Friday, March 23, 2007

Wikipedia Shakeup: Resignations

Wikipedia Shakeup: Resignations
Wikipedia Shakeup: Resignations
By Kim Zetter| Also by this reporter
14:00 PM Mar, 23, 2007

Two top employees of the Wikimedia Foundation have resigned, citing disagreements with the board. Both publicly tendered their resignations to the community yesterday on a foundation mailing list, but say their resignations are unrelated and the timing coincidental.

Danny Wool, who has worked out of the foundation's St. Petersburg, Florida, office since October 2005 under the title of grants coordinator, and who is widely regarded as the number two guy at Wikimedia, discussed his resignation first in a message to the foundation list.

That note was later followed by one from Brad Patrick, general counsel and interim Executive Director of the foundation, who resigned formally to the foundation earlier this month but decided to announce it publicly to the community after seeing Wool's note go up. Patrick will continue with the foundation until March 31 and has retained executive headhunting firm Phillips Oppenheim to help find a permanent director for the foundation.

The Wikimedia Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, providing administrative and financial support to Wikipedia and other wiki projects.

In an interview with Wired News, Patrick cited concerns about the informal structure of the board and the inexperience of its seven members.

The board is composed of people from the Wikipedia community, and board members are elected by the community. There are no particular qualifications to become a board member. Among the current members are a biotech and genetics researcher, a former CEO of an options trading firm, a couple of computer scientists, a law student at George Mason University, and a musician and composer.

"A board that is tasked with the responsibility of running a 501(c)3 should have the competences to run a 501(c)3 and get all the help they can from as many people as they can, including outside people, to do that," Patrick said. "I've said before that the board could just as soon have a pie-eating contest or flip a coin or Tiddly Winks to determine who the next board member would be and it would have the same legitimacy as an election."

The nature of that free-for-all, however, is what has made Wikipedia so popular with its community and users. The idea that anyone can contribute to it and anyone can make suggestions about its direction epitomizes the essence of an interactive, internet community. According to Patrick, however, what worked for the Wiki endeavor in the beginning needs to change now that it's maturing into a powerhouse.

"I hold very strongly to the opinion that what we are doing is the most important work of the 21st century," he said. ""But everything that we're doing to help create free knowledge and share it is too important to get wrong. Who has the hubris to say that it's okay to ... turn a blind eye to the essence of good corporate governance and fiduciary responsibility? The idea that we're different because we're Wikipedia doesn't hold water with me."

He said that as Wikimedia's fundraising success increases -- the foundation raised $1 million from some 50,000 people in four weeks last December -- and new partnership opportunities come its way, decisions about what to do with the money and which business opportunities to pursue shouldn't be handled by the multitudes.

Wales, when reached by phone, was confused by Patrick's statements. He said the board recognizes that it needs outside expertise to help guide it and the foundation has, in fact, recently put together an advisory board of people from business, academia and the non-profit realm to help them. That group includes Mitch Kapor, chair of the Open Source Applications Foundation.

"We are aware as a board that these are very important questions and so we need very good advice on how to expand the board and grow the board long term," Wales said. "We tried to bring in some people who would have that kind of experience."

For his part, Wool said he wasn't so much resigning as wanting to move to a new position where he might have a greater say in how the foundation achieves its objectives. To that end, he plans to run for election to the board in June, and will release a statement several weeks before then explaining the changes he'd like to see.

Despite his title, Wool had much clout in Wikipedia governance. His decisions regarding the deletion of sites were generally not open to question, according to one very active member of the community, who asked not to be identified because of disagreements with Wool over deletion issues. Wool also had power to change a user's access level.

"I'm fully committed to the mission of Wikimedia and I believe in the projects and goals we've set forth for ourselves," Wool told Wired News, "but I believe we still have a lot to do to fulfill our mission to provide free content and free culture to the world."

Patrick said the success of the foundation lies in finding the right executive director, though he acknowledged that this could be thwarted if the board resists changes that are needed.

"What I hope for is for the board to decide to choose a future that will be conducive to a very powerful executive director who can provide some much needed leadership right now," he said.

Wikipedia Shakeup: Resignations

No comments: