[Foundation-l] Programs & how to pay for them (was: A modest proposal: ads on wikipedia.com)

Erik Moeller erik at wikimedia.org
Mon Apr 23 04:34:01 UTC 2007

On 4/23/07, Kat Walsh <kat at mindspillage.org> wrote:
> This sounds very strange to me coming from you, possibly the last
> person save Jimbo I would think would have difficulty thinking of
> things WMF could do with lots of money.

:-) Indeed not. But thinking about the activities we want to pursue
helps us to identify the strategies that we can use to resource them
-- which, in turn, might reveal that choosing a controversial option
over less controversial ones is neither wise nor necessary. Let me
incorporate the ideas you listed into a broad spectrum of large scale
initiatives, and then let's try to assess the resourcing strategies
and the risks associated with each.

On the broad "keep on running" front, I think we are doing fine -- our
current revenues (both projected and real) indicate that we will be
able to expand operational staff & keep up with web site traffic. One
can always use spare capacities, of course. But let's think about some
of the bigger ideas:

== 1) The Copyright Liberators ==

OUTCOME: Acquiring copyrighted materials that would be useful to our
projects (see [[m:copyright wishlist]] on meta which followed Jimmy's
$100M brainstorming question).

HOW TO GET THE MONEY: This seems like a task ideally suited for an
organization exclusively dedicated to it, rather than WMF. I'm only
aware of a few disjointed efforts by individuals in this direction
right now. I could imagine some billionaire philanthropist might be
willing to endow such an effort. Grants for liberation would be
difficult, but a [[Blender (software)]]-style fundraiser for the
community-driven liberation of specific works might be doable (WMF
could potentially direct some broad attention to such an effort).

RISKS: You can essentially sink infinite amounts of money into this
that might be better spent elsewhere. My key question would be whether
we could not benefit much more if we invested much smaller amounts of
money in a joined copyright reform strategy, together with various
other organizations of the broadly defined "Free Culture" movement.

MY CONCLUSION: I'd support allocating some funds to develop a good
software platform for this and then spin it off into a separate
organization that partners with ours. I'm also interested in
sustainable resourcing strategies that do not require spending
incoming revenue that is needed elsewhere.

== 2) One Encyclopedia For Everyone ==

OUTCOME: Massively distribute Wikipedia and other wiki content. Use
anything that works: locally installed servers, DVDs, mobile phones,
cheap newsprint copies, $100 laptops.

HOW TO GET THE MONEY: The One Laptop Per Child project seems to
succeed reasonably well in convincing at least some governments to buy
into their program; where they do, we ought to partner with them
(including a joined funding strategy), where they do not, we should
investigate other distribution & funding models. International
agencies like UNESCO could at least help in allocating resources, if
not provide them directly.

RISKS: The more we publish/distribute, the greater our risk of being
held liable for various problems with the content. More systematic
quality improvements seem like an absolute requirement before going
far beyond our current DVD plans (where third parties typically
deflect some risks).

A very broad, indiscriminate approach seems likely to be quite
wasteful and not necessarily very sustainable, no matter what the
source of revenue. It is also not clear that the current content in
Wikimedia is all that useful in countries where there are fundamental
problems such as literacy, water sanitation, electricity, HIV/AIDS,
war/conflict, incompetence and corruption, etc.

MY CONCLUSION: As desirable as it may be to achieve short term
impacts, I prefer a strategy of long term capacity building, starting
where we can make the most realistic immediate difference. I believe
our efforts ought to be coordinated with those of aid agencies, should
be driven by real world demands (a ministry/institution/group
indicates a need for particular educational resources), but also
promote local participation. The "Learning4Content" initiative pursued
by WikiEducator is also a very interesting approach:

== 3) The miracle of technology ==

OUTCOME: Massive improvements to all elements of collaboration
technology, from the wiki core to the supporting open source toolset
around it. Whether it's WYSIWYG, advanced quality annotation, citation
tracking, offline editing and syncing, real-time collaboration, RSS
everywhere, or anything else you can dream up, someone will build it.

HOW TO GET THE MONEY: My experience indicates that this will be
surprisingly easy, especially if we devote manpower specifically to
the task of pursuing grants & managing projects. MediaWiki is becoming
the standard wiki engine, and interest from organizations /
corporations is generally huge. See my recent reports on the meeting
in Vancouver & the creation of the MediaWiki NG list, which are first
steps to coordinate these activities.

An open question is whether WMF is suited to lead this process --
right now, it clearly is not ready to assume a leadership role, but my
hope is that we can build the capacity to do so with relatively small

Beyond specific interest holders in MW, one should not forget the role
other large open source organizations & projects can play: Mozilla,
KDE, GNOME, Ubuntu, all have a clear interest in improving open source
collaboration & education tools. I've promoted internally the idea of
a cross-organizational workgroup around this; unfortunately due to
Florence's flight troubles we could not really discuss it at the March
meeting (we only effectively had one day of Board meeting time). :-( I
hope we can devote some brainstorming to this at the next meeting &
press forward with it rapidly.

RISKS: I'm not very objective here as I'm quite technology-biased, but
I really find it hard to see risks with many small steps being taken
in parallel & funded by multiple organizations. What we have to get
away from is the situation we have right now, where most of these
efforts happen in parallel with plenty of overlap & little
coordination. One also has to be concerned about the effects
large-scale initiatives have on the motivations of volunteer hackers.
I don't much like "bounty" models where you have competing
implementations for a certain reward, and I think one should hire from
the pool of existing talent whenever possible.

After much consideration, I consider any rewrite-from-scratch effort
to be ill-advised; the risk here is simply too high as we play catch
up with ongoing development work while trying to keep a clean
migration path.

MY CONCLUSION: Full steam ahead! ;-)

== 4) March through the institutions ==

OUTCOME: Wikimedians speak regularly and internationally at schools,
universities, libraries and other institutions, educating the world
about the use of our projects, risks, benefits, and so forth.

HOW TO GET THE MONEY: Much of this can be volunteer or quasi-volunteer
activity, ideally involving both chapter-level and cross-chapter
coordination (see my "Wikimedia Outreach" proposal for the idea of
building a community of interests around this). By quasi-volunteer, I
mean that many institutions can cover at least travel costs or small
honorariums for people to give such talks.

I'm convinced you could also get significant grant money for this,
both on a small and a large scale, but this process needs to grow
gradually on a chapter-level with small pilot projects.

RISKS: Each chapter needs to build a database of volunteers it can
trust, and needs to communicate clearly to institutions what that
level of trust is ("We've not worked with this person before" etc.).
You'll always win some & lose some -- some people are simply going to
be poor communicators. Do good monitoring & evaluation (this also
costs money and needs to be part of any funding proposal).

Without clear guidelines for the volunteers, there's also a risk that
people will make all kinds of deals with institutions on their own
which they do not have authority to pursue. Moreover, without good
information sharing, you'll re-learn lots of lessons again and again.

MY CONCLUSION: Do it, but the WMF has more of an information hub role
if any -- the chapters play the key function. That doesn't mean they
cannot get funded by WMF for it (and this is where many sources of
revenue could be useful), but ideally the chapters should build the
capacity to develop sustainable strategies of their own. Sustainable
long term funding is most likely to come from countries you're doing
this in, unless you're talking about the developing world.

== 5) Gather round the wiki campfires ==

OUTCOME: Besides one large international meeting, camps & events of
various types are organized around the globe.

HOW TO GET THE MONEY: Any event beyond a certain scale should be
sustained by sponsorships whenever possible. Pumping WMF money into it
also works, but I'd rather invest it in capacity building for event
planning. That doesn't have to be a lot of cash - $50-$100K well spent
on a few skilled and motivated organizers around the planet who just
need some part-time remuneration might already get a lot of things

RISKS: Events can easily become disasters if the planning is screwed
up -- screw-ups which would inevitably taint the reputation of WMF and
its chapters among sponsors and volunteers alike. You can't build
these capacities simply by throwing lots of money at them at once.

We also need to be careful how these events are timed & what role they
play in our general events strategy. Where do Board members have to
go, where do chapter reps, where do we have retreats, Advisory Board
meetings, and so forth? We can easily shoot ourselves in the foot if
we try to do too many super-great events in too short a timeframe.

Finally, Wikimania itself is a huge challenge, and we cannot say that
we have mastered the process of organizing it each year yet.

MY CONCLUSION: Besides Wikimania, work with chapters to develop a few
focused events like the "Wikipedia Academy" or maybe a summer camp for
young people. Develop an events strategy around Wikimania for national
events. Move carefully.

== 6) Citizens, take back your media! ==

OUTCOME: "Citizen Media Centers" exist in major cities. These provide
the resources (computers, equipment, teachers/guides) for all kinds of
volunteer media activities, with a strong focus on Wikimedia projects.

HOW TO GET THE MONEY: I've come to the conclusion that it would be
smart to expand existing chapters around this idea. They will all need
physical spaces sooner or later, and they are ideally positioned to
attract interns, students, and others who will do great work for free
or for little money. This is the kind of project foundations,
governments, EU, etc., love to fund, so if you have a proper plan for
it, resourcing it is not going to be very difficult -- and will build
both your chapter capacities and your network of volunteers at the
same time.

RISKS: You don't want to become an Internet cafe, so you have to start
with some pilot programs first to figure out sensible guidelines for
running these things: how do volunteers get access, what kind of
activities are permissible, what equipment is provided and under which
policies, and so forth. Volunteer activism does not necessarily lend
itself to "neutral points of view", so you need to be careful about
legal risks & political implications. Without proper management, you
have risk of theft and misuse of resources. A chapter needs to be
sustainable and have project management experience before it can do

MY CONCLUSION: Do a couple pilots ASAP - but needs proper planning.
More on that in separate email.

== 7) Bootstrap chapters ==

OUTCOME: Wikimedia chapters everywhere.

HOW TO GET THE MONEY: Difficult - few would pay for "setting up
organizations". Easier if it is tied to activities as described in 6).
Here you could definitely use a lot of unrestricted money from generic
revenue sources.

RISKS: So far, our chapters were the result of volunteer action from
people who were already passionate about our projects. Attract people
by dangling dollar notes in front of their eyes, and you will get the
wrong kind of person to run a chapter: someone who only wants a new
career opportunity. Without existing interest & capacity, it seems
almost prohibitively risky to "push" a chapter into a country.

That said, lots of existing chapters could do with more resources;
this is definitely an area where WMF could use some more money to help

MY CONCLUSION: For new chapters, it might be wiser to tie such efforts
to general outreach programs -- first organize speeches, events,
volunteer programs, content development initiatives, and so forth in a
country, then sieve the participants for those who you think might
become chapter leaders. I don't see lots of money as very helpful

For existing chapters, I'd love to see offices & staff. The most
realistic path I see to achieving this is 6) - the notion of turning
chapters into centers of volunteer or quasi-volunteer activity.
Admittedly, having $100M/year in ad revenue would allow much faster
development of international chapter infrastructure. Whether that
approach is conducive to building sustainable, independent
organizations is another question.

== 8) We don't need no steenkin' volunteers ==

OUTCOME: Lots of people get paid to write or translate content for
Wikimedia projects.

HOW TO GET THE MONEY: Ask MyWikiBiz. ;-) In seriousness, many
institutions and even businesses would be happy to fund neutral,
well-referenced articles about their fields of activity; you could get
some grants for this as well, especially for topics like open textbook
development, which are pretty hot right now.

RISKS: Obvious NPOV, volunteerism issues. If done by WMF, puts it in a
much more active position with regard to project content, which may
put it in greater legal danger than it already is. Possibly safer to
be done by chapters or a separate organization.

MY CONCLUSION:  I think we need to experiment carefully with paid
content creation, specifically in gap areas & languages. I think an
organizational & policy framework that avoids many of the key problems
can be found, and there's tremendous potential for funding from
interested organizations (but again, one needs to be very careful what
"interested" means here). I'd like some legal analysis on how this
could be best positioned organizationally.

== 9) Don't sweat the small stuff ==

Some responses to Kat's specific suggestions:

*sponsoring student research on Wikimedia projects and conference fees

Maybe -- but I think we can do a lot by simply coordinating the
existing efforts more systematically. Research interest is already

*locating and scanning old PD materials

Sounds like something that can be ideally done by interns, students,
and volunteers if provided with a physical space & equipment to do it.

*buying subscriptions to databases for community members to use for sources

Many community members already have such subscriptions; I started
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Shared_resources a while ago,
but something like this may need a bit more continued coordination.

*placing advertisements in subject-specific publications and sites to
attract volunteers who know about areas where we don't have enough

Sure - but you can get a lot of free PR if you talk to the right
people. Wikipedia is a media darling. One problem is that there is
simply no large community of volunteers specifically dedicated to
outreach efforts. Is it possible to build such a community? I think so
- spreadfirefox.com was pretty successful for a while, though they
seem to have lost some of their enthusiasm (perhaps because of their

There are plenty of small technical projects we could contract out,
and I hope a future CTO will do so; just spending $100K on 20 $5K
projects could give you plenty of innovative little extensions &
features. But see above on tech innovation.

== 10) Do we need advertising?  ==

Based on just the above few initiatives, I see no compelling argument
why we need to rake in millions from advertising revenue and
potentially divide our community (or confuse readers and potential
authors). Most of the initiatives that we might want to pursue can be
resourced elsewhere. WMF through its broad scope and its charitable
mission has huge potential for interest from governments, grant-giving
organizations, educational institutions, individual philanthropists,
and so forth. We haven't even begun to tap this potential.

Granted, having a secure source of revenue like this is tempting. At
the same time, pouring tons of money into an organization that has
growing pains as it is, is unlikely to help much. Our revenue needs to
grow with our wisdom and capacity to spend it. I can see WMF and its
chapters together spending billions of dollars years down the line,
but let's take carefully considered steps to get there. Advertising
may or may not play a role as part of future revenue streams
eventually; currently I see no need for it whatsoever.

That said, if anyone _wants_ to give us a billion dollars to spend
right now, I'm sure we can think of something. ;-)
Peace & Love,

DISCLAIMER: This message does not represent an official position of
the Wikimedia Foundation or its Board of Trustees.

"An old, rigid civilization is reluctantly dying. Something new, open,
free and exciting is waking up." -- Ming the Mechanic

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