • Recommendation #4: The Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees should commit to delegating movement-wide allocation of funds (excluding Wikimedia Foundation’s core operating budget) to a newly-formed movement body that would make decisions on the best use of funds within the movement.

Specifically the first recommendation is explosive. In the case of Germany, the local Wikimedia chapter had collected 3.8 million Euro within 50 days of the most recent fundraiser. About 1.5 million of this amount is transferred to the foundation, the rest is spent in Germany. It is very unlikely that the German Wikimedia chapter would be able to raise close to that amount without donations from the official German Wikipedia page. As a result, recommendation #2 is no real compensation for recommendaton #1. Recommendations #3 and #4, in turn, would mean an enormous centralization of power within the Wikimedia network – empowering the board and a still fuzzy “movement body”.

Independent of substance, form and timing of these recommendations are puzzling. From 2009 to 2010, Wikimedia had executed a broad and participatory strategy process, which is documented at a separate strategy wiki. The outcome of this strategy process was a five year strategic plan, presenting five movement priorities. To propose such a far-reaching governance change only one and a half year after finishing this broad process under the heading of “fundraising” is prone to raise resistance.

In Germany, frustration is already being voiced on the local chapter mailing list. One of the comments criticizes that the call for globalizing the movement is available in English only and compares the situation to the setting in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“. There the alien Vogons intend to destroy Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass. The construction plan for the hyperspace bypass had been laid open to public – in the next galaxy nearby.