Archives for posts with tag: Wikimedia Foundation

This post requires a number of caveats and acknowledgements. They’re at the bottom.

In 2008 I was interviewing a candidate for an engineering position at the Wikimedia Foundation and as we talked I found myself imagining what a terrific impression he would make on donors. He’s so shiny and cheerful and mission-oriented, I found myself thinking — donors will love him!

As soon as I thought it, I had the grace to be embarrassed. And although we ended up hiring the guy, we did it because he seemed like a talented engineer, not because he was charming. I was horrified at myself for a while afterwards anyway, and the whole thing ended up being a bit of a turning point for me, as well as a cautionary story I sometimes tell. Because that was the moment that crystalized for me what’s *actually* wrong with nonprofits.

Preface! I’ve always been irritated by people who assume nonprofitland is self-evidently suckier than forprofitland. I’m particularly irritated by people who say that nonprofits “should be more businesslike,” with businesslike as a kind of confused stand-in for “better.” That just seems dumb to me — I feel like it’s obvious that nonprofits function in a specific context including challenges unique to the sector, and that solutions aimed at increasing our effectiveness needed to be designed to respond specifically to those actual, real circumstances. That’s what this post is about: my goal is to describe a serious problem, and point to where I believe we’re beginning to see solutions emerge.

Here it is.

Every nonprofit has two main jobs: you need to do your core work, and you need to make the money to pay for it. In the for-profit sector when you make better products, you make more money — if you make awesome socks, you sell lots of socks. Paying attention to revenue makes sense in part because revenue functions as a signal for the overall effectiveness of the org: if sales drop, that’s a signal your product may be starting to suck, or that something else is wrong.

Nonprofits also prioritize revenue. But for most it doesn’t actually serve as much of an indicator of overall effectiveness. That’s because donors rarely experience the core mission work first-hand — most people who donate to Médecins Sans Frontières, for example, have never lived in a war zone. That means that most, or often all, the actual experiences a donor has with a nonprofit are related to fundraising, which means that over time many nonprofits have learned that the donating process needs –in and of itself– to provide a satisfying experience for the donor. All sorts of energy is therefore dedicated towards making it exactly that: donors get glossy newsletters of thanks, there are gala dinners, they are elaborately consulted on a variety of issues, and so forth.

By contrast, when I buy socks I do not get a gala dinner. In fact it’s the opposite: the more that sockmakers focus relentlessly and obsessively on sock-making awesomeness, the likelier I am to buy their socks in future. This means that inside most of nonprofitland –and unique to nonprofitland– there’s a structural problem of needing to provide positive experiences for donors that is disconnected from the core work of the organization. This has a variety of unintended effects, all of which undermine effectiveness.

It starts with the ED.

EDs prioritize revenue because a fundamental job of any CEO is to ensure their organization has the money it needs to achieve its goals. That means fundraising is necessarily the top priority for a nonprofit ED. That’s why the head of fundraising normally reports to the ED, and it’s why, I’d say from my observation and reading, the average ED probably dedicates about 70% of his or her energy to fundraising.

Optimizing for fundraising distorts how the ED behaves. To the extent EDs optimize themselves for fundraising, they tend to spend time outside their organization — being interviewed, attending conferences, publicly demonstrating wisdom and thought leadership. An ED must hone his or her self-presentation and diplomatic abilities, even at the expense of other attributes such decisiveness or single-mindedness, because that’s what donors see and respond to. There’s an obvious opportunity cost as well: spending 70% of your time on fundraising leaves only 30% for everything else. (That’s why, in a different context, Paul Graham argues that start-ups should have only one person designated to handle fundraising: to preserve the bulk of organizational resources for other stuff.)

The second effect: Optimizing for donor experience promotes a general emphasis on appearances rather than realities. Appearing effective rises in importance relative to being effective.

Here’s how the mature nonprofits I know self-present. Everyone is very polite and the offices are quiet. Their reception areas display racks of carefully-designed marketing materials. One I know has gorgeous brushed stainless steel signs attached to its conference room doors, engraved with an exhortation to be silent in the hallways. Typically the staff dress like academics — the women wear interesting jewelry, with the men in shabby suit jackets and corduroys.

By contrast I noticed in my early days running the WMF, we were quite different. Our staff were young and messy and wore hoodies. They were smart and blunt, sometimes obnoxiously so. The office was often half-deserted because everybody worked all the time, often while travelling or from bed. I’m pretty sure at one point we had a foosball table in the middle of the room, and later there was a karaoke set-up and a Galaga game. What if donors think we’re erratic, undisciplined slobs, I found myself worrying. What if they’ve never met programmers before?

Most nonprofits, it seemed to me, optimized to self-present as competent, sober, and diligent. I think if they optimized to get stuff done, they might look different.

The third effect. Nonprofits are generally conservative in their approach to regulatory compliance, administration, finance and governance practices. (Why? Partly it’s because the core work is complicated: hard to do and hard to measure, so people drift towards stuff that’s simpler. Also, the nonprofit sector is too small to support a diverse array of service providers, and so the services provided by consultants tend to be extremely generic. Boilerplate recommendations on term limits and that kind of thing.) Optimizing for donor experience makes that worse.

Why? It’s easy to describe for donors the core problem a nonprofit is trying to solve, but explaining the work of solving it –and how impact can best be measured– is hard. Far easier to show that the 990 was filed on time, that the org got a clean audit letter, and that the ED’s compensation was determined according to a highly responsible process. And donors seem relatively willing to accept the proposition that administrative effectiveness is a good proxy for overall organizational impact, even though such a proposition is actually pretty weak. A whole industry has developed around this: supporting good compliance and measuring it, as a service for potential donors.

This effect is amplified by the presence of major donors, who are typically wealthy retired business executives.

That’s because major donors like to feel their advice is as useful as their money, and they have decades of experience of people taking their opinions seriously. But they can’t necessarily say much that’s useful about the specifics of helping victims of domestic violence or rehabilitating criminals or protecting endangered gorillas in the Congo. So many nonprofits create opportunities where they can help. They are put on the investment committee, they are asked to help with the audit firm selection process, their advice is sought about when to launch an endowment campaign. This has the effect of focusing the ED’s attention in those areas — because the ED, of course, wants to make sure the major donor’s experience with the org is a positive one. More unintended consequences: “providing a good donor experience” becomes an unstated job requirement for the head of finance. A great head of nonprofit finance needs to not just be a person who’s financially and administratively competent: he or she also needs to be credible, composed, tactful and likable.

So. A major structural flaw of many nonprofits is that their revenue is decoupled from mission work, which pushes them to focus on providing a positive donor experience often at the expense of doing their core work. That’s bad.

What can we do about it?

I believe the problem is to some degree newly now solvable. I know that, because we solved it at the Wikimedia Foundation.

Here’s what we did.

From 2008 until late 2009, the WMF played around with various fundraising models. We applied for and got restricted grants, we cultivated major donors, we made business deals that brought in what’s called in nonprofitland “earned income,” and we fundraised online using what we grew to call the many-small-donors model. After two years we determined we’d be able to be successful using any of those methods, and an important study from Bridgespan had persuaded us to pick one. And so we picked many-small-donors, because we felt like it was the revenue model that best aligned with our core mission work.

Today, the WMF makes about 95% of its money from the many-small-donors model — ordinary people from all over the world, giving an average of $25 each.

It’s awesome.

We don’t give board seats in exchange for cash. Foundations’ priorities don’t override our own. We don’t stage fancy donor parties (well, we do stage one a year, but it’s not very fancy), and people who donated lots of money have no more influence than people who donate small amounts — and, importantly, no more influence than Wikipedia editors. Donors very rarely visit the office, and when they do, they don’t get a special dog-and-pony show. I spend practically zero time fundraising. We at the WMF get to focus on our core work of supporting and developing Wikipedia, and when donors talk with us we want to hear what they say, because they are Wikipedia readers. (That matters. I remember in the early days spending time with major donor prospects who didn’t actually use Wikipedia, and their opinions were, unsurprisingly, not very helpful.)

The many-small-donors models wouldn’t work for everyone, mainly because for it to succeed your core work needs to be a product or service that large numbers of people are aware of, understand, and want to support. About a half-a-billion people read Wikipedia, and we get on average 11 cents a year from each one, which is not much. I know a couple of nonprofits that’ve backed away from the many-small-donors model after doing that math. But I think the usefulness of the many-small-donors model, ultimately, will extend far beyond the small number of nonprofits currently funded by it.

Why? People are slowly getting used to the idea of voluntarily giving smallish amounts of money online to support stuff they like — look at Kickstarter and Donors Choose and Indiegogo. These are not self-interested transactions made after a careful evaluation of ‘what’s in it for me’: they’re people funding stuff because they think it’s great. Meanwhile, the online payment processing market is maturing, with an increasing number of providers supporting an increasing number of currencies and countries, and fees are starting to drop. And, note that donations to the WMF have risen steadily every single year (we’ve been named the nonprofit with the fastest growing revenues in the United States, which probably actually means in the world) — even though the WMF’s fundraising is deliberately restrained. Eleven cents per user per year is nowhere near a ceiling, for Wikipedia or for anyone.

The advent of the internet has given ordinary people access to the means of production, and now they (we) can easily share information with each other on sites like Wikipedia. That’s been playing out for more than a decade, and its effects have included the disintermediation of gatekeepers and middlemen of all types. I think we’re now seeing the same thing happen, more slowly, with the funding of mission-driven work. I think that among other things, we’re going to see the role of foundations and major donors change in surprising ways. And I think the implications of these changes go beyond fundraising itself. For organizations that can cover their costs with the many-small-donors model I believe there’s the potential to heal the disconnect between fundraising and core mission work, in a way that supports nonprofits being, overall, much more effective.

Notes: This post is written from the vantage point of somebody who thinks many nonprofits do good work in difficult circumstances: please read it from that perspective. Lots of people think nonprofits are lazy and inefficient and woolly-minded. That’s sometimes true, but no more so in my experience than at for-profit orgs. The world has no shortage of suck.

I also want to thank some of the people who’ve influenced my thoughts in this area. Although the views expressed here are my own, Erik Moeller and I have talked a ton about this stuff over the past half-dozen years. He was the first person to point out to me the absurdity of overheard ratios, and has written about them extensively and publicly, starting back in 2009. Afterwards, he and I discovered the good work of Dan Pallotta and also the Urban Institute, investigating overhead ratios and explaining why they’re bunk. I’ve also benefited from reading Jim Collins’s monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors, as well as two books from Michael Edwards: Just Another Emperor? The Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism, and Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World. I was helped by a conversation about difficulties facing new nonprofits a few years back at the Aspen Institute, as well as by dozens of less structured conversations with fundraisers including particularly Zack Exley, as well as with my fellow EDs, including ones on whose boards I serve. David Schoonover has done some analysis of U.S. non-profit funding models that has influenced me, and he and I have talked extensively about challenges facing the nonprofit sector, including this one. The folks at Omidyar have also been helpful, including pointing me towards the very useful Bridgespan study linked above.

Because I’ve been working lately on issues related to grantmaking and Wikimedia movement entities, it might be tempting to assume my arguments here are somehow aimed at informing or influencing those conversations. They’re not. To the extent anything here is useful to those conversations that’s great, but that’s not why I wrote this.

Ten years ago today [1], Jimmy Wales typed Hello World! into a wiki, and Wikipedia was born.

Today, Wikipedia’s the fifth most-popular site on the internet, and the only site in the top 25 that provides a wholly non-commercial public service, backed by a non-profit. It’s the largest collection of information ever assembled in human history: free to use, and free of advertising. If you’re reading it, it’s for you :-)

The anniversary’s an opportunity for us all to reflect on Wikipedia: its social impact, and what we want to accomplish in the next ten years. There’s been a lot of thoughtful media coverage over the past few weeks: you can read a lot of it here.

What makes me happy about the coverage is that it seems like people’s attitudes towards Wikipedia have finally turned an important corner.

In its early years, Wikipedia was one of our culture’s dirty little secrets: everybody used it, but very few were comfortable saying so. For the longest time, the only people who openly admitted loving Wikipedia were early adopters and iconoclasts.

Today though, journalists, educators and culture critics are finally embracing Wikipedia, acknowledging that its strengths vastly outweigh its weaknesses, and that its fundamental premise works. (A reporter told me the other day that mocking Wikipedia is “so 2007.” LOL.)

So today, we celebrate all the people who built this extraordinary thing. The engineers who made the code. The people who write the articles, fix the typos, smooth the text, localize the software, answer readers’ mail, and fight off vandals and POV-pushers. The donors, who pay the bills.

I invite you to check out this page, where there are listed (at last count) 454 Wikipedia anniversary parties, conferences, film screenings and other events. If you can come to one –even if you’ve never edited or even ever met a Wikipedian– please do!

And if you can’t be with us in person, why not do a little celebratory editing? Wikipedia wants your help: here’s a really great place to get started.

Thank you to everyone who’s helped to build Wikipedia. What you’ve done is amazing. Happy anniversary!

[1] It’s the morning of January 15 in southeast Asia, as I write this :-)

The Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees met in San Francisco a few weeks ago, and had a long and serious discussion about controversial content in the Wikimedia projects. (Why? Because we’re the only major site that doesn’t treat controversial material –e.g., sexually-explicit imagery, violent imagery, culturally offensive imagery– differently from everything else. The Board wanted –in effect– to probe into whether that was helping or hurting our effectiveness at fulfilling our mission.)

Out of that agenda item, we found ourselves talking about what it looks like when change is handled well at Wikimedia, what good leadership looks like in our context, and what patterns we can see in work that’s been done to date.

I found that fascinating, so I’ve done some further thinking since the meeting. The purpose of this post is to document some good patterns of leadership and change-making that I’ve observed at Wikimedia.

Couple of quick caveats: For this post, I’ve picked three little case studies of successful change at Wikimedia. I’m defining successful change here as ‘change that stuck’ – not as ‘change that led to a desirable outcome.’ (I think all these three outcomes were good, but that’s moot for the purposes of this. What I’m aiming to do here is extract patterns of effective process.) Please note also that I picked these examples quickly without a criteria set – my goal was just to pick a few examples I’m familiar with, and could therefore easily analyze. It’s the patterns that matter, not so much the examples.

That said: here are three case studies of successful change at Wikimedia.

  • The Board’s statement on biographies of living people. Policies regarding biographies had been a topic of concern among experienced Wikipedians for years, mainly because there is real potential for people to be damaged when the Wikipedia article about them is biased, vandalized or inaccurate, and because our experience shows us that articles about non-famous people are particularly vulnerable to skew or error, because they aren’t read and edited by enough people. And, that potential for damage –particularly to the non-famous– grows along with Wikipedia’s popularity. In April 2009, the Board of Trustees held a discussion about BLPs, and then issued a statement which essentially reflected best practices that had been developed by the Wikipedia community, and recommended their consistent adoption.  The Board statement was taken seriously: it’s been translated into 18 languages, discussed internally throughout the editing community, and has been cited and used as policies and practices evolve.

  • The strategy project of 2009-10. Almost 10 years after Wikipedia was founded, the Board and I felt like it was time to stop down and assess: what are we doing well, and where do we want to focus our efforts going forward. So in spring 2009, the Wikimedia Board of Trustees asked me to launch a collaborative, transparent, participatory strategy development project, designed to create a five-year plan for the Wikimedia movement. Over the next year, more than 1,000 people participated in the project, in more than 50 languages. The resultant plan is housed on the strategy wiki here, and a summary version will be published this winter. You can never really tell the quality of strategy until it’s implemented (and sometimes not even then), but the project itself has accomplished what it set out to do.

  • The license migration of May 2009. When I joined Wikimedia this process was already underway, so I only observed first-hand the last half of it. But it was lovely to watch. Essentially: some very smart and experienced people in leadership positions at Wikimedia decided it made sense to switch from the GFDL to CC-BY-SA. But, they didn’t themselves have the moral or legal right to make the switch – it needed to be made by the writers of the Wikimedia projects, who had originally released their work under the GFDL. So, the people who wanted the switch launched a long campaign to 1) negotiate a license migration process that Richard Stallman (creator of the GFDL and a hero of the free software movement) would be able to support, and 2) explain to the Wikimedia community why they thought the license migration made sense. Then, the Wikimedia board endorsed the migration, and held a referendum. It passed with very little opposition, and the switch was made.

Here are nine patterns I think we can extract from those examples:

  1. The person/people leading the change didn’t wait for it to happen naturally – they stepped up and took responsibility for making it happen. The strategy project grew out of a conversation between then-board Chair Michael Snow and me, because we felt that Wikimedia needed a coherent plan. The BLP statement was started by me and the Board, because we were worried that as Wikipedia grew more popular, consistent policy in this area was essential. The license migration was started by Jimmy Wales, Erik Moeller and others because they wanted it to be much easier for people to reuse Wikimedia content. In all these instances, someone identified a change they thought should be made, and designed and executed a process aimed at creating that change.
  2. A single person didn’t make the change themselves. A group of people worked together to make it happen. More than a thousand people worked on the strategy project. Probably hundreds have contributed (over several years) to tightening up BLP policies and practices. I’m guessing dozens of people contributed to the license migration. The lesson here is that in our context, lasting change can’t be produced by a single person.
  3. Early in the process, somebody put serious energy towards achieving a global/meta understanding of the issue, from many different perspectives. It might be worth pointing out that this is not something we normally do: in order to do amazing work, Random Editor X doesn’t have any need to understand the global whole; he or she can work quietly, excellently, pretty much alone. But in order to make change that involves multiple constituencies, the person doing it needs to understand the perspectives of everyone implicated by that change.
  4. The process was carefully designed to ask the right people the right questions at the right time. The license migration was an exemplar here: The people designing the process quite rightly understood that there was no point in asking editors’ opinions about something many of them probably didn’t understand. On the other hand, the change couldn’t be made without the approval of editors. So, an education campaign was designed that gave editors access to information about the proposed migration from multiple sources and perspectives, prior to the vote.
  5. A person or a group of people dedicated lots of hours towards figuring out what should happen, and making it happen. In each case here, lots of people did lots of real work: researching, synthesizing, analyzing, facilitating, imagining, anticipating, planning, communicating.
  6. The work was done mostly in public and was made as visible as possible, in an attempt to bolster trust and understanding among non-participants. This is fundamental. We knew for example that the strategy project couldn’t succeed if it happened behind closed doors. Again and again throughout the process, Eugene Eric Kim resisted people’s attempts to move the work to private spaces, because he knew it was critical for acceptance that the work be observable.
  7. Some discussion happened in private, inside a small group of people who trust each other and can work easily together. That’s uncomfortable to say, because transparency and openness are core values for us and anything that contradicts them feels wrong. But it’s true: people need safe spaces to kick around notions and test their own assumptions. I know for example that at the beginning of the Board’s BLP conversations, I had all kinds of ideas about ‘the problem of BLPs’ that turned out to be flat-out wrong. I needed to feel free to air my bad ideas, and get them poked at and refuted by people I could trust, before I could start to make any progress thinking about the issue. Similarly, the Board exchanged more than 300 e-mails about controversial content inside its private mailing list, before it felt comfortable enough to frame the issue up in a resolution that would be published. That private kicking around needs to happen so that people can test and accelerate and evolve their own thinking.
  8. People put their own credibility on the line, endorsing the change and trying to persuade others to believe in it. In a decentralized movement, there’s a strong gravitational pull towards the status quo, and whenever anyone tries to make change, they’re in effect saying to hundreds or thousands of people “Hey! Look over here! Something needs to happen, and I know what it is.” That’s a risky thing to do, because they might be perceived in a bunch of negative ways – as naiive or overreacting, as wrong or stupid or presumptuous, or even as insincere – pretending to want to help, but really motivated by inappropriate personal self-interest. Putting yourself on the line for something you believe in, in the face of suspicion or apathy, is brave. And it’s critical.
  9. Most people involved –either as participants or observers– wanted more than anything else to advance the Wikimedia mission, and they trusted that the others involved wanted the same thing. This is critical too. I have sometimes despaired at the strength of our default to the status quo: it is very, very hard to get things done in our context. But I am always reassured by the intelligence of Wikimedia community members, and by their dedication to our shared mission. I believe that if everyone’s aligned in wanting to achieve the mission, that’s our essential foundation for making good decisions.

Like I said earlier — these are just examples I’ve seen or been involved in personally. I’d be very interested to hear other examples of successful change at Wikimedia, plus observations & thinking about patterns we can extract from them.

I spent this past weekend with Wikimedia trustee Phoebe Ayers at the Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, California, attending a workshop called Business Among Friends: Clerking as a Spiritual Discipline.

Neither Phoebe nor I are Quakers, but we’re curious about them. I first read about the similarities between Quaker and Wikimedian decision-making practices in Joseph Reagle‘s excellent new analysis of the Wikipedia community Good Faith Collaboration – and since then, I’ve read a dozen or so Quaker books and pamphlets. I’ve been especially interested in the practice of “clerking.”

The job of the Quaker clerk is to facilitate Quaker meetings – to create the agenda, set the tone, traffic-cop the discussion, listen, help resolve conflict, and understand and document agreement. It’s a role that reminds me a lot of leadership (both formal & informal) at the Wikimedia Foundation, and so I’ve been curious to learn more about it. The purpose of this post is to share some impressions and identify a few Quaker practices that I think Wikimedia could usefully adopt.

Disclaimer! Experienced Quakers will probably find that my grasp of some practices is shaky, and I may have mischaracterized things. People who attended the workshop may remember things differently from me. And, I am going to use words like “consensus” in the non-Quaker sense, so that they’ll make sense for readers who aren’t familiar with Quakerism. My apologies for errors and misunderstandings.

Based on what I’d read, I expected the Quakers to be mostly middle-aged or older, mostly white, and really, really friendly. They were exactly that.

But I was surprised to discover also some unexpected commonalities with Wikimedians. Both speak in acronyms (WP:NPOV, meet M&O, FCL and FAP). Both are really proud of their work, and yet tend towards self-criticism rather than self-promotion. Both talk a lot, and are precise and articulate in the way they use language (the Quakers I met spoke in complex sentences, studded with caveats and parentheticals). Both resist speaking on behalf of their group. And both have a strong individualistic streak, and describe themselves as skeptical about leadership and authority.

(To that last point: On Saturday night, Quaker adults and teenagers played a game called Big Wind Blows, which is kind of like musical chairs. Everyone’s in a circle and the person in the centre, who doesn’t have a seat, calls out “Big wind blows for everybody who [has X characteristic].” Everybody without the characteristic stays in their chair; everybody with it runs around looking for a new seat. On Saturday night, the first person in the centre said something like “Big wind blows for everyone with brown hair.” Second was “everyone who’s wearing blue jeans.” Third was “everyone who’s gone to jail for a matter of conscience.” Four Quakers in the group had chosen jail rather than, say, serving in the military or paying taxes. And doing that was considered ‘normal’ enough to be fodder for a game.)

Tomorrow, once I’ve cleaned them up, I’ll post some detailed notes I took. For now though, I’ll elaborate on a few Quaker practices that I think we Wikimedians could learn from. Most of this will be applicable for face-to-face meetings (i.e., our board meetings, Wikimania, meet-ups), but there may be relevance here for on-wiki work too.

Everybody who’s part of the movement shares responsibility for helping it succeed. Nobody gets to sit on the sidelines and watch things fail.

The Quakers talk a lot about “clerking yourself,” which basically means taking personal responsibility for the group’s collective success. People are expected to behave in a disciplined fashion, including managing themselves emotionally. They’re expected to be open-minded, open to learning and changing their minds. They’re expected to pay attention and listen carefully to each other. They’re expected to avoid the temptation to get mad or show off, and to instead speak “with love rather than judgment.” They’re expected to restrain themselves from talking too much, from interrupting other people, and from repeating the same arguments again and again. Quakers are expected to be willing and able to calmly, thoughtfully, explore areas of disagreement. If they’re feeling shy or reticent or silenced, they’re expected to say that, so that other people can find ways to support them and ensure they’re heard. And if other people are behaving badly, everyone is expected to try to help them behave better.

All this, obviously, is aspirational. As someone at the workshop said, Quakers aren’t paragons, and they’re just as likely as anyone else to be childish and whiny and egotistical. But they’re expected to try really hard not to be.

Setting the right tone is critical for success.

All weekend, I was struck by the Quakers’ skill at establishing and maintaining a rich, healthy emotional tone.

The most obvious example of this is the Quakers’ use of silence. Quakers really value silence: it’s built into all of their religious meetings and their discussions, and during the weekend, we probably spent a combined total of two or three hours together in silence — sometimes for long stretches, and sometimes just for a few minutes. That does something really interesting: it makes everybody more judicious. You have time to reflect, to organize your thoughts, to calm down. You get to listen to other people, rather than using their speaking time to plan what you’ll say next. What you say is smarter and more thoughtful than it would’ve been otherwise.

That’s just one technique the Quakers use: there were lots of others. Elizabeth and Eric, who facilitated the workshop, modeled warmth and patience and respect. They thanked people, a lot. They acknowledged and welcomed the new people. They opened the meetings in a circle, with everyone holding hands.

It reminded me of something Sal Giambanco of Omidyar Network once told me – that he recommends non-profit boards kick off their meetings with a recitation of their mission statement. It’s the same kind of thing – rituals and practices designed to remind us that what we’re doing together is meaningful, so that we can approach it in a spirit of love and respect.

Sometimes you have to kick out difficult people. Maybe.

The people attending the workshop were all experienced Quakers. And it was clear from the stories they told and the questions they asked, that Quaker meetings suffer from difficult people.

This reminded me of Wikimedia. Because it didn’t seem like difficult people were necessarily over-represented inside Quakerism. Rather, it seemed like a normal number of difficult people created stress and anxiety disproportionate to their actual numbers. Elizabeth says that many clerks have shared with her stories about a single problematic member in their meeting, who wants attention or influence and takes advantage of the consensus process to grandstand and delay or block action for months or even years. Quakers call these people ‘dissenting spirits’ or ‘chronic objectors,’ and characterize them as “needing to hold themselves out of alignment with the group.” Elizabeth describes them as people who, no matter how much trust is extended to them, are unable to develop trust in others. Their disruptive presence can drive away others, and sometimes even threaten the survival of the group.

Which sounded sadly familiar to me.

Here’s what I think happens. Where other groups might unhesitatingly excommunicate a person who repeatedly broke their rules, it seems to me that the Wikimedia projects and the Quakers both tend to agonize instead, presumably because both groups pride themselves on being highly inclusive and tolerant. (Remember I said the Quakers are strongly individualistic? I suspect that, like some Wikimedians, some Quakers have a history of getting kicked out of various groups, and so they have a lot of empathy for people having that kind of difficulty.)

But even the Quakers, it seems, have their limits. As Elizabeth wrote in her book on clerking, “A healthy meeting will provide spiritual nurture for the ‘difficult’ Friend, but will understand that protecting the safety of the meeting has priority. It will not confuse ‘being loving’ or ‘being Quakerly’ with tolerating the destructive behavior of an individual, but will understand that setting firm limits is loving.”

This was probably the most uncomfortable topic that got addressed during the workshop, and it was the only time I remember when Elizabeth and Eric seemed to disagree. It’s a tough topic, both for the Quakers and Wikimedians.

I want to thank Jacob Stone and Gretta Stone, directors of the Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, as well as Elizabeth Boardman (Davis Meeting) and Eric Moon (Berkeley Meeting), facilitators of the workshop. Everybody at the workshop was enormously welcoming to Phoebe and me: we are really grateful. Seriously: it was lovely.

I’ll publish more notes –rougher, longer– probably tomorrow.

About a week ago, I started running a little survey asking Wikimedians how we should approach target-setting for the next five years.

I did it because next month Wikimedia will finalize the targets that’ll guide our work for the next five years, and I wanted to gather some quick feedback on the thinking that’s been done on that, to date.  The survey’s close to wrapping up now, and the results thus far are terrific: there appears to be good consensus on what we want to measure, as well as on our general approach.

More detail below!  But first, some general background.

In July 2009, the Wikimedia Foundation kicked off a massive strategy development project, which is starting to wrap up now. [1] The one major set of decisions that remains to be finalized is how we will measure progress towards our goals.

The draft goals, measures of success and targets that have been developed via the strategy project are here. They were created over the past several months by Wikimedia community members, Bridgespan staff, and Wikimedia Foundation staff (thank you all) – and in my opinion, they’re pretty good.  They focus on what’s important, and they do a reasonably good job of figuring out how to measure things that don’t always lend themselves to easy measurement.

Before finalizing the targets and taking them to the Wikimedia Board of Trustees for approval, I wanted to gather some additional input, so I hacked together a quick, imperfect little survey.   (You can read it –and fill it out if you want– here.) The purpose of this post is just to share the results — I will probably write more about the targets themselves later.

First some methodology: I made the survey in Google Docs, and sent identical versions to i) the Wikimedia Board, ii) the Wikimedia staff, and iii) the “foundation-l” mailing list (a public list on which anyone can talk about the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia projects), the Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board list, and the “internal-l” mailing list (a private list intended for Wikimedia chapters representatives and Wikimedia Foundation board and staff).  Then –for the purposes of this post– I aggregated together all three sets of results, which total about 120 individual responses thus far.

If I’d been more serious I’d have used LimeSurvey, which is a better survey tool than Google Docs — but this is really just meant to be a structured solicitation of input, rather than a proper quantitative study.  For one thing, the “community” results reflect only a tiny fraction of active editors — those who read English, who are on Wikimedia’s mailing lists or are connected with people who are, and who self-selected to answer the survey.  So, please resist the temptation to over-interpret whatever numbers I’ve given here.

In general, I was happy to find that the survey surfaced lots of consensus.  A comfortable majority agrees with all of the following:

  • Wikimedia’s goals should be “ambitious but possible.” (Other less-popular options were: “definitely attainable, but not necessarily easily,” “audacious and probably not attainable, but inspiring,” and “fairly easily attainable.”)
  • We agree that the purpose of setting goals is “to create a shared understanding and alignment about what we’re trying to do, publicly and with everyone.” (Other options: “to create an audacious target that everyone can get excited about and rally behind,” and “to create accountability.”)
  • In setting goals, we believe “perfection is the enemy of the good: I would rather see us using imperfect measures than no measures at all.” (About 15% of respondents felt otherwise, believing that “imperfect measures are a waste of time and energy.”)
  • The Wikimedia Foundation’s goals should be dependent on efforts by both the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikimedia community, not by the Foundation alone. (18% of respondents felt otherwise, that the targets should be “entirely within the control of the Wikimedia Foundation to influence.”)
  • If we exceed our goals, practically everyone will be “thrilled.” (About five percent of respondents felt otherwise, saying that they would be “disappointed: that would tell me our goals weren’t sufficiently challenging.”
  • If we fail to meet our goals, about three quarters of respondents will feel “fine, because goals are meant to aspire/align: if we do good work but don’t meet them, that’s okay.” Interestingly, this is one of the few areas of the survey where there was a real division between the staff of the Wikimedia Foundation and other respondents. Only 17% of staff agreed they’d be okay with missing our targets. I think this is probably good, because it suggests that the staff feel a high sense of personal responsibility for their work.
  • Almost everyone agrees that “goal-setting for the Wikimedia Foundation is difficult. We should set goals now, but many measures and targets will be provisional, and we’ll definitely need to REFINE them over the next five years, possibly radically.” (Runner-up response: “we can set good goals, measures and targets now, and we should NOT need to change them much during the next five years.” And a very small number felt that we should refrain from setting targets for “things we’re still uncertain about,” and instead restrict ourselves to areas that are “straightforward.”)
  • The global unique visitors target is felt by most to be “attainable if the staff and community work together to achieve it.” (About 20% of respondents felt the target might be “even happen without any particular intervention.”)

I wanted to get a sense of what measures people felt were most important. They’re below, in descending order of importance. (The number is the percentage of total respondents who characterized the measure as either “critical” or “important.” Other options were “somewhat important,” “not important,” and “don’t know/not sure.”)

It’s probably worth noting that consensus among community members, the board and the staff was very high.  For more than half the measures, the percentage of respondents rating the measure as “important” or “critical” varied by less than 10% among the different groups, and for the remainder, it varied by less than 20%.

Measure Avg
Retention of active editors 84
Number of active editors 83
Site performance in different geographies 80
Demographics of active editors 80
Uptime of all key services 78
Financial stability 74
Global unique visitors 66
Secure off-site copies 65
Number of articles/objects/resources 65
Regular snapshots/archives 60
Thriving research community 54
Offline reach 53
Reader-submitted quality assessments 41
Expert article assessments 40
Community-originated gadgets/tools/extensions 22

The survey’s still accepting input — if you’re interested you’ve got until roughly 7PM UTC, Wednesday August 18, to fill it out.

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[1]

I launched the Wikimedia strategy project at the request of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, and it was led by Eugene Eric Kim of Blue Oxen Associates, a consulting firm with a special focus on enabling collaborative process. Eugene worked with Philippe Beaudette, a longtime Wikipedian and online facilitator for the project, and The Bridgespan Group, a non-profit strategy consulting firm that provided data and analysis for us. The premise of the project was that the Wikimedia movement had achieved amazing things (the number five most-used site in the world! 375 million visitors monthly!), and it was now time to reflect on where we were making good progress towards fulfilling the mission, and where we weren’t. With the goal of course-correcting where we weren’t doing well.

To come up with a good plan, we wanted to stay true to our core and central premise: that open, mass collaboration is the most effective method for achieving high-quality decisionmaking. So, we designed the process to be transparent, participatory and collaborative. So, during the course of the project, more than a thousand volunteers worked together in 50+ languages — in teams and as individuals, mostly in public on the strategy wiki, but supplemented by IRC meetings, Skype calls, e-mail exchanges, and face-to-face conversations (e.g., meetings were held in Berlin, Paris, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Boston and Gdansk).

The project’s now entering its final phase, and you can see the near-final results here on the strategy wiki.  What remains to be done is the finalization of the measures of success, which will happen over the next six or so weeks. At that point, there will be some final wordsmithing, and the result will be brought to the Wikimedia Board of Trustees for approval.

I will probably write about the strategy project at a later date, because it is super-interesting. (Meanwhile, if you’re interested, you can read a little about it here in a story that Noam Cohen wrote from Wikimania 2010 in Gdansk.)

I never thought much about the Quakers [1] until I read Joseph Reagle‘s excellent new book Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia (forthcoming from MIT Press in September), in which Joseph references the Quaker consensus decisionmaking processes – and specifically, how Quakers resolve dissent.

Joseph cites the sociological study Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Society of Friends – an exploration of Quaker decisionmaking by Jesuit priest Michael J. Sheeran, who had spent two years observing and interviewing Quakers for his Princeton PhD thesis, which afterwards was published by the Quakers and is now considered a definitive guide on the subject.

Consensus decisionmaking (CDM) is a really interesting topic for Wikimedians because we make most of our decisions by consensus, and we struggle every day with CDM’s inherent limitations. It’s slow and sometimes tedious, it’s messy and vulnerable to disruption, and –most problematically– it’s got a strong built-in bias towards the status quo. CDM creates weird perverse incentives – for example, it gives a lot of power to people who say no, which can make saying no attractive for people who want to be powerful. And it can act to empower people with strong views, regardless of their legitimacy or correctness.

Beyond Majority Rule was so fascinating that it’s sent me on a bit of a Quaker reading binge, and in the past month or so I’ve read about a dozen books and pamphlets on Quaker practices.  I’ve been interested to see what values and practices the Quakers and Wikimedians share, and whether there are things the Quakers do, that we might usefully adopt.

For the most part, Quaker practices likely aren’t particularly adaptable for mass collaboration, because they don’t scale easily.  They seem best-suited to smallish groups that are able to meet frequently, face-to-face.

But some Quaker practices, I think, are relevant to Wikimedia, and we are either already using versions of them, or should consider it. The Quaker “clerk” role, I think, is very similar to our leadership roles such as board or committee chair. The Quaker decisionmaking process has strong similarities to how our board of trustees makes its decisions, and I think Quaker methods of reconciling dissent might be particularly useful for us.  (Quakers have better-codified levels of dissent and paths to resolution than we do — I think we could adopt some of this.) And the Quaker schools’ delineation of roles-and-responsibilities among board, staff and community members, could I think also be a good model for us.

I plan to write more about the Quakers in coming weeks. For now though, here’s a list of what I’ve been reading:

[1] Quakers have their roots in 17th century England. There are about 360,000 Quakers today, mainly in Africa, the Asia Pacific Region, the UK and North America. Most consider themselves Christians, although a few identify as agnostic, atheistic, or as members of non-Christian faith traditions such as Judaism or Islam. Quakers are probably best known for their belief that the word of God is still emergent rather than fully known, their silent and “unprogrammed” religious services which have no leaders, hymns or incantations, their centuries-old tradition of pacifism and social activism, and their consensus decision-making process.

Read more about the Quakers at Wikipedia.

I stumbled recently across sociologist Gary Marx‘s documentation of tactics covertly used by external parties to hurt or help social/political movements [1].

Like for example the FBI attempts to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. by painting him as a womanizer.   Or the CIA’s 1967 project Operation CHAOS, designed to monitor the student antiwar movement. Or the FBI’s attempts under COINTELPRO in the late sixties to undermine what it called “black nationalist hate groups” by inciting rivalries among them.

I’m kind of a categorization geek, so I liked Marx’s crisp table of the ways in which folks have aimed to covertly undermine the movements that they found threatening. By investigating and harassing participants, and discrediting leaders. Fomenting internal conflict: encouraging jealousy, suspicion, factionalism and personal animosity. Spreading damaging misinformation. Undermining morale and thwarting recruitment efforts. Undermining activities that generate revenue. Encouraging hostility between the movement and its potential allies and partners. Creating similar organizations that compete for resources and public mindshare. Sabotaging events and projects. And so forth.

Reading all this, I started thinking about Wikimedia, which is of course a sort of social movement. Our goal is to make information easily available for people everywhere around the world – free of commercialism, free of charge, free of bias. That’s a radical mission.

Given that, it’s interesting to look at how external entities have responded to Wikipedia’s extraordinary success – especially those who have reason (or think they might have reason) to feel threatened by it.

So for example, the media. Conventional media business models are crumbling, and media organizations are struggling to persuasively articulate their value proposition.  Some see Wikipedia as a competitor. So it doesn’t surprise me that –with a fervour that can border on the obsessive– some media talk so relentlessly about why Wikipedia can’t succeed, and make predictions about how quickly, and in what manner, it will fail.  Cultural and educational and PR organizations have less of a megaphone, but apart from that their initial responses have been pretty similar. [2]

None of that is surprising. What has surprised me though, is the other side of the balance sheet.

Marx posits a world in which detractors work against a social movement, and supporters work in favour of it.

At Wikimedia, we’ve had our share of detractors. But I’ve found myself more surprised by the other side — surprised that Wikimedia’s most articulate and passionate supporters –its core editors– don’t do more to promote its success.

Here are some of the things Marx says people can do to support social movements:

  • Work to create a favourable public image for the movement
  • Support participants and help recruit new participants
  • Help with effective communications
  • Support revenue-generating activities
  • Build and sustain participant morale
  • Build and support leaders
  • Encourage internal solidarity: support kindness, understanding, generosity and a sense of common purpose
  • Encourage external solidarity: support the development of common cause between the movement and its potential allies and partners
  • Support movement events and projects.

I want to be clear: lots of Wikimedia editors (and other supporters) do this work. We have a communications committee which is sometimes remarkably effective. The Wikimedia network of international chapters is excellent at outreach work – particularly the German chapter, which pioneered the Wikipedia Academy concept, and lots of other initiatives. Editorial and movement leadership emerges almost entirely organically at Wikimedia, and I have seen it warmly and enthusiastically supported. And we have some really terrific editors working tirelessly to develop strategic partnerships with cultural and educational institutions. So there is lots of good work being done.

But even so: sometimes when I read our mailing lists, I laugh out loud at how Wikimedians can be our own worst enemies. We subject each other to relentless scrutiny — criticizing our own leaders and supporters and activities, monitoring, speculating, worrying, and poking and prodding each other. All, frequently, in public.

I’ve been trying to figure out why we’re like this. And I think there are two main contributing factors. One is, Wikipedians are engaged first and foremost in building an encyclopedia, and knowledge workers of the encyclopedia-writing type are famously fussy, fastidious, fact-obsessed and obsessive about neutrality. So it makes sense that neutrality is a value that extends to our communications about the Wikimedia projects. We don’t want to shill for anybody, including, LOL, ourselves.

Second though is the disease of paranoia, which seems unavoidable in social movements. Anybody who’s committed themselves to working to advance a cause, particularly voluntarily –and who has only very limited control over the rest of their social movement– is vulnerable to paranoia. It makes sense: you’ve worked incredibly hard for something you care about a lot, without any expectation of reward, so of course you worry that others could destroy what you’ve accomplished.

(Lawyer and writer Bill Eddy tossed off a fascinating aside in his book High-Conflict People in Legal Disputes – to the effect that groups often instinctively elevate the most paranoid among them into leadership positions. Essentially because although hyper-paranoid leaders may often mistake innocence for evil, it can at least be assumed that they will never do the reverse. As in Michael Shermer‘s TED talk: better a false positive, than a false negative that results in being eaten by a predator.) The upshot: social movements often exist in a kind of amplified state of vigilance, which is probably occasionally useful, but equally often just wasted effort, or carries with it an opportunity cost, or is just really destructive.

Personally, I would like to see the core Wikimedia community better support itself and its own success.

[1] From Gary Marx’s chapter “External Efforts to Damage or Facilitate Social Movements: Some Patterns, Explanations, Outcomes, and Complications,” in the book The Dynamics of Social Movements, edited by M. Zald and J. McCarthy, Winthrop Publishers, 1979.

[2] I should be careful to be clear here. First, Wikimedia’s got lots of supporters — and we’ve always had strong supporters in traditional media. I don’t want conventional media to see Wikipedia as a threat and I don’t think it is a threat: I think Wikipedia’s a useful complement, part of a balanced information diet. Second, everybody’s reaction to Wikipedia has gotten warmer over time, as Wikipedia’s earned credibility. But the original systemic pressures haven’t changed: they are still what they always were.