Grants and transparency: Wikimedia Foundation should follow standards it sets

Former Wikimedia ED Sue Gardner (right) championed strong views about restricted grants and transparency. Have those values survived into the era of Lila Tretikov (left)? Photo by Victor Grigas, licensed CC BY-SA

Former Wikimedia ED Sue Gardner (right) championed strong views about restricted grants and transparency. Have those values survived into the era of Lila Tretikov (left)? Photo by Victor Grigas, licensed CC BY-SA

I wrote and edited a number of grant proposals and reports on behalf of the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) from 2009 to 2011. In that role, I participated in a number of staff discussions around restricted grants, and transparency in the grant process. I was continually impressed by the dedication to transparency and alignment to mission and strategy.

As of 2015, however, the four people most strongly associated with those efforts at WMF have all left the organization; and I am concerned that the diligence and dedication I experienced may have left the organization along with them. Yesterday’s announcement of a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation increases my concern. That grant is apparently restricted to activities that are not explicitly established in any strategy document I’ve seen. It is also not specifically identified as a restricted grant.

In the WMF’s 2015-16 Annual Plan (which was open for public comment for five days in May), this phrase stood out:

Restricted amounts do not appear in this plan. As per the Gift Policy, restricted gifts above $100K are approved on a case-by-case basis by the WMF Board.

There does not appear to be any companion document (or blog posts, press releases, etc.) covering restricted grants.

When I worked for WMF, four people senior to me maintained strong positions about the ethics and mission-alignment relating to restricted grants:

  • Sue Gardner, Executive Director
  • Erik Möller, Deputy Director
  • Frank Schulenburg, Head of Public Outreach
  • Sara Crouse, Head of Partnerships and Foundation Relations

They strongly advocated against accepting restricted grants (primarily Gardner), and for publishing substantial portions of grant applications and reports (primarily Möller). At the time, although we worked to abide by those principles, we did not operate under any formal or even semi-formalized policy or process. [UPDATE Jan. 28: I am reminded that Gardner did in fact articulate a WMF policy on the topic in October 2011. Thanks MZMcBride.] I am proud of the work we did around restricted grants, and I benefited greatly in my understanding of how organizational needs intersect with community values. These principles influenced many activities over many years; in public meeting minutes from 2009, for instance, Gardner articulated a spending area (data centers) that would be appropriate for restricted grants.

Today, however, none of us still works for Wikimedia (though Gardner retains an unpaid position as Special Advisor to the Board Chair).

In the time since I left, there has been very little information published about restricted grants. The English Wikipedia article about the Wikimedia Foundation reflects this: it mentions a few grants, but if I’m not mistaken, the most recent restricted grants mentioned are from 2009.

Restricted grants can play a significant role in how an organization adheres to its mission. Last year, Gardner blogged about this, advocating against their use. While her observations are valuable and well worth consideration, I would not suggest her view settles the issue — restricted grants can be beneficial in many cases. But irrespective of her ultimate conclusion, her post does a good job of identifying important considerations related to restricted grants.

The principles of Open Philanthropy, an idea pioneered by Mozilla Foundation executive director Mark Surman, and long championed by Wikimedia Advisory Board member Wayne Mackintosh, align strongly with Wikimedia’s values. The Open Philanthropy doctrine emphasizes (among other things) publishing grant applications and reports and inviting scrutiny and debate.

In its grant-giving capacity, the Wikimedia Foundation appears to practice Open Philanthropy (though it doesn’t explicitly use the term). It has published principles for funds dissemination:

  • Protect the core
  • Assess impact
  • Promote transparency and stability
  • Support decentralized activity
  • Promote responsibility and accountability
  • Be collaborative and open

Those principles are not mere words, but are incorporated into the organization’s grant-giving activities. For example, the WMF’s Annual Plan program, which funds chapters and affiliates, requires applicants to submit proposals for public review for 30 days, and to make public reports on past grants. The Project and Event Grants program also requires open proposals and open reports.

But the Wikimedia Foundation appears to still lack any clear standard for transparency of the restricted grants it receives. (There is less urgency for openness in the case of unrestricted grants, which by definition do not obligate the recipient to shift its operational priorities. But conditions are sometimes attached to unrestricted or restricted grants, such as the appointment of a Trustee; these should be clearly disclosed as well.) The WMF Gift Policy merely asserts that “Restricted gifts [of $100k+] may be accepted for particular purposes or projects, as specified by the Foundation [and with Board approval].”

Addendum: I have been reminded that in November 2015, the Wikimedia Foundation’s Funds Dissemination Committee — which advises the Board of Trustees on the Annual Plan Grants mentioned above, but has no formal authority over the WMF itself — voiced strong criticism of the Wikimedia Foundation’s lack of adherence to the standards it requires of affiliates. The critique is well worth reading in full, but this sentence captures its spirit:

The FDC is appalled by the closed way that the WMF has undertaken both strategic and annual planning, and the WMF’s approach to budget transparency (or lack thereof).

In December 2015, the Wikimedia Board of Trustees removed one of its own members, Dr. James Heilman — one of the three Trustees selected by community vote. Though the full story of behind this action has not emerged, Dr. Heilman has maintained that his efforts to increase the organization’s transparency were met with resistance.

What can the WMF’s current practices around restricted grants, and grants with conditions attached, tell us about its commitment to transparency? Can, and should, its transparency around grants be improved? I believe there is much room for improvement. The easiest and most sensible standard, I believe, would be for the WMF to adopt the same transparency standards in the grants it pursues, as it requires of the people and organizations it funds.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here: wikistrategies.net/pete-forsyth
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