Wikimedia Foundation/Feb 2010 Letter to the Board v1/en

From Strategic Planning

Strategy Memo to the Wikimedia Foundation Board
From Sue Gardner and the Strategy Project team
January 25, 2010 for February 5, 2010 Board meeting
Draft: January 18, 2010

Background on the strategy development efforts

In July 2009, the Wikimedia Foundation launched its first-ever strategy development project, designed to result in a five-year strategic plan for the Wikimedia movement. From the outset, we believed that an open and participatory process would result in a smarter, more effective strategy. So, just as Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit, we wanted the strategy project to invite participation from anyone who wanted to help. To that end, we designed a process intended to encourage broad participation.

To date, the project has received over 700 proposals from people inside and outside the Wikimedia movement. Overall, over 800 people have made edits on the strategy wiki, which now includes over 2,000 of pages of research and other data, analysis, stories, interviews, debates and discussions with over 54,000 edits. (for trends, see Stats). We've set up 14 task forces focused on key strategic issues. We've interviewed 65 people, including Board and Advisory Board members, staff, editors, onlookers, critics, supporters, and external subject-matter-experts (to read interview notes, see Interviews). Strategic recommendations made by the task forces can be reviewed at Recommendations and are still being updated and refined.

At this point, we have completed phase one "Level Setting" (building the project framework, inviting participation, and developing an overview data collection) and phase two "Deep Dives" (in-depth research and analysis, expert interviews, and task force deliberations). We are now in the third of five phases: "Strategy Synthesis." And so, this memo and the accompanying background report (Board Meeting Pre-Read) represent a synthesis of the work done to date across all sources.

The purpose of this memo is to describe what we now believe the Wikimedia Foundation's five-year strategic plan will look like. This is the beginning of the business plan itself: to be elaborated upon and refined over the next several months.

The purpose of the background report (which will accompany the final version of this memo in the Board package) is to provide support and rationale for the memo. Most facts and analysis have been presented in the background report, in order to make the memo as readable as possible.

An important caveat: this material is not intended to reflect a movement-wide strategy, nor is it intended to provide direction for movement players such as Wikimedia chapters or editors. It is focused solely on strategy for the Wikimedia Foundation. However, we consider it generally consistent with deliberations on the strategy wiki, and likely to be relatively uncontroversial.

The objective for the discussion at the Board meeting is to discuss and seek guidance on the recommended priorities for the Wikimedia Foundation, so that the Foundation staff and project team can begin to develop the business plan and 2010-11 annual plan using the recommended priorities as a guiding strategic direction.

Assumptions and Guiding Principles

  • All work of the Wikimedia movement is focused towards the fulfilment of our vision: a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.
  • Wikimedia is and will remain a decentralized movement with formal and informal leadership and support roles shared among different groups including readers, editors, other volunteers, the Wikimedia Foundation, advisers, supporters and like-minded organizations.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation’s role is to protect and support perpetual accessibility of the core assets of Wikimedia for the global public good.
  • Wikipedia is by far the best-known and most-used Wikimedia project, and a proportional amount of Wikimedia Foundation resources are dedicated to supporting it.
  • Wikimedia is committed to maintaining an experience on Wikimedia’s projects that is free of commercialism.
  • There exists a virtuous circle among participation, quality and readership. Participation creates quality which attracts readers: new readers results in new editors which results in better quality.

Synthesis of the issues to tackle with the strategy

The Wikimedia strategy project began with a brainstorming of important opportunities and risks facing Wikimedia. It did this by inviting input from the general Wikimedia community, gathering existing assessments and materials, and interviewing a wide variety of stakeholders and onlookers including editors, Advisory Board members, Board members, staff, critics and researchers. Over the past six months, that initial work has been bolstered by further research and analysis, which is synthesized on the strategy wiki, as part of what is being called “Wikimedia-pedia.” The latest synthesis of the issues facing Wikimedia, below, builds from that work, and sets the table for strategic recommendations:

  • Wikimedia has grown rapidly to become the fifth-most-read website in the world, with a truly global footprint. And yet, it does not have a technological, operational and financial infrastructure commensurate with this status. Developing a stable infrastructure is an ongoing process that began when the Wikimedia Foundation hired its first staff in 2005, and it must continue. The growth in both the usage of Wikipedia, and its public importance, make the solidity of its infrastructure increasingly critical.
  • The Wikimedia editing community has flattened out at about 96,000 active and 12,000 very active contributors, and because Wikipedia is unique, we don't know whether those numbers will prove sufficient to sustain its continued growth. In addition, concern is expressed both inside and outside Wikimedia about the health of the editing community, including worries that the editing community is insufficiently diverse (too male, too young, too Western), too stressed, and too closed to newcomers. Both the Audit Committee and the Community Health Task Force have flagged the health of the editing community as a major risk area for the movement.
  • Wikimedia has always taken quality seriously, and research shows its quality is generally high. But as readership grows, the potential for Wikimedia to cause harm - and therefore the requirement to safeguard quality - grows also. Currently, article quality is high, but uneven, and we don't make it sufficiently clear to the reader the extent to which the information they are seeing has been vetted. Maintaining a neutral point of view is also challenging, and articles can be vulnerable to manipulation. Wikipedia's prominence has brought with it the reality that advocates for specific points of view see manipulation of Wikipedia articles as a means to advancing their agenda.
  • Wikimedia aspires to reach every human being in the world, and to date has achieved great success among Internet users in the Global North [1], where levels of literacy, education, free speech and leisure are high. Given the rapid expansion of Internet connectivity around the world, it will be increasingly possible to reach readers in the Global South. The challenge for Wikimedia will be to replicate its earlier successes in parts of the world where conditions are less favourable.
  • People used to connect to the Internet primarily through personal computers, but increasingly we are seeing a proliferation of small mobile devices, including mobile phones, smartphones, e-readers, netbooks, and other devices. Currently, Wikimedia is heavily optimized for the personal computer, which means it risks becoming less relevant to information seekers, both those who are shifting from personal computers to mobile devices, and those in the Global South, for whom mobile devices may be their first and possibly sole entry point.
  • The MediaWiki software has not kept pace with the general development of web applications and the web platform. While it is easy to read a Wikipedia article, virtually all participatory interactions are difficult, and there are limited tools to support on-site networking, dialogue, and task management. Even the reader experience is fairly austere, with limited tools for topic exploration, visualization, and search.

Goals for the strategy

In 2009, Wikimedia readership grew by over 20% according to comScore[2] and the number of new articles on all projects including Wikimedia Commons files grew by 35% (Nov '08-Nov '09). As mentioned above, the number of editors has been flat since 2007.

As we look forward, it's difficult to forecast the base case or “momentum” [3] growth of Wikimedia. While the most straightforward approach would be to assume a continuation of ~20% growth in readers over the next five years, we believe that would be an overly aggressive base case, and that the rate of growth would be more likely to naturally slow as Wikimedia reaches some level of saturation in the Global North. To sustain its fast growth, Wikimedia will need to drive growth in geographies where Wikimedia is less well-developed, and where the conditions for growth in editors are far less favourable. Further, we assume that at some point, flatness in number of editors may begin to generally constrain article growth and growth in readers.

Given the complexity of forecasting growth, we have developed three scenarios for the next five years building on our understanding that Wikimedia is more mature in the Global North than the Global South and that there are challenges in growing the contributor base (for reasons we only partially understand). Our three scenarios are:

  1. Sustained growth at 20% over next five years by implementing a strategy that helps to improve the Wikimedia reader and editor experience, expand Wikimedia in the Global South and re-energize community growth, while increasing diversity.
  2. Slowing growth and leveling out as Wikimedia reaches saturation in the Global North and efforts to reach the Global South do not take off beyond the mature language Wikimedia projects.
  3. No growth as Wikimedia community health deteriorates, the platform becomes antiquated, the projects fail to keep pace with the needs of the movement and groups fork to work on new platforms.

The goal for the five-year plan is to realize the first scenario and to mitigate the risks of the second and third. Wikimedia will focus on realizing a 20% annual growth rate in readership, which would achieve over 600 million unique visitors monthly, by 2015 or almost 10% of all humanity.

This would be accomplished by [estimates to be added later this week]:

  • Growing readership in the Global South by [XX]% annually and in the Global North by [YY]% annually (despite the potential for limitations in reaching the fast-growing Chinese population to be discussed later)
  • Increasing monthly active contributors by [XX]% annually and very active contributors by [YY]%

[Note: the graph below is a draft and will be refined further this week. We included to aid in visualization of the scenarios]

Recommended priorities for the Foundation

To achieve the goal of continued health and strong growth of Wikimedia, there are three priority areas in which the Wikimedia Foundation will focus its work over the next five years.

  1. Build the technological and operating platform that enables Wikimedia to function sustainably as a top global Internet organization: The Wikimedia Foundation is a young organization that has only recently been able to grow its scope beyond keeping its web properties operational at the most basic level. Over the next five years, the Foundation needs to invest in the technology, operational systems and financial models that will enable Wikimedia to keep pace with the needs of a global movement and the ever-changing technological, cultural and economic environment. In the immediate future, this will mean increased investment in leadership, in technical operations and development staff, in fundraising, and volunteer support.
  2. Strengthen, grow and increase diversity of the editing community that is the lifeblood of the Wikimedia projects: The work of building Wikimedia is centered on a strong editing community. To support continued growth of that community, and to reduce friction between long-time editors and newcomers, the Wikimedia Foundation will need to strengthen its investments in improvements to the user interface and user experience, as well as volunteer organizing technology. Global bottom-up programs to recruit, train, support, retain, and reward volunteers need to be incentivized, monitored and recognized. Here, the Wikimedia Foundation can play an important role to support programs developed by volunteers, as well as the creation of new chapters or other organizational models. Due to the language and project diversity of Wikimedia, only a decentralized approach to these challenges is scalable.
  3. Accelerate impact by investing in key geographic areas, mobile application development, and bottom-up innovation: The Wikimedia Foundation has not historically maintained an on-the-ground presence in other countries beyond its affiliation with chapters. However, in order to accelerate development in the Global South, which will be key to reaching long-term growth objectives, our analysis indicates that there is a positive contribution that might result from on-the-ground support from the Foundation in the early stages of country growth. We therefore plan to establish a temporary presence in priority countries (specific countries to be finalized in business planning phase) -- leading to long-term sustainable development of those local communities. We will actively monitor and learn from these on-the-ground investments to evaluate the success of the approach and share learning. Additionally, we need to improve our mobile applications and support scalable offline solutions to maintain our growth momentum. Finally, we must recognize that the Wikimedia movement at-large can develop bottom-up technological innovations that deserve quick adoption and integration, and we believe that the Wikimedia Foundation should therefore maintain permanent bounded capacity to assess and respond to such innovations.

Areas the Wikimedia Foundation will not prioritize

The three priorities above comprise the core work for the Wikimedia Foundation over the next five years. Below are areas in which the Wikimedia Foundation has considered increasing investment, but will not. Other actors (e.g., chapters, informal groups of volunteers, like-minded organizations, etc.) may choose to prioritize these areas, as they see fit.

  • Investing to grow usage of Wikipedia in China. China has the world's largest Internet-connected population, and usage of Wikipedia in China continues to grow. However, the Chinese government heavily intervenes in the development of China's Internet for both political and economic reasons. Wikipedia was completely blocked in China until the 2008 Olympics. It remains partially censored, and vast web properties like Facebook and YouTube remain blocked to this day, while "locally grown" businesses that comply with government regulations are favoured. Businesses like Google are considering a complete withdrawal from the region. In spite of these difficulties, Chinese editors are doing effective work building the Chinese Wikipedia: we believe that work offers Wikipedia's best hope for growth in China.
  • Investing in an on-the-ground presence in Africa. We believe that Africa is too politically, culturally and economically heterogeneous, and that at this point Internet usage is still too limited there, to argue for a strong strategic investment in Africa. We will however support chapter development in African countries, and development of mobile and offline access solutions that meet the needs of the region.
  • Investing specifically in the "smaller projects." The Wikimedia Foundation generally focuses on investments that have the largest possible net impact. Some of these investments may benefit smaller projects, but the Wikimedia Foundation will not make investments that are likely to have a disproportionately small impact.
  • Investing directly in staging events or developing content partnerships, with two exceptions: 1) bootstrap work in priority geographies, and 2) systematic experimentation with the purpose of deriving and disseminating best practices. We believe that, for work that is geographically based, sustainable local communities organized through chapters or by other means provide generally a more stable basis. Therefore, we will invest in capacity-building and support activities for local communities, rather than doing the work ourselves.
  • Investing in direct editorial interventions to increase quality, e.g. paying people for developing content or policies. Wikipedia's content and policies are maintained by volunteers, and in general, volunteers should drive quality improvement initiatives. The Wikimedia Foundation may occasionally invest in quality improvement projects, but only for the purposes of experimentation and the development of best practices.
  • Active advocacy on behalf of the free culture movement: The Wikimedia Foundation will continue to support the principles that underlie our work and use our voice judiciously in public discourse. We will also continue to be supportive of like-minded organizations, such as Creative Commons and EFF. We will not create an advocacy agenda and allocate resources to engage forcefully in public policy development. Again, geographically based chapter organizations may play a larger role in such endeavors.

Implications for the Foundation operations and next steps

The strategy will result in changes in the Foundation’s operations - both in the nature and approach to the work and in the resources required. This is a continuation of the process of building a strong operation that began two years ago. The work in the business planning phase from February to May will focus on translating the strategy into the specific technology, organizational and financial plan for building the operations to fulfill its role over the next five years and beyond.

Along side the business planning work, the movement strategy process will continue. The goals will be to facilitate the movement to further deliberate on and prioritize the over 700 proposals and recommendations from the task forces to move toward action on promising strategic opportunities.

Important future milestones include:

  • April – Global Chapters meeting and Wikimedia Foundation Board meeting
  • July – Wikimania and Wikimedia Foundation Board meeting in Gdansk, Poland


  1. For the purposes of our discussion, the Global North includes US, Canada, Western Europe, Japan and Australia-New Zealand. The Global South represents Asia ex-Japan, Central and South America including Mexico, Africa and Eastern Europe and Russia
  2. Latest data from Wikimedia Statistics shows 23.1% growth in unique monthly visitors according to comScore from Nov. 2008 to Nov. 2009. Note: comScore is the best available source, but is an estimation not actual
  3. Momentum refers to a rate of growth that should be achievable with the current strategy in place and current technology. It assumes one does nothing significantly differently from today.