Board of Trustees panel at Wikimania 2013 (from left, outgoing chair Kat Walsh, Patricio Lorente, Bishakha Datta, Jan-Bart de Vreede, Jimmy Wales, Phoebe Ayers, María Sefidari, Samuel Klein, Alice Wiegand. Missing are Stu West and Ana Toni.)
This is the first post in a series where the members of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees will explore ideas, opinions and write about Wikimedia movement issues that are on their mind. Since this is the kickoff post for this series, I want to try to answer the question of how the Board functions and what it does, and how this relates to leadership in the Wikimedia movement.
What is the Board?
Before I was elected to the Board, I was a long-time Wikipedian and Wikimedia community member. As a community member I always thought that the WMF Board of Trustees was a little mysterious: what did they do, and why? How did the Board work? Would their decisions affect my work as an editor? The Board of Trustees is the final governance authority for the Wikimedia Foundation, but what does that mean? This post will try to answer some of those questions.
It’s worth starting at the beginning, with what the Board is and how it’s composed. The Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees is a ten member body, with five seats elected by community members or selected by Wikimedia chapters, four seats appointed by the existing Board members and one reserved for Wikimedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales. This is a complex arrangement, but it has benefits. Having a majority of seats elected or selected by the community increases accountability to the editing community and ensures that several trustees have direct first-hand knowledge of the projects. Reserving seats for appointed members also means that the Board can recruit expertise that it needs in governance, finance or other areas. This complex selection process also means that the Board is quite diverse. The current Board comes from eight countries (with no three of us in the same timezone). Half of us are native English speakers. We are evenly divided between men and women and have a range of ages, governance expertise and Wikimedia movement experience. All of the trustees are volunteers; in our day jobs, we work in and lead open education projects, libraries, universities, tech start-ups, nonprofits and city government. Note that this broad diversity is quite unusual for a large nonprofit; often boards of major charities are made up mainly of large donors, who have an interest in seeing their money spent well. Our board, in contrast, is directly representative of the people who use and build the Wikimedia projects.
What this means is that although the Board does not have a role in making day-to-day decisions for the projects or the Foundation — we are not involved with the kinds of policy and procedural decisions that are made every day on Wikipedia and at the Foundation — we do tend to be interested in these decisions. Individual Board members often follow and participate in community discussions, but this is not required for trustees, nor does it always mean the Board as a whole is considering an issue. One thing that is often surprising to community members as well as new trustees is how limited the Board’s involvement is in Wikimedia issues. While important trends in the projects – such as declining editorship, or successful outreach efforts – influence what direction is given to the Executive Director and how priorities are weighted for the annual plan, the Board is not involved in hands-on development of solutions. The Board also does not act as a dispute arbitrator, an editorial decision-maker for the projects, or a hands-on manager for the Foundation. This means that the Board does not take a formal position on most project, Foundation or movement issues — or even on most of the issues that individual trustees think are important, because the Board can only speak as a ten-person body.
What does the Board do?
So what does the Board do? The Board’s primary role is to hire and evaluate the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, who in turn leads the Foundation’s activities, which include providing the infrastructure for the Wikimedia projects. This means giving the director guidance and feedback throughout the year, and finding a new director as needed — for instance, in 2013 Sue has announced she is stepping down, so we are actively seeking the next director. The Board also gives high-level input in the development of the Foundation’s annual plan, which includes the budget for Foundation activities and the case for growing or shrinking different parts of the organization, and signs off on the final result, and also has formal responsibility for major financial decisions. We sign off on the formation of new chapters and Wikimedia organizations, and we give guidance and opinions on various questions as requested by WMF executives or as we see a need. We also have the responsibility for making sure the Board itself is functional — that new trustees are onboarded, that each trustee is evaluated and continues to learn and develop in their role and that we work well as a governance body.
Thus, the Board’s responsibilities are limited and the work of the Foundation is done by our excellent and capable staff and volunteers. But there is also a good deal of informal work for trustees, ranging from participating in Wikimedia community discussions, keeping up with mailing lists and reports, continuing as a project editor, travelling to community meetings, participating in workshops and events and giving interviews and speaking at outside events about Wikimedia. While trustees vary in what exactly they do, everyone does some of this outside work. And we spend a good deal of time talking to each other. Though our role is governance, the WMF board, like the rest of Wikimedia, is heavily discussion and consensus-oriented. We discuss the issues of the day over email and IRC meetings, and we meet once a quarter in person — in San Francisco at the WMF offices, at Wikimania each year, and often at a third location as well.
This brings me to the issue of leadership. The Board is engaged in the broader Wikimedia community because, as stewards of the Wikimedia Foundation, we also feel ultimate responsibility for the health of the Wikimedia projects, which are what the Foundation exists to support. Though the Board is the highest legal authority within the Wikimedia Foundation, our formal scope is deliberately narrow, as it should be for good governance and practicality. We don’t lead the development of better processes in the projects, or do the daily work of reviewing pages and welcoming new editors. We don’t lead the engineering work, and we don’t do the research that analyzes large-scale trends across the projects. What we can try to do is surface and reflect the biggest themes and most important threads coming out of all this work, recognize true threats and act appropriately, and try to take actions to ensure the long-term health and vibrancy of our beloved projects. The Board’s work may not directly influence the work of editors day-to-day, but we can try to direct Foundation and community attention to these trends and issues by speaking out or simply helping support others doing good work. But to do this well, and successfully, we need help. That includes, I believe, developing leadership everywhere in Wikimedia.
Becoming a leader within Wikimedia and the Wikimedia projects is something that many people, myself included, come to somewhat accidentally. I began as a leader in the Wikimedia movement by helping run some aspects of Wikimania, our annual international conference — something I ended up doing because I volunteered to help with a specific conference, and then I stuck around! This in turn led to my interest in Wikimedia-wide projects, and the work of the Wikimedia Foundation. Many leaders in Wikimedia who started in the community might have had an interest in governance, or, like me, perhaps in helping some part of Wikimedia’s activities get up and running more smoothly, and this in turn led to other work. But, not every area of our projects is set up to encourage contributors becoming leaders.
I believe that one of our core tasks as a movement, and something we need to focus on, is to intentionally develop leadership. That doesn’t mean giving people formal titles, or going against our general principle of non-elitism. It does mean recognition when people take on roles of leading processes or projects, and recognizing good work and good ideas. At the Foundation, we also think it means supporting individual and group projects financially through the grant process. It means encouraging professional development everywhere — teaching and learning new skills, from the particulars of non-profit governance to how to do specialized work on the projects. It also means that we must always make our tasks inclusive and make avenues of participation clear. On Wikipedia, and the other Wikimedia projects, there is an “edit” button on every page that serves as an invitation to participate. It is often not so clear in our offline projects and our meta-discussions how to begin. The reason I was able to participate in Wikimania was because a space was made open and an invitation issued, for me and others like me. Similarly, we need to put care into everything we do to make sure newcomers are welcome. The reason is simple: Wikimedia has an incredibly compelling and important vision and mission — and we need many more people to work to make it a reality.
Phoebe Ayers (user:phoebe) served a term as a chapter-selected trustee from 2010-2012, and was elected as a community-elected trustee from 2013-2015. She served as Board secretary during her first term, and is currently vice-chair of the Board. She has been editing Wikipedia for ten years.
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