Movement roles

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Within the Wikimedia community, there are currently three major groups working to advance the vision: individual volunteers, Wikimedia Chapters, and the Wikimedia Foundation. Much of the work on Wikimedia projects is done by self-organizing volunteers, however, the chapters and Wikimedia Foundation were established to fill specific needs that the volunteers were not capable or focused on addressing.

However, roles and inter-relationships between these groups and among these groups is not always clear, leading to both overlap and gaps. How should the different entities within the Wikimedia movement today—volunteers, chapters, and the Foundation—work together to advance the mission? Are there additional structures needed to support the movement?

This page articulates the thinking around these questions. There is also a task force focused on exploring this.

Why Evolve Structurally?

These are comments, ideas, and perspectives that are starting to emerge from community members, task force conversations, and additional research and interviews.

Pressures for organizational evolution

The Wikimedia movement continues to grow in both size and importance

  • In total, Wikimedia has over 740 projects in 270 languages which are, collectively, the 5th most visited website in the world.
  • Wikipedia has become a vital reference resource
  • The Wikimedia and Wikipedia brands have value which needs to be defended
  • The strategic planning process is identifying powerful opportunities to extend Wikimedia's impact through increasing global reach and participation

And there has been some (primarily organic) growth in organizational structures to support this growth

  • The community has developed a set of internal project management processes and committees (e.g. Arbitration Committee, Development Team, etc.)
  • The Wikimedia Foundation was established in 2003, staffed fully starting in 2007 and now has 30 paid staff mostly in San Francisco
  • 27 independent chapters have been formed since 2004, with 11 preparing to be recognized and an additional 14 in discussion


This has created a complicated organizational structure and pressure to strengthen and formalize critical organizational and governance structures

  • Current pressure points
    • Unclear roles, responsibilities and decision-making processes, leading to opaque and often laborious decision making with limited to no accountability (e.g. the Governance Committees are not accountable to anyone)
    • Responsibility gaps despite movement growth (e.g. experimentation, customer service)
    • Confusing relationships between stakeholders (e.g. the interface between the Board, Foundation staff and community)
    • Policy proliferation (e.g. enWikipedia has hundreds of policies and essays about policies)
    • Growth of entities, but not always a growth in activities (e.g. chapter growth)
    • Stagnation as projects mature leaving less space for new comers to contribute.
    • No consistent assessment of movement health or tracking of progress (e.g. chapter activity)
    • Overwhelmed foundation staff


  • Longer term needs
    • Ensuring the sustainability of Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects and the ability to respond effectively to risks and opportunities for improvement and enhanced impact
    • Leveraging and protecting the Wikimedia brands and the public good associated with them
    • Maintaining the coherence of the movement at a global scale
    • Attracting new volunteers and providing a framework within which they can effectively contribute to our vision.
    • Opening Wikimedia’s governance and decision making to new and more diverse leadership that is representative of the community
    • Our projects have not grown to their current size and popularity by following conventional management practices. We need to keep our systems open enough so that when the next big idea comes we make space for it to be tried even if it means a hundred less successful ideas are considered for a while before they are discarded.

Why sooner is better than later

There are several reasons why tackling the issue of movement roles is a high priority

  • The failure of the movement to evolve structurally has been identified as a high priority risk by the Foundation’s staff (and approved by the Audit Committee)
  • The movement is currently unable to make any meta-level decisions
  • Volunteer churnWhat? implies the additional risk of losing the community knowledge and leadership that are critical for this process as well as the success of strategic initiatives the Foundation may undertake
  • Reaching consensus on any organizational or governance changes will be time and resource intensive, particularly for senior leadership
  • This will only become harder over time
    • As the community grows (or at least the number of policies, chapters, etc increases)
    • The longer that different entities continue to “operate in their own little corners” and develop local solutions for common problems

Important considerations

Wikimedia has many unique aspects that will need to be taken into account when thinking about movement roles

  • The reasons why wikipedia grew faster and bigger than other projects are still not completely understood; nor are the reasons why that growth has started to slow down. We need to be wary of introducing changes which damage whatever it is that attracts volunteers to help the wikimedia projects.
  • Defining membership in the movement is not straight-forward
  • Members of the community self-identify and self-organize in a variety of ways (by language, project, geography, other affinity?)
  • Volunteers can contribute without a formal affiliation or relationship to any entity or structure, or they may affiliate with multiple entities or structures
  • Decision-making is currently very decentralized
  • The network is primarily virtual, which creates both challenges and opportunities when it comes to communication, collaboration, and coherence
  • There are unique operational needs to run the 5th largest website
  • The Board of Trustees includes different types of representation (community elected, chapter-elected, and Foundation-appointed expert board members)
  • Many members of the movement find the ability to use the name "Wikimedia" empowering. See wmf:Trademark Policy for more on this.

Data and Analysis

Approach to gathering supporting research and analysis

  • Compile and synthesize existing information about Wikimedia’s current organizational and governance structures
    • Board
    • Foundation
    • Chapters
    • Active volunteers
  • Identify successful global organizations and/or movements with similar “pieces of the puzzle” and a range of organizational models (e.g. Habitat for Humanity, GreenPeace, ONE Campaign, Médecins Sans Frontières)
    • A centralizing entity (mission, foundation, headquarters, etc)
    • Local presence (partners, chapters, affiliates)
    • Volunteer network
    • If possible, similar product/mission
  • Conduct interviews and secondary research to determine keys to success and important trade-offs within and across different approaches to organization and governance
    • Approach to growth and scale
    • “Must do” roles and responsibilities
    • Accountability
    • Resources (cost allocation, fundraising, funding flows, etc)
  • Map Wikimedia’s current structures against best practices and identify critical gaps
  • Begin to lay out strategic priorities and options


Movement map.png

Initial findings

Lessons learned

Lesson 1

Clear and coherent decision making roles, responsibilities and accountabilities are the heart of effective global organizations

  • “Must do” roles and responsibilities create a basic framework for stakeholder actions and interactions:
    • Provides clarity necessary for stakeholders to play an active role
    • Sets expectations and creates a responsibility to act
    • Ensures all stakeholders feel connected and accountable to each other
  • Distributing roles and responsibilities around the network creates interdependencies and facilitates collaboration
  • Articulation of non-negotiables lays the foundation for actionable accountability systems:
    • Defines expectations and promotes transparency
    • Enables practical and systematic policies and agreements (e.g., Habitat for Humanity’s new Affiliate Agreement and Quality Assurance Tracker)
  • Decision making framework is ultimately codified in a charter of sorts resulting from a negotiated process (and periodically revisited); those without the charter struggle with problems of power politics (people/groups wielding informal power)

Lesson 2

Global organizations constantly work to balance global coherence with localization; never perfect

  • Global organizations commonly face the challenge of balancing the value of maintaining global standards with the importance of local customization and responsiveness; no silver bullet
  • They seek and struggle to create mechanisms that maximize resources and reduce duplication by enabling more consistent and constructive communication, collaboration, and best practice sharing; best answers focus on relationship building (obvious, but hard)
  • Many global organizations have representative decision-making and coordination mechanisms to manage this collaboration (secretariats, global councils, etc.)
  • There are important differences in how much authority these mechanisms have; in general, the more the movement or the message are important (e.g. campaigning organizations), the more important centralization and coherence become

Note: Organizations have oscillated between more centralized/decentralized models over time

  • Organizations that have grown organically have the most difficulty designing and implementing these mechanisms; it is critical to determine and articulate what value they will add to related stakeholders


Lesson 3

Effective organizations differentiate expectations of and investment in countries enabling alignment of local functions with the needs on the ground

  • Many global organizations proactively seed or strengthen local capacity in order to:
    • Achieve desired global footprint aligned with impact potential
    • Strengthen/support capacity in high priority areas where local presence is critical
  • It is important to be strategic around where and how you invest
    • Align resources with strategic priorities for impact (don’t sprinkle resources democratically or focus on the dysfunctional cases)
    • Invest to build local capacity and support local initiative that supports sustainability; get local leadership in place from the outset supported by organizational “insiders”
    • Avoid cookie cutter approach to all countries; big countries in particular need custom design
  • Benchmark organizations found particular types of support to be particularly valuable, though not necessary for staff to provide support (can leverage networks within the community to cross-pollinate learning):
    • Organizational development, program technical assistance, grant writing/fundraising


Lesson 4

Global leadership needs to be both representative of the movement’s diversity and be a “presence” across the network

  • There are significant benefits to a global distribution of leadership and responsibilities:
    • Legitimize the global mission and culture
    • Build and maintain relationships between network components
    • Strengthen local presence and relationships in high priority areas
  • Benchmarks suggest there are a range of ways to achieve distribution:
    • Literally assemble a global leadership team
    • Encourage/support leadership travel
    • Create area offices in high priority geographies
  • They also suggest the importance of being strategic about where and how you accomplish distribution. Potential considerations include:
    • Geographic diversity
    • Language/cultural diversity
    • Developed vs. developing countries

Key Links

Proposals on this topic