To this day, there are around 30 Wikimedia Chapters. Wikimedia Chapters, for those who don't know, are national organisations which purpose is to support the Wikimedia Projects. At this point in time, they are organized along national territories. The oldest Wikimedia Chapter, Wikimedia Deutschland (Germany), of which I am a board member at the time of writing, exists since 2004. It has now an office and around 12 employees. In the constellation of Wikimedia Chapters, it is the only one with such a strong presence of staff at all. Other chapters have hired people, but no other chapter, as far as I know, has more than 3 permanent employees.

I have been observing the development of Wikimedia Chapters for a while now, and I have been thinking a lot about what the best path for professionalization (read: hiring people and setting up an office) might be. I must say that I have no exact solution to the question, but here are three ideas I've come across, and the advantages/drawbacks I see associated with them.

Let me start with a simple question that bears answering before we get into specifics:

What do chapters do?

Chapters are usually non-profits established in a given country, whose general goal is to support free knowledge and/through the Wikimedia Projects (Wikipedia et al.). Their activities vary very much country to country, but here is a list of what a chapter may do:

  • fundraising (not all chapters are in a position to do fundraising, but those who are usually offer tax-deductibility and participate one way or the other in the Wikimedia Fundraiser)
  • real-life events: chapters may support community meetings, or organize conferences on topics related to free knowledge for example
  • outreach: chapters support community members doing presentations about Wikimedia projects in all kinds of settings, they pilot programs to acquire new editors on the Wikimedia projects (students, elderly people...), they explain Wikipedia to children, teachers, librarians, companies, you name it.
  • partnerships with local institutions: chapters work hand in hand with national/regional institutions, governements, museums, like-minded organisations etc. to either broaden access to free knowledge,

These, in no particular order, are the four main focus of Wikimedia Chapters. They certainly are not exhaustive, (one could add lobbying, support quality in the Wikimedia projects, technical development of tools to better the Wikimedia projects etc.), but they are, in my opinion, the main activities that may warrant sooner or later the need for staff and an office.

All of those, in the early life of a chapter, are taken care of by volunteers. All Wikimedia chapters to this day are member organisations, and have a board elected by a General Assembly of sorts. The details of how this works are country specific, but on the whole, the existing structures are rather homogenous.

When does a chapter need to professionalize?

Huge question, as a matter of fact, since this will as always vary with how a chapter evolves, what kind of activities it fosters (often driven by what kind of members it has), what kind of financial means it has etc. To cut a long story short, my assessment would be that a chapter needs to professionalize when the load of work is too heavy to be taken care of by volunteers (who, after all, only have a haphazard - if sometimes important - amount of time). More explicitely, I would say that a chapter should professionalize when the balance between doing fun stuff or boring stuff for chapter activities tips in the direction of the boring/stressful. In short, when administrative, accounting, organizing et al. becomes so important that as a volunteer, you feel you are lsoing the connection to whatever ideal/fun stuff brought you here in the first place (in many cases within Wikimedia, this will be contributing to the projects, but it can also be "meeting people", or "organizing cool events", or "challenging your brain", whatever). So first question to ask yourself as a chapter: which direction does the fun/boring-stressful balance tip? Mind you, I am convinced that for everything fun, there must be some boring/stressful, it's part of life, but the balance should stay...well, balanced. So let's say a chapter has decided that there is stuff to be done which the volunteers can't do anymore. How are they going to tackle the professionalizing thing?

Where do we start professionalizing?

Good question. I don't think there is one answer, of course, since there are too many things to be taken into account which could favor one way over another. But in the course of Wikimedia organisational development as I have witnessed it, I end up with three different directions a Wikimedia Chapter could take. And a fourth one which would be, don't professionalize at all (don't hire anyone, don't get an office etc.), which might be the topic of another post. But let's start with the prerequisites.

Prerequisite to professionalisation

Well, that one is an easy answer of sorts.

  • First, money. Because hiring someone means that you have to pay them. And to pay them you need money. In the case of Wikimedia chapters, this money might come from incoming donations, grants (from the Wikimedia Foundation or other organisations) or any other legal way of getting money. Without money, forget about hiring anyone.
  • Second. A clear list of minimum tasks that you expect your employee to carry forward. This ties in with the following point. Without clearly defining a basic task-list of what your employee should be doing, it's going to be hard to even find anyone.
  • Third, a willing body of volunteers who will "manage". Now, managing is a broad subject. But if a chapter is going to have employees, there needs to be some kind of managing body (it can be a person alone) which is going to tell the employee what they should be doing. Mind you, noone should prevent the employees from coming up with initiatives as to what they might be doing, but you need a sense of direction.

Once you have those, there are in my opinion three possible directions a chapter could go on the way to professionalisation, these are defined by the person they might first hire. And I'll detail them in another post, because this one is just too long already.