Wikimedia Foundation/Feb 2010 Letter to the Board

(See also an earlier draft and the discussion that helped shape this letter.)

Strategy Memo to the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees
From Sue Gardner and the Strategy Project team
January 25, 2010 for February 5, 2010 Board meeting

Background on the strategy development efforts

In July 2009, the Wikimedia Foundation launched its first-ever strategy development project, designed to result in a five-year strategic plan for the Wikimedia movement. From the outset, we believed that an open and participatory process would result in a smarter, more effective strategy. So, just as Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit, we wanted the strategy project to invite participation from anyone who wanted to help. To that end, we designed a process intended to encourage broad participation.

To date, the project has received over 700 proposals from people inside and outside the Wikimedia movement. Overall, over 800 people have made edits on the strategy wiki, which now includes over 2,000 pages of research and other data, analysis, stories, interviews, debates and discussions with over 54,000 edits. (for trends, see Strategy Wiki Stats) We've set up 14 task forces focused on key strategic issues. We've interviewed 65 people, including Board and Advisory Board members, staff, editors, onlookers, critics, supporters, and external subject-matter-experts (to read interview notes, see Strategy Wiki Interviews). Strategic recommendations made by the task forces can be reviewed at Strategy Wiki TF Recommendations where they continue to be updated and refined.

At this point, we have completed phase one "Level Setting" (building the project framework, inviting participation, and developing an overview data collection) and phase two "Deep Dives" (in-depth research and analysis, expert interviews, and task force deliberations). We are now in the third of five phases: "Strategy Synthesis." And so, this memo and the accompanying background report (Board Meeting Pre-Read) represent a synthesis of the work done to date across all sources.

  • The purpose of this memo is to describe what we now believe the Wikimedia Foundation's five-year strategic plan will look like. This is the beginning of the business plan itself: to be elaborated upon and refined over the next several months.
  • The purpose of the background report attached in the Board package is to provide support and rationale for the memo. Most facts and analysis have been presented in the background report, in order to make the memo as readable as possible.

An important caveat: this material is not intended to reflect a movement-wide strategy, nor is it intended to provide direction for movement players such as Wikimedia chapters or editors. It is focused solely on strategy for the Wikimedia Foundation. However, we consider it generally consistent with deliberations on the strategy wiki, and likely to be relatively uncontroversial.

The objective for the discussion at the Board meeting is to discuss and seek guidance on the recommended priorities for the Wikimedia Foundation, so that the Foundation staff and project team can begin to develop the business plan and 2010-11 annual plan using the recommended priorities as a guiding strategic direction.

Assumptions and Guiding Principles

  • All work of the Wikimedia movement is focused towards the fulfillment of our vision: a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.
  • Wikimedia is and will remain a decentralized movement with formal and informal leadership and support roles shared among different groups including readers, editors, other volunteers, the Wikimedia Foundation, advisers, supporters and like-minded organizations.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation’s role is to protect and support perpetual accessibility of the core assets of Wikimedia for the global public good and to invest selectively in areas that support the fulfillment of the vision.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation sets priorities based on potential impact, and fit with goals. Wikipedia currently achieves by far the greatest impact of the Wikimedia projects, and a proportional amount of Wikimedia Foundation resources are dedicated to supporting it.
  • Wikimedia is committed to maintaining an experience on Wikimedia’s projects that is free of commercialism.
  • There exists a virtuous circle among participation, quality and readership. Participation creates quality which attracts readers: new readers results in new editors which results in better quality.

Synthesis of the issues to tackle with the strategy

The Wikimedia strategy project began with a brainstorming of important opportunities and risks facing Wikimedia. Over the past six months, that initial work has been bolstered by further research, analysis and dialogue, which is synthesized on the strategy wiki, as part of what is being called “Wikimedia-pedia.” The latest synthesis of the issues facing Wikimedia, below, builds from that work, and sets the table for strategic recommendations:

  • Wikimedia has grown rapidly to become the fifth most-read website in the world, with a truly global footprint. And yet, it does not have a commensurate technological, operational and financial infrastructure. Developing a strong, stable infrastructure is an ongoing process that began when the Wikimedia Foundation hired its first staff in 2005, and which must accelerate. The growth in both the usage of Wikipedia, and its influence, make reliability of infrastructure increasingly critical.
  • The Wikimedia editing community has flattened out at about 96,000 active and 12,000 very active editors, and because its editorial processes are unique, we don't know whether those numbers will prove sufficient to sustain continued growth. We do believe, however, that maintaining a stable number of editors is desirable for mature projects, and that less-mature projects will require a growing number of editors in order for Wikimedia to achieve its vision and goals. In addition, we have seen serious concerns expressed both inside and outside Wikimedia about the health of its editing community, including that it is insufficiently diverse (too male, too young, too Western), too stressed, and too closed to newcomers. Both the Audit Committee and the Community Health Task Force have flagged the health of the editing community as a major risk area for the Wikimedia movement.
  • Wikimedia has always taken quality seriously, and research shows the projects' quality is generally high. But as readership grows, the potential for any errors in Wikimedia to cause harm - and therefore the responsibility to safeguard against error - grows also. Currently, article quality is high but uneven, and we don't make it sufficiently clear to the reader the extent to which the information they are seeing has been vetted. Wikipedia's high readership has made it attractive to people advocating a particular point of view, who see manipulating the information in Wikipedia as a way to advance their own agenda.
  • Wikimedia aspires to reach every human being in the world and to date has achieved great success among Internet users in the Global North. For the purposes of our discussion, the Global North includes US, Canada, Western Europe, Japan and Australia-New Zealand. The Global South represents Asia ex-Japan, Central and South America including Mexico, Africa and Eastern Europe and Russia , where levels of literacy, education, free speech and leisure are high. Given the rapid expansion of Internet connectivity around the world, it will be increasingly possible to reach readers in the Global South. The challenge for Wikimedia will be to replicate its earlier successes in parts of the world where conditions are less favourable.
  • People used to connect to the Internet primarily through personal computers, but we are now also seeing a proliferation of small mobile devices, including mobile phones, smartphones, e-readers, netbooks, and other devices. People in the Global North increasingly use these devices in addition to personal computers, and people in the Global South are often connecting solely through them. Currently, Wikimedia is heavily optimized for the personal computer, which means it risks being significantly less useful to information seekers in the future, than it has been in the past.
  • The MediaWiki software has not kept pace with the general development of web applications and the web platform. While it is easy to read a Wikipedia article, virtually all participatory interactions are difficult, and there are limited tools to support on-site networking, dialogue, and task management. Even the reader experience is fairly austere, with limited tools for topic exploration, visualization, and search.

Goals for the strategy

In 2009, Wikimedia readership grew by over 20% according to comScore Media Metrix [1] and the number of new articles on all projects including Commons files grew by 35% (Nov '08-Nov '09). As mentioned above, the number of editors has been roughly flat since 2007.

As we look forward, it's difficult to forecast the base case or “momentum” [2] growth of Wikimedia. While the most straightforward approach would be to assume a continuation of ~20% growth in readers over the next five years, we believe that would be an overly aggressive base case, and that the rate of growth would be more likely to naturally slow as Wikimedia reaches some level of saturation in the Global North. To sustain its fast growth, Wikimedia will need to drive growth in geographies where Wikimedia is less well-developed, and where the conditions for growth in editors are far less favourable. Further, we believe that at some point, flatness in number of editors may begin to generally constrain article growth and growth in readers.

Given the complexity of forecasting growth, we have developed three scenarios for the next five years, building on our understanding that 1) Wikimedia is more mature in the Global North than the Global South, and that 2) growing the contributor base, and therefore also readership, will be more difficult in the Global South than the Global North. Our three scenarios are:

  1. Sustained growth over next five years, by implementing a strategy that helps to improve the Wikimedia reader and editor experience, expand Wikimedia in the Global South and re-energize community growth, while increasing editor diversity.
  2. Slowing growth and leveling out, as Wikimedia reaches saturation in the Global North and efforts to reach the Global South do not take off beyond the mature language Wikimedia projects.
  3. No growth, as Wikimedia community health deteriorates, the platform becomes antiquated, the projects fail to keep pace with the needs of the movement and groups fork to work on new platforms.

The goal for the five-year plan is to realize the first scenario and to mitigate the risks of the second and third. Wikimedia will focus on realizing a 15% annual growth rate in readership, which would achieve 680 million unique visitors monthly, or approximately 10% of all humanity, by 2015.

This would be accomplished by:

  • Growing readership in the Global South by 12% annually and in the Global North by 4% annually (despite the potential for limitations in reaching the fast-growing Chinese population, to be discussed later)
  • Strengthening the editing community, in order to feed the virtuous circle of editing>quality>readership, as measured by an increase in the number of Wikimedia projects that i) have more than 500 active editors, ii) maintain positive growth in active contributors, and iii) have more than 120K articles.


To achieve the goal of continued health and strong growth of Wikimedia, there are three priority areas in which the Wikimedia Foundation will focus its work over the next five years.

  1. Build the technological and operating platform that enables Wikimedia to function sustainably as a top global Internet organization: The Wikimedia Foundation is a young organization that has only recently been able to grow its scope beyond keeping its web properties operational at the most basic level. Over the next five years, the Foundation needs to invest in developing technology and operational systems as well as sustainable revenue streams that will enable Wikimedia to keep pace with the needs of a global movement and the ever-changing technological, cultural and economic environment. This will include improvements to the reader experience (quality labeling of articles, improved search and content discovery), and improved tools for vetting and creating different types of content. In the immediate future, this will require increased investment in leadership, in technical operations and developer staff, in fundraising, and in volunteer support.
  2. Strengthen, grow and increase diversity of the editing community that is the lifeblood of the Wikimedia projects: The editors build the projects, which means a strong and healthy editing community is critical to Wikimedia achieving its mission. To support continued growth of the editing community, and to reduce friction between long-time editors and newcomers, the Wikimedia Foundation will need to strengthen its investments in improvements to the user interface, user experience, and new editor supports, as well as in supporting editor self-organization of various kinds. Editors' efforts to recruit, train, support, retain, and reward other editors need to be incentivized, supported, monitored and recognized. Here, the Wikimedia Foundation can play an important role to support programs developed by volunteers, as well as to support the creation of new chapters and the development of additional organizational models.
  3. Accelerate impact by investing in key geographic areas, mobile application development, and stimulating volunteer innovation. The Wikimedia Foundation has never attempted to increase impact inside a particular geography via the establishment of an on-the-ground presence. However, it is clear that Wikimedia volunteers in the Global South face more numerous and difficult challenges in self-organization, compared with volunteers in the Global North. We therefore plan to establish a temporary presence in three priority regions, one of which will be India, as initial pilots aimed at increasing short-term impact and accelerating volunteer self-organization. The three regions will be chosen from this list: India, Brazil, Russia, the Arabic-speaking parts of the Middle East & North Africa, Indonesia and Turkey. We will actively monitor and learn from these on-the-ground investments to evaluate the success of the approach and share best practices. Additionally, we need to improve our mobile applications and support scalable offline solutions to maintain growth momentum. And, we need to create the capability to recruit and support current and prospective volunteer developers, as well as to support volunteer-created applications and widgets, and to set out guidelines for reviewing and investing in high-potential innovations.

Areas the Wikimedia Foundation will not prioritize

The priorities above comprise the core work for the Wikimedia Foundation over the next five years. Below are areas which the Wikimedia Foundation will not prioritize. That doesn't necessarily mean we consider them low priority: in some cases, they are explicitly listed here because we think they are important, but better executed by others (for example, editors or chapters).

It's important to note that many activities of the Wikimedia Foundation are designed to benefit a majority of language-versions and/or projects. Saying that the Wikimedia Foundation will not increase its investment in a particular country does not mean investment in projects used in that country will cease.

  • The Wikimedia Foundation will not increase investment in China. China has the world's largest Internet-connected population, and usage of Wikipedia in China continues to grow. The Wikimedia Foundation wants the people of China to benefit from access to Wikimedia projects. However, the Chinese government heavily intervenes in the development of China's Internet for both political and economic reasons. Currently, sites such as Facebook and YouTube are completely blocked in China, while Wikipedia is available but partly censored, and Google is considering withdrawing from the country. Meanwhile, "locally-grown" businesses that comply with government regulations are favoured. In spite of these difficulties, Chinese editors are doing effective work building the Chinese Wikipedia: we believe that work offers Wikipedia's best hope for growth in China, and there is little the Wikimedia Foundation could do to more effectively support them.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation will only invest in an on-the-ground presence in the three high-priority test regions discussed above. Having on-the-ground teams is a pilot, and before expanding it, we will need to experiment and evaluate. The pilot countries were chosen based on number of Internet users, rate of growth of Internet use, and current penetration of Wikimedia, and are believed to be most promising in terms of potential impact today. Once the pilots are evaluated, we will determine whether to expand on-the-ground teams to include other geographies such as Sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile, non-pilot geographies will be supported in other ways, including activities designed to improve the general user and editor experience, development of mobile and offline access solutions, as well as continued support for local community development (whether through chapter development or less formal structures).
  • The Wikimedia Foundation will not invest directly in staging public outreach or developing content partnerships (e.g., with galleries, libraries, museums, archives, etc.) with two exceptions: 1) To bootstrap work in priority geographies, and 2) To conduct systematic experimentation with the purpose of deriving and disseminating best practices in volunteer-driven activities. Generally, we will invest in capacity-building and support activities for local communities, rather than doing the work ourselves.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation will not invest in direct editorial interventions to increase quality, e.g. paying people for developing content or policies. Wikimedia's editorial content and policies are maintained by its editors, and in general, editors should drive quality improvement initiatives. The Wikimedia Foundation may occasionally invest in quality improvement projects, but only for the purposes of experimentation and the development of best practices.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation will continue to support the principles that underlie our work and use our voice judiciously in public discourse. We will also continue to be supportive of like-minded organizations, such as Creative Commons and Electronic Frontier Foundation. However, we will not create an advocacy agenda and we will not allocate resources to engage forcefully in public policy development. Geographically-based chapter and chapter-like organizations may choose to play a larger role in such endeavors.
  • In general, the Wikimedia Foundation will prioritize work that we believe will create maximum net progress towards our goals, helping Wikimedia achieve a greater global impact. Many of the Wikimedia Foundation's investments will support all Wikimedia projects. We will not make investments dedicated to project-specific work that is unlikely to achieve significant impact.

Implications for the Foundation operations and next steps

The strategy will result in growth in the Foundation’s operations - both in the nature and approach to the work and in the resources required. This is a continuation of the process of building a strong operation, that began two years ago. While the specific work of determining the resources required to implement the strategy and sustain core operations is part of business planning, it is estimated that the Foundation budget will need to grow toward $25-70M by 2015. Preliminary work on the revenue model to support the operation forecasts continued strong growth of community giving as the primary source of revenue. The work in the business planning phase from February to May will focus on translating the strategy into the specific technology, organizational and financial plan for building the operations to fulfill its role over the next five years and beyond.

Preliminary sequence of activities and 2010-11 annual plan implications

The Wikimedia Foundation's strategic plan will focus on 1) building the platform, 2) strengthening the editing community, and 3) accelerating impact through experimentation. The preliminary sequence of activities will include the following:

Building the platform:

  1. Investment in stabilizing the site infrastructure (e.g., predictable and secure public and private backups, improved API functionality and stability, improved site performance), including establishment of an additional US-based data center providing safe fail-over capability;
  2. Investment to realign technology operations to fulfill the requirements of the strategy including site operations, user experience development, quality labeling and vetting tools, volunteer developer community-building, MediaWiki platform development, mobile and offline development, data analytics and Foundations operation support;
  3. Investment in fundraising infrastructure to support increased community giving;
  4. Build staff capabilities and systems to scalably facilitate and coordinate the work of volunteers including first-responders (to readers, BLP article subjects, prospective volunteers, media, donors, etc.) and other important roles;
  5. Investment to build data systems and management processes that support data-driven decision making;
  6. Build the organizational leadership team, HR support, management processes and systems to prepare the Foundation for the sustained growth required to implement the five-year strategy.

Strengthening the editing community:

  1. Launch team dedicated to continually improving the Wikipedia editing experience at the interface level;
  2. Establish global program support (monitoring and supporting volunteer-driven initiatives that advance the mission, including chapter programs);
  3. Creation of a position dedicated to development of new chapters or other organizational models, with focus on priority geographies.

Accelerating impact through innovation and experimentation:

  1. Creation of a team dedicated to on-the-ground volunteer mobilization in three high priority geographies;
  2. Creation of a team supporting mobile and offline product development and related strategic partnerships.

Next steps

The Wikimedia Foundation's business-planning phase will run from February until May. It will focus on translating the strategy into the specific technology, organizational and financial plans for building the operations to fulfill its role over the next five years and beyond. The output will include 1) the Wikimedia Foundation's 2010-11 business plan, 2) the Wikimedia Foundation's 2010-15 strategy plan, and 3) a communications plan designed to share the strategy inside the Wikimedia movement, as well as externally.

Concurrently, the general strategy process will continue. Its goal will be to facilitate the Wikimedia movement's further deliberations on and prioritization of the 700+ proposals and recommendations from the task forces to move toward action on promising strategic opportunities for the Wikimedia movement (not including the Wikimedia Foundation).

Important future milestones include: · April – Global Chapters meeting and Wikimedia Foundation Board meeting · July – Wikimania and Wikimedia Foundation Board meeting in Gdansk, Poland


  1. Latest data from Wikimedia Statistics shows 23.1% growth in unique monthly visitors according to comScore from Nov. 2008 to Nov. 2009. Note: comScore is the best available source, but it is an estimation not actual.
  2. Momentum refers to a rate of growth that should be achievable with the current strategy in place and current technology. It assumes one does nothing significantly differently from today.