A story of success, and its curse

(TL;DR: Wikimedia UK has had many successes throughout the last four years, but it has moved too fast and this has caused problems. We need to stop and think. To give ourselves time to do that, we need to rewrite the 2013 Activity Plan so we’re not doing too much.)

Wikimedia UK celebrates its fourth birthday in about a month and a half. For all of us involved, they have been an exhausting four years, but they have been an immensely successful four years as well. Born out of the remains of the only Wikimedia chapter to date to disband as a failure, Wikimedia UK quickly developed a habit of success stories. In its first year, it formed a partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum and participated in Wikipedia Loves Art, a joint British-American initiative to photograph hundreds of museum exhibits.

Early in its second year, it participated in its first fundraiser, raising nearly £100,000, providing the financial security to hire its first member of staff on a temporary, part-time basis. It built on its success with the V&A with Britain Loves Wikipedia involving museums from across the country. It also supported the first ever Wikipedian-in-residence at the British Museum, a model which has been embraced by the global Wikimedia family with dozens of similar partnerships around the world. It expanded beyond museums, hosting two conferences, an international summit and various 10th birthday celebrations. It also developed a very successful relationship with the British media with the 10th birthday involving more positive news coverage than the Wikimedia movement had ever seen in the UK before.

Our third year began with an even more successful fundraiser, raising over half a million pounds. This allowed the chapter to begin planning a larger, permanent staff team, with an Office Manager and Chief Executive working full-time for the chapter by the end of the year. The year involved more excellent press work, with Wikimedia UK playing a pivotal role in communicating the reasons behind the SOPA blackout to the world while our American friends were still tucked up in bed. We also made serious inroads into educational outreach, with the first Campus Ambassadors training, and continued developing partnerships with museums, libraries, archives and galleries.

This year, our fourth, has also had many success stories: another amazing fundraiser, this time raising a projected one million pounds; another three permanent members of staff and two interns; and Monmouthpedia being voted the “coolest project” of any Wikimedia chapter by our fellow chapters. But, this year has also seen some of our darkest moments as a chapter. We’ve had our chair forced to step down after being banned from Wikipedia, resulting in the most serious negative press coverage the chapter has received to date. We’ve had another board member resign over accusations of improper handling of conflicts of interest. Private conversations I had with board members, staff and volunteers (who will all, of course, remain nameless) have revealed growing discontent and discord within the chapter. None of this, however, is surprising.

Wikimedia UK has grown so large and successful so quickly that it is, inevitably, experiencing growing pains. This is the curse of our success. We have got ahead of ourselves and, while our projects have largely been very successful, we have tried to do too much. We have grown tall without establishing the necessary foundations, which has made us unstable. The board is still getting used to working with staff and the staff are still getting used to working as part of a unique community. We have success story after success story, but they are too often successes put together at the last minute and, once complete, we pat ourselves on the back and then start working on the next success because suddenly it is the last minute there as well. Too much happens without proper thought and oversight, which has resulted in serious mistakes being made.

We began putting together a five year plan back in March, but after some interesting discussions, lots of healthy disagreement and debate and several redrafts, the whole thing stalled with no progress since July because everyone is too busy with this year’s activities. A 2013 Activity Plan and budget is being finalised, but it has jumped from an initial brainstorming session (with lots of very interesting ideas being proposed) to a final plan with very little development in between. This has resulted in a plan that is insufficiently detailed, poorly thought out and will inevitably lead to the same kind of problems next year as this year’s insufficiently detailed and poorly thought out plan led to this year (a lot of the tension between the staff and board has resulted from no-one really knowing what the chapter is supposed to be spending its money on).

I urge the board, staff and volunteers to stop for a minute. Let’s not try and apportion blame for us being in the position we are now in – this was inevitable. We do, however, need to give ourselves the time to think about where we are and where we are going otherwise everything will spiral out of control. Let’s slap a big {{hang on}} tag at the top of the 2013 Activity Plan. The deadline for submitting plans to the FDC is only a week away, but let’s not worry about that. We can request an extension, or negotiate an alternative arrangement with the WMF – they’ll understand. We can’t allow this deadline to force us into making a big mistake. We need a new plan: one that is detailed and thorough, but also one that doesn’t try to do too much. Time to stop and think doesn’t just happen – we need to schedule it. If we’re going to do that, we need to make sure we don’t have hundreds of other things we need to do. It will be hard, but it’s time to pick up the red pen and start crossing things out.

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  1. #1 by Jan-Bart de Vreede on September 23, 2012 - 7:02 pm

    Hi Thomas,

    Thank you for a thoughtful message. Although do not have enough information to agree or disagree with your proposal I do wish to point out that there is a second FDC slot for proposals, for which the deadline is the 1st of March.

    If the UK chapter needs to “take some time” and reorganize, it would seem logical to go for that slot. I am not sure how many operational reserves there are, but this might be an option.

    I do know that the FDC has a physical meeting at the end of October, and missing the October 1st deadline is likely to cause a lot of complications in their schedule.

    But as you say, there might be other options.

    And the disclaimer: Any views expressed in this email are purely my own and do not represent the views of the Wikimedia Foundation or the FDC.


  2. #2 by Tango on September 23, 2012 - 7:17 pm

    Thank you for your comment, Jan-Bart. I’m not sure that is really an option, though – while WMUK does have reserves, I don’t think it would be responsible to deplete them so heavily with the the kind of uncertainty that being in the second round would bring.

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