Stu West, treasurer and vice-chair of the Wikimedia Foundation, published an interesting post about "Fundraising, chapters, and movement priorities", where he asks questions. Sebastian Moleski gives a very thoughtful and rational answer based on the idea of subsidiarity (Subsidiarity as a fundamental principle), one which I subscribe to.

There are however a few comments that come to mind while reading both posts, which I will try to bring to light here. To try and keep some clarity, I will structure this around Stu's questions. Note for those too lazy to read all the other posts (although you really should), we're talking about Wikimedia, and Wikimedia chapters (the national associations that foster free knowledge and support Wikimedia projects).

The infamous 50%: Where do we really need them?

Stu says

The issue is whether our approach to distributing funds to chapters should change along with all the other things that have changed over the past five years. Here are a few key questions I’m asking myself: Is it right that 50% of rich country donations stay in those rich countries?

Sebastian argues (with a few calculations at the top of his head) that the actual amount of donations that stay in the "rich countries" is much more than 50% of the overall money received (which, incidentally, I agree with).

But this conversation right here is a bit awkward, because it seems to me we are mixing apples and oranges. Let's try and remember where those infamous 50% come from. Actually, we don't really know where they come from, but they are the backbone of the fundraising agreement between Chapters and Foundation and have been for a few years. I'll pass on the details, but here is how it works: if 100€ are donated to a chapter, 50€ go to the Foundation, 50€ stay with the chapter. So the latter 50€ are the 50% which Stu says stay in "rich countries".

Well, since this 50% rule only applies to money raised through the chapters, what we're really talking about here are $2.15 million (50% of $4.3 million, which is the amount raised by the chapters), which, indeed do stay in "rich countries". Sebastian points out that if you actually look at the whole (donations to the Wikimedia Foundation included), much more than just 50% of the donations to Wikimedia actually stay in "rich countries". What I genuinely don't understand here, is why and how that would be wrong.

Actual figures are clear, Wikimedia spends most of its money in "rich countries", but if we're going to go that route, the amount that stays in rich countries due to chapters is actually only 7 or 8% of the total (the 2.15 million I mentioned above) 50% of 15% of the total amount of donations received by Wikimedia worldwide. Is that really insane? I personally don't think so. Also, I don't see anytime soon where the Foundation is going to spend 50% or even more than 50% of its revenue in the "Global South". It will, and should, as per the strategic plan, increase its investment there, but whether or when that amount will ever reach 50%+ of the total donations is, at least for now, and until the real need and impact are measured (as suggested by Sebastian), unlikely and/or unknown.

Now for the real question, which Sebastian hints at:

The emphasis on the Global South just started last year and there’s been, so far, no evaluation of how much impact Foundation spending in the area has actually had. We simply don’t know how much money needs to be spent on the Global South in total, or even within the coming year, to achieve the goals set out in the strategy. But if we don’t know that, how are we to decide whether 50% is enough?

How much money do we, as a movement, actually need to invest in the Global South? Stu seems to regret that money is staying in "rich countries" instead of going to the Global South,[1] but it is not clear to me what Wikimedia's investment in the Global South actually needs to be.

Whatever it needs to be, however, the next question is: are we actually short on money to invest? Is the money that stays "in rich countries" through chapters, missing anywhere else? And if that's the case, could it be an option to ask those chapters in rich countries to actually direct some money from their own programs to invest (or support the investments made by the Wikimedia Foundation) in the Global South? I have a hard time imagining that if the money is sorely needed and the programs make sense, a chapter would not consider this option.

Establish solid movement-wide financial controls

Stu asks:

How do we establish solid movement-wide financial controls to protect donor funds?

Sebastian's answer is one I would subscribe to. He points out:

My approach to „how to establish solid movement-wide financial controls“ would be to start conversations between Foundation and chapters both on a set of global minimum standards and a solid and independent reporting/enforcement structure.

The minimum standards are a must, and have been discussed in various places, not least within the development of the Wikimedia Charter started by the Movement Roles project. While the charter probably has a wider scope than just financial, it could actually contain the criteria for financial control needed to ensure our donors' money is used well.

Every time the subject comes back on the table, I can't help thinking about the International Non-Governmental Organisations Accountability Charter, which in my opinion is an excellent basis as to what we could be looking at for Wikimedia. I also started, in the frame of my work in the Chapters Committee, developing a set of chapter assessment criteria that could be used as measurement points somewhere along the line. In any case, I do believe, like Sebastian, that the standards need to be far reaching within Wikimedia, and that all Wikimedia organisations should be held up to them.

Who is ultimately responsible for stewarding donors’ contributions?

Actually, I find this to be the most interesting question of all. I find it interesting that in the past say 4 or 5 years, the question of "Shouldn't the Foundation be the one responsible to ensure transparency, financial control, and actually, complete control?" still is out there. It may be that I am old and remember a time where there was Wikipedia, and a very weak (not to say inexistant) Foundation. Because that's what history says. The Foundation was built to support Wikipedia, as were the Chapters. Wikipedia is not a product (in the generated sense) of the Foundation, nor is it a product of any Wikimedia organisation. As a matter of fact, it was there before all organisations. What I don't understand, and this is a genuine "not understand", is why in all of these conversations, I always have the impression that many Foundation affiliated people, be they staff of board, are under the impression that the money belongs to the Foundation. Does it? If yes, why?

I won't hide that for me, the elephant in the room is that the Wikimedia Foundation today acts both as an international coordinating body and a chapter. Seeing that the only existing chapter in the US is not allowed to fundraise, this makes the Foundation the national entity in the United States, and hence, a chapter by default, if not by design. Which to some extent skews the equation.

I am a strong believer that the money belongs to the projects, and that if an organisation is best placed to steward donations, it is indeed the Foundation, but not the Foundation as it exists. A truly international coordinating body would not actively fundraise in one country or another, since, if we agree with the principle of subsidiarity, a "local" organisation is best placed to do that. It might (and actually should) act as a fundraising recipient in countries where there is no organisation to apply the principle of subsidiarity, but would let local organisations fundraise where they can do it best.

I'll join Sebastian here to say that we (all Wikimedia organisations) are all responsible for stewarding donors' contributions. In a constellation where the Wikimedia Foundation is not a US chapter, but more something like a "Wikimedia International", it could then more easily steward donations and redistribute them appropriately, where needed. Each chapter (US included) would have a duty to finance operations and programs, and do so by giving X (where X could be 50%, 80% or 20% or whatever, depending on designed programs and needs) of the donations originating in their country to Wikimedia International. A truly international coordinating body would also have the necessary political power to develop a binding development strategy, which all entities in Wikimedia would follow. Whether the existing Wikimedia Foundation has that is yet to be confirmed.

I am convinced that having "Wikimedia international" in the US is a good thing for what we're doing (legal frame for hosting providers being one of the strongest points), and also convinced that the chapters should never argue about giving money to keep the projects up and advance the overall mission. But as long as the Foundation is effectively a chapter, I can understand why we're hitting the same wall again and again. After all, color me a French chauvinist, but why should the US rule the world of free knowledge and decide what's best for us all? And here, I am refering to returning intercultural problems in how to fundraise (you just don't fundraise in Germany, the UK, the Philippines, the US or India the same way), how to work on messaging (be it fundraising or overall presentation of who we are and what we are doing), how to develop organisations (should every chapter have an office? To do what?) etc. If, indeed, subsidiarity is king, then "Wikimedia International" should be empowered to make the high level strategical decisions, which local organisations would then have a duty to implement on a local level, and to fund where necessary on a global level (investments in the Global South, for example).

And what I still don't get, is that many other international organisations fundraise on a local level, see for example the WWF which claims on its international page: You can also donate to your local WWF office: they can do more with your donation! , or SOS Children's Villages which states Please select the country you live in from the list below in order to get tax advantages which could help you to give even more support to help children in need with your online donation. or again Amnesty which sends you to the local website to donate if there is one. Why couldn't we?

As a sidenote: I understand, and actually share, the concerns about newly formed chapters coming into way too much money in their first years, and this definitely is an attempt at putting together a set of guidelines which will prevent failure and ensure continuity in how chapters develop. But this is not solved by simply saying "All the money must go in one place". And since this post is already way too long, it'll do for another one.

More to read

I'll edit this section to point out posts or comments that I find interesting about this conversation


[1] by the way, I dislike the term "rich countries" almost as much as I dislike the "Global South" thing, but I have found no satisfying alternative