Top risks 2009

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One of the annual duties of the Foundation's Audit Committee is an analysis of the key risks the Foundation faces. With a lot of help from Veronique and the staff we put this together last month and subsequently reviewed with the Board of Trustees. This is intended to be the most significant risks; there were many other risks considered but this was intended to be the top few. I realize it might be useful to share and encourage comments/edits. Stu 21:01, 18 December 2009 (UTC)

Description/Context Mitigation Strategy

Participation drops

Statistics show participation numbers began to stagnate in late 2006/early 2007. We believe that this is primarily due to: 1) technical complexity of editing , 2) natural evolution of an encyclopedia project, 3) social barriers to participation Technical complexity is being addressed via the Stanton-funded usability project and the Ford-funded media upload tool project. Social barriers to participation are being addressed in part via the bookshelf project, which will develop materials designed to entice readers to become editors. However, we believe the Wikimedia community is insufficiently galvanized by this threat. The strategy project aims to provide the Wikimedia community with information about stagnating participation, and will provide space for task forces to develop strategy around converting readers into editors, and creation of a healthy, active community. Further, the Wikimedia Foundation intends to seek funding for development of WYSIWYG editing, meaningful use of social networking functionality and clearer invitations to edit/upload/review, etc.

Movement fails to evolve structurally

The Wikimedia movement fails to develop organizations and structures to sustain itself -- for example, chapters continue to evolve very slowly if at all. We believe the Wikimedia movement is currently making insufficient progress towards developing appropriate organizational structures to sustain itself. To tackle this problem, the strategy project will provide space for a task force aimed at assessing current structures, and creating recommendations for their evolution.

Lack of innovation

Lack of technical innovation results in people using or participating in other educational/informational projects, instead of Wikipedia. While Wikimedia and MediaWiki have been successful at driving an innovation leadership agenda in many areas, technologies like Google Docs and Google Wave threaten to eclipse Mediawiki's collaboration toolset and Wikimedia could fall behind. In addition to usability projects, the Wikimedia Foundation is in the process of hiring a CTO who will be charged with building a stronger core development team that leverages the contributions of hundreds of volunteer technologists. Wikimedia is quick to adopt new open source technologies. If a new open source toolset should emerge which supports Wikimedia's mission, we will try to integrate it. For example, the Wikimedia Foundation has facilitated the development of a first experimental extension for Google Wave:

Scandal hurts Wikipedia

Scandal hurts the reputation/credibility of the Wikimedia projects, reducing donations and/or other institutions' willingness to partner with us. High-profile stories regarding mistakes occur with regularity. In part, this risk cannot be mitigated: as an open project founded in the idea of participation-by-anyone, Wikipedia is inherently vulnerable to editorial scandal. It is a risk that fundamentally we need to accept. However, WMF has engaged Fenton Communications to bolster Wikipedia's credibility via a communications campaign. We believe Fenton will be able to help us stimulate media coverage of Wikipedia's many strengths to counter-balance the focus on Wikipedia's mistakes.

Poor people can't edit

Poor people generally unable to contribute (edit); Wikipedia becomes written by rich people for poor people, inhibiting quality and relevance. This is a genuinely difficult problem: as long as there are large numbers of people unconnected to the internet, those people will be seriously disadvantaged in attempts to participate in the Wikimedia projects. Currently, the Wikimedia Foundation has a number of projects underway aimed at providing offline versions of Wikipedia to people who are not connected to the internet: we do not currently focus energy on developing ways for those people to contribute to the projects. This problem will be solved in time as people move online, but there is no interim mitigation strategy aimed at helping them edit.

Competitors erode our audience

Other educational/informational websites develop and erode Wikipedia's audience. There have been attempts to create collaboratively developed general reference works similar to Wikipedia but they have not been successful, except in China where Baidu and Hudong have significant market share. In general Wikipedia has strong market share; somewhat less strong in Asia and Arabic-speaking countries. We believe Wikipedia is well-entrenched and has solid first-mover advantage globally. We are unlikely to be displaced from our strong global position. The one exception is China, where we are not in the Top 100. The strategy project has created a task force aimed at figuring out how to regain market share in China. We believe that is a very difficult problem, perhaps unsolveable, but we are dedicating resources via the strategy project, to assessing the challenge.

Policy landscape shifts against us

Global public policy shifts away from supporting unimpeded access to information online, creating an environment in which Wikipedia is increasingly threatened. See also legal context destroyed. No mitigation identified. However, we think this is highly unlikely; the world is moving in the other direction.

Donations plateau

Donations stop growing at a steady rate, plateauing or even declining, causing a rethinking of resource allocations for the following year[s]. Donations have increased every year in which we have solicited them. The trend is strongly upwards. The Foundation hired its first dedicated fundraising staff in 2008 and donations increased sharply (54%) in the first year, despite the difficult economy.

We believe that donations will continue to grow. We have many users who do not yet contribute and the majority of our donations are small amounts from many as opposed to very large donations from a few. Budgets are created with "stage gate spending" meaning that certain spending will not go forward if the fundraiser hasn't met its goal. WMF has cash equivalent to approx. 75% of the 2009-10 operating budget (excluding one-time initiatives) available as of October 22.

Core members leave

Burnout or philosophical differences lead to a major project fork, or to the departure of core Wikimedians, staff or trustees. This distracts attention from current priorities, and weakens the community and movement. Communication about central projects, operations, and collaborations have been improving slowly. Some steady burnout takes place on projects and among meta-volunteers and staff, which could be ameliorated. Chapters and WMF spend time clarifying frustrated communications that could be spent on positive in more positive collaborations.

Legal context destroyed

Our fundamental legal context shifts (e.g., the U.S. Communications Decency Act) changes radically, knocking out the legal foundation on which Wikipedia is built. The Communications Decency Act provides immunity to the Foundation from responsibility for the content on our site. The Foundation is considered a provider of an interactive computer service and is not the publisher of the content. Under U.S. law, WMF is not responsible for libelous statements or obscene material that editors make/provide. It is unlikely that the Communications Decency Act would change radically; too many other powerful organizations (e.g., Google, Microsoft) have an investment in having it remain as is. No further mitigation.