Now that the dust has settled a bit, I would like to expand on an idea
that’s been touched on a few times (most recently, in an editorial by
William Beutler ): the notion that WMF might be a more effective
organization if it limited its own size in favor of focused spin-off
organizations and affiliates.
I was very much part of building the current WMF in terms of both size
and structure, but I also think recent events underscore the fragility
of the current model. WMF is still tiny compared with other tech
companies that operate popular websites, but it’s a vast organization
by Wikimedia movement standards. With nearly 300 staff  (beyond
even our ambitious 2015 strategic plan staffing numbers), it dwarfs
any other movement org.
I can see three potential benefits from a more federated model:
1) Resilience. If any one organization experiences a crisis, other
independent organizations suffer to a lesser degree than departments
within that organization.
2) Focus. Wikimedia’s mission is very broad, and an organization with
a clearly defined mandate is less likely to be pulled in many
different directions -- at every level.
3) Accountability. Within a less centralized federation, it is easier
to ensure that funding flows to those who do work the movement wants
them to do.
My experience is that growth tends to be self-reinforcing in budgetary
processes if there are now clear ceilings established. I think that’s
true in almost any organization. There’s always lots of work to do,
and new teams will discover new gaps and areas into which they would
like to expand. Hence, I would argue for the following:
a) To establish 150 as the provisional ceiling for Wikimedia movement
organizations. This is Dunbar’s number, and it has been used
(sometimes intentionally, sometimes organically) as a limiting number
for religious groups, military companies, corporate divisions, tax
offices, and other human endeavors.  This is very specifically
because it makes organizational units more manageable and
understandable for those who work there.
b) To slowly, gradually identify parts of the WMF which would benefit
from being spun off into independent organizations, and to launch such
spin-offs, narrowing WMF's focus in the process.
c) To aim to more clearly separate funding and evaluation
responsibilities from programmatic work within the movement -- whether
that work is keeping websites running, building software, or doing
Note that I'm not proposing a quick splintering, but rather a slow and
gradual process with lots of opportunity to course-correct.
More on these points below.
== Potential test case: MediaWiki Foundation ==
A "MediaWiki Foundation"  has been proposed a few times and I
suspect continues to have some currency within WMF. This org would not
be focused on all WMF-related development work, but specifically on
MediaWiki as software that has value to third parties. Its mission
could include hosting services as earned income (and potentially as an
extension of the Wikimedia movement’s mission).
MediaWiki is used today by numerous nonprofit and educational projects
that are aligned even with a narrow view on Wikimedia’s mission.
Examples include Appropedia, OpenWetWare, WikiEducator, W3C’s
WebPlatform, Hesperian Health Guides, and too many notable open source
projects to list.
Among commercial users, it has lost much ground to other software like
Confluence, but it remains, in my view, the most viable platform for
large, open, collaborative communities. Yet it’s a poorly supported
option: many of the above wikis are outdated, and maintaining a
MediaWiki install is generally more work than it needs to be.
Building a healthy third party ecosystem will have obvious benefits
for the world, and for existing Wikimedia work as well. It may also
create a proving ground for experimental technology.
Which work that WMF is currently doing would be part of an MWF’s
mandate? I don’t know; I could imagine that it could include aspects
like Vagrant, or even shared responsibility for MediaWiki core and
== The Wiki Education Foundation precedent ==
It’s worth noting that this spin-off model has been tried once before.
The Wiki Education Foundation is an example of an organization that
was created by volunteers doing work in this programmatic space in
partnership with staff of the Education Program at WMF, who left to
join the new org. It is now financially independent, building its own
relationships with funders that WMF has never worked with, and
achieving impact at unprecedented scale.
LiAnna Davis, who is today the Director of Program Support at Wiki Ed,
wrote a detailed response to William’s blog post, which I think is
worth quoting in full :
I worked for the WMF for nearly four years and have worked for the
spun-off Wiki Education Foundation for the last two, and I strongly
support the idea of spinning off more parts of WMF into independent
nonprofits like ours.
As you noted, Wiki Ed is a test case for your proposal, so for readers
who don’t know our history: We started in 2010 as a pilot program
(called the Public Policy Initiative) within WMF, funded by a
restricted grant, to support university professors in the U.S. who
wanted to assign their students to edit Wikipedia as a class
assignment. The pilot showed the idea was successful, and so we
started piloting it in countries as part of the Catalyst project (Arab
World, Brazil, and India).
The U.S. program had lingered at WMF without any real organizational
support because the U.S. wasn’t a target region. WMF leadership saw
its potential, however, and formed a volunteer Working Group of
Wikipedians and academics who created the structure of the
organization that became the Wiki Education Foundation in 2013. WMF
gave us a small start-up grant to get us going, and provided fiscal
sponsorship for us until our 501(c)3 status came through (and we could
fundraise on our own).
Today, we’re an independent organization, not funded by WMF, and we’ve
scaled the impact of our programs incredibly. We’re supporting three
times as many students, we’ve developed our own technology to support
our programmatic work, and our students are busy addressing content
gaps in academic areas on Wikipedia.
So why are we so successful? There are a lot of factors, but there’s
one I want to highlight here, because I think it’s a clear difference
between when we were at WMF and our current work at Wiki Ed. We have
one, very clear mission: We create mutually beneficial ties between
Wikipedia and academia in the U.S. and Canada.
The WMF mission is inspiring — but it’s really broad, just like our
movement is. When we were doing this same project at WMF, I’d struggle
to just focus on the Education Program and ignore the rest of the
mission. Whenever I interacted with people outside the foundation (and
I did so a lot), people would come to me with ideas to further WMF’s
mission that weren’t in my program’s boundaries. I’d spend time trying
to help, because I believed in the mission and wanted to help it
along. I’m not the only one: I would see this idealism and commitment
to the mission repeatedly among my colleagues at WMF. I still see it
from the current WMF staff. They’re all there because they believe in
the mission. They want to help, and it’s really hard to not try to
help with everything, because you can see so many different facets of
helping that mission.
Essentially, with a mission as broad as WMF’s, it’s hard for staff to
keep a narrow focus. *Everything* can seem mission-related. When your
mission is as narrow as Wiki Ed’s, it’s easier to find your focus and
keep your attention on developing one area well. This is a key
strength of independent organizations — independent, narrower missions
keep staff focused and more productive on achieving their small part
of the overall Wikimedia mission.
I strongly support more discussion about spinning off other parts of
WMF into independent organizations.
== A "Movement Association"? ==
A more radical suggestion would be to spin off work on grantmaking and
evaluation. This isn’t trivial -- there are legitimate arguments to
keep this work close to other community-facing work WMF is doing. But
there are undeniable benefits in greater separation.
When it comes to large annual plan grants, much has been done to
ensure that the FDC can operate as an independent body and evaluate
each plan on its merits. Ultimately, however, the decision rests with
the WMF, which has a much better understanding of its own programs
(through the direct relationship with its ED) than of those of
Similarly, while WMF has done a fair bit to provide self-service
evaluation tools to the movement at large, it’s not clear that its
work is always held to the same standard as everyone else’s. A WMF
grantee must very publicly report results and success metrics; WMF
attempts to do so as a matter of course, but it is not accountable to
another organization for failing to do so.
Finally, as was discussed here a lot in recent weeks, WMF itself has
no clear accountability to the movement. The Board elections are
advisory in nature. There is no membership. Non-elected seats are
filled by the Board with little visibility. There is a semi-permanent
If grantmaking and evaluation responsibilities were increasingly
shifted to a "Wikimedia Movement Association", this could gradually
allow for true accountability to the movement in the form of
membership and democratic, movement-wide decisions to make funding
allocations on the basis of evaluation reports (through committees or
This may also make the endowment a more compelling proposition than it
is today. Yes, keeping Wikimedia’s sites operational indefinitely is a
very worthwhile goal. But what if the endowment ultimately also helped
to support global, federated work towards Wikimedia’s vision? What if
all affiliates -- indeed the whole movement -- were excited and
motivated to help grow it?
== Where to go from here? ==
There are lots of open questions in all of this. Should all site-wide
fundraising remain inside WMF, for example, with funds being
transferred to a movement entity? What’s the dividing line between
"development for third parties" (MWF) and "development for Wikimedia"
(WMF)? How would staff transition to new organizations? Where should
those organizations be based? Should they be distributed, have
An important thing to remember here (a lesson I’ve had to learn
painfully) is that big changes are best made in small steps, with room
for trial and error.
Implementing this strategy is, I think, a matter of first committing
to it as an idea, and then creating coherent proposals for each step,
publicly with broad input. First, if there is support for the general
idea, I would recommend kicking it around: Are these the right kinds
of spin-offs? What are the risks and how should existing affiliates be
involved in the process? And so on.
The fact that WMF has just experienced a major organizational crisis
should not itself fill us with pessimism and despair. But we also
shouldn’t ignore it. We must learn from it and do what reason tells us
-- and in my view that is to build a more resilient _federation_ of
organizations than what we have today.
== Notes ==
 Our branding is confusing beyond repair. I don't think there's an
easy fix here, and we should just embrace our nutty nomenclature
(Wikimedia/MediaWiki/Wikipedia) at this point.
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