Interview – Anasuya Sengupta

Wikimedia Foundation is the non-profit organization that operates Wikipedia and its sister projects. It is dedicated to encouraging the growth, development and distribution of free, multilingual, educational content. How does its grantmaking contribute to this purpose and what are the implications for grantmaking in a movement whose openness is its central characteristic, Caroline Hartnell asked Anasuya Sengupta, the Foundation’s Senior Director of Grantmaking.
The Wikimedia Foundation’s mission is ‘to empower a global volunteer community to collect and develop the world’s knowledge and to make it available to everyone for free, for any purpose.’ Would you like to say a bit more about this?
Obviously the flagship is Wikipedia, the global encyclopedia in over 285 languages that’s read by half a billion people every month. The other Wikimedia projects are often less known but equally important to the overall mission: they include Wikimedia Commons where you put up multimedia files like photographs and so on; Wiki Source where you put up texts that are in the public domain, for instance ancient texts that most of us would not otherwise have access to; Wiktionary, the multi-language dictionary; and WikiVoyage, which is a free and collaboratively edited travel site. Twelve projects together add up to a complex universe of free and accessible knowledge from around the world.
It’s not about knowledge being uni-directional: it is collaboratively edited. The fact that 80,000 volunteers are creating this together at any given moment makes it both an extraordinary vision and an extraordinary process. I think that is what’s at the heart of it: it’s both a production and a consumption economy based on a passion for free knowledge.
How does the grantmaking programme, which you head, contribute to achieving the foundation’s goals? 
The Wikimedia Foundation started off in 2003 as a small foundation to support the servers and infrastructure of the Wikimedia sites. In the past year, we’ve clarified that the two main mechanisms to support the development and growth of our global communities who build our content are technology and grants. Our grantmaking is meant to support them to grow in diversity and depth as well as to enable them then to contribute online. Grants go to national chapters around the world as well as to small and emerging groups and individuals who are helping build knowledge on Wikipedia and its sister sites. So grants supporting both online work – making the editing environment easier for contributors, running edit-a-thons and workshops to help people understand how to edit Wikipedia, etc – and offline outreach, from going into schools and colleges and informing people about Wikipedia to much longer partnerships with galleries, museums and archives to help them understand the advantages of having their content in the public domain.
The fascinating thing about Wikimedia and the movement is that no one is paid to edit, so even I, as a staff member, edit Wikipedia in my own free time.
Where does Wikimedia Foundation get its money from?
We get our money from both individual and institutional donors, approximately 80/20 between individuals and institutions. So 80 per cent of our revenue comes from online contributions from individuals. Our average contribution, I think, is something like $30 per person.
Our annual budget is about $50 million, and our grantmaking budget for this year is going to be $8 million. The primary focus of the budget is the technology, running our sites and the engineering infrastructure that is required to make Wikipedia and its sister sites run well and effectively in multiple languages. This is, as you can imagine, a huge and complex process. While Wikipedia itself is and must be neutral as an encyclopedia, ensuring free and accessible knowledge to the world is politics of the best kind.
What does the Funds Dissemination Committee do?
Over the last couple of years, one of the key questions for the movement was: ‘If this is a shared resource that people are building using their own time and energy, how best can we re-distribute our resources in a way that is fair and equitable?’
We’ve always been transparent about our grantmaking. Every grant proposal comes to us on wiki through the individual or group that is applying for it. Community members – active participants and editors in one of the Wikimedia projects – can look at the proposals and comment on them. Other community members who are on grants review committees then review the proposals and offer their suggestions and advice as well as their recommendations to the foundation and its board.
Over the years, the larger national chapters have grown to the point where they need support for their annual plans. For instance Wikimedia Deutschland has an annual budget of over $7 million. The question arose of how we could support their work better. So we created a Funds Dissemination Committee (FDC) with nine community members from around the world who have a background in either grantmaking or finance. When the national chapters put forward proposals for their annual plans, the FDC reviews them in two rounds of face-to-face meetings and then recommends allocations to the board of trustees. So far, we’ve had two rounds, and the board of trustees has approved the recommendations in both cases. I’ve been in the human rights/social justice grantmaking world for a while and I know how much we have tried to be participatory and transparent, but really this is the first time I’m seeing it in practice in quite this way.
In the latest issue of Alliance, we have quite a few articles looking at various models of participatory grantmaking. How do these compare with the Wikimedia Foundation?
I think the difference between us and FRIDA or Disability Rights Fund, for instance, is that with us everything is online. Another thing is the size of grant. Because of the kind of grantmaking and the severe constraints social justice grantmakers have in raising resources, grants made under these participatory models tend to be in the region of $4,000 or $5,000 up to $15,000. Our range of grants can be anywhere from $250 to $1.8 million. Last year the FDC allocated $1.8 million to Wikimedia Germany!
So we are in a very privileged position, and I think my role as head of grantmaking is really to make sure that the Wikimedia movement understands this and uses its resources as well as it possibly can and takes accountability around impact seriously.
Can you say something about your grantmaking apart from the FDC?
We have four different grantmaking programmes, two of which were launched in the last year. When I came in, in July 2012, there was essentially one person handling grants in the Wikimedia Foundation, supported sometimes by another person. We are now a stand-alone department of 12 people.
This year we launched the FDC and the Individual Engagement Grants Programme. In supporting the Wikimedia organizations, we don’t want to lose the passionate volunteers that really make up the backbone of our movement. So the Individual Engagement Grants are for individuals or small groups who are working to improve the online editing or contributing experience. We also give travel grants for Wikimedians to go to non-Wikimedian events. We also have Project and Event Grants, which are for small groups or emerging organizations to do outreach events.
Each of these areas has a committee of its own, designed to be very flexible and understanding of those that they serve. For instance, we know that individual volunteers are not necessarily good at writing grant proposals, so we don’t expect them to do so. But we do want to support their energy and enthusiasm so we’ve built an IdeaLab, where you go online and put your idea up – it doesn’t have to be perfectly formed. Then other community members comment on what you might want to improve or suggest other people you could reach out to. And if you want money for your refined idea, you can put it into the pipeline for the Individual Engagement Grants.
According to your website, the Wikimedia Foundation is one of the most transparent non-profit organizations in the world. Is the emphasis on transparency linked to the overall mission of the foundation? Why is it so important?
I think transparency is at the heart of free knowledge, accessible to everyone. It’s transparency both in terms of process and product, if you like, because what we receive as a product of the passions of Wikimedians is this knowledge that might not otherwise be accessible to half a billion people or more. On the other side, all of our work is done in the open, on Wiki, with both formal and informal community review. All our policies and practices are formed collaboratively. We are developing a much simpler way of editing on Wikipedia, which would literally be ‘edit as you see’, and we have had a lot of community review around this.
How do you evaluate grants?
One of the things that we’re putting into place is a really good evaluation framework. Again, we’re doing this in a way that is collaborative and that includes all of our stakeholders. We have strategic priorities for the Wikimedia Foundation, which include stabilizing infrastructure, increasing participation, improving quality, increasing reach and encouraging innovation, and we ask each of our grantees to self-assess or self-define the extent to which they do these things. For instance, we’ve just given a grant for $1,500 to a team of Wikimedians for a writing challenge to increase the number of articles on the Arabic Wikipedia. We’ve asked them which of the strategic priorities their grant fulfils and what their metrics for success are.
We’ve just set up a programme evaluation team, and we’ve started working with community members and grantees to help them understand what evaluation frameworks look like and how they can do self-assessment. The source of ideas is often the community itself. One of the things the community has developed is a tool called WikiScan, which looks at the ongoing editing histories of people – what kind of articles they’re editing, how they’re editing and what support they need and so on.
So we are thinking about impact and evaluation, but really this is our year of exploring what success means to us as a movement, both quantitatively and qualitatively, what impact means, what good outcomes are. It would be easy to think about it only in quantitative terms because this is a very nerdy community, but as a grantmaker we want to work out how we can look at evaluation as a process of self-assessment and self-learning, that keeps the passion and energy of our members growing.
Are you aiming to establish what difference you’re making to people’s lives by giving them access to all this information? 
We are. It’s a very tough process to evaluate that well. As part of our overall Global South strategy, we have a programme called Wikipedia Zero which is about getting Wikipedia on mobiles around the world, free of charge – which would mean about half a billion subscribers. That does give you a sense of impact.
One of the things we are going to be doing much more is surveying readers, to understand what their motivations are and what the impact on them is. But at the moment we are looking at the motivations of contributors and the impact on them. The scale of the Wikimedia movement – the range of knowledge from around the world in 285 languages – is mindboggling, and we are working on ways to think about how to assess that final impact.
And how do you learn from best practices across the Wikimedia movement?
Let me give an example. In 2009, we gave a small grant for $5,000 to an Australian Wikimedian who did a project with the British Museum to look at articles the Museum was producing. That began a movement-wide process around the world of what we call GLAM partnerships – partnerships with galleries, libraries, archives and museums. That small grant has led to Wikimedians working with governments and private institutions to open up content from libraries and archives on Wikimedia sites.
How does the foundation’s work link with your previous work for women’s human rights and social justice?
I’ve always looked at the issues of representation and participation, and the question of who can represent their knowledge to the world, as an incredibly political project, so that’s a clear link with Wikimedia.
There are also many feminist aspects to the work I do now. One of the women who has inspired me, Myrna Cunningham, an extraordinary indigenous rights activist who has done so much to build resources for indigenous communities around the world, is not represented on Wikipedia, though every episode of The Simpsons is. So you start asking yourself questions around the gaps in knowledge, participation, diversity and depth. How many women edit Wikipedia? How many from the Global South edit Wikipedia? And, knowing how important the Global South is going to be to the future of the world economically and politically, what does that mean in terms of whose knowledge is then represented?
We’re building a very strong sense of the need to move resources into the Global South; we’re working closely with our communities and local organizations in India and Brazil, for example. We support people in over 45 countries with grants, and yet we know that the bulk of our resources are going to the Global North, so how do we make that shift happen?
I was already an activist when I came to the Wikimedia Foundation and I’ve got more radical since. Some feel that the movement is technologically determinist but I’ve learned that it’s not. The movement and the communities that work with it are enabled by technology but at the end of the day, that technology is a platform for human cultures, practices and ways of living, for human power. I bring all my analysis and experience as a feminist and a social justice activist to this work, and the movement welcomes it, seeing itself as a work in progress around those issues. So it’s been very inspiring for me.
For more information

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Interview to read

Interview – Caroline Mason

Alliance magazine