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The Longest Now

Managing the Scholarship Dilemma of well-funded communities
Saturday April 21st 2012, 5:37 pm
Filed under: international,metrics,Uncategorized,wikipedia


I have been dealing recently with reimbursements for OLPC community events, more difficult this year than in years past.   Among other things, this year we asked event organizers to cap travel support at $150 per person, to avoid having a few all-stars soak up available funds.

Within Wikimedia, in contrast, it is becoming the norm for some well-respected community members to get full rides to multiple conferences each year.  This made me reflect on how different communities set expectations of scholarship and support, and the long-term implications for the movement.

Expanding travel scholarships always seems like a good short-term idea, but has negative side-effects; raising what I think of as the scholarship dilemma – something most strongly affecting large communities that are flush with funds.  A similar dilemma exists within academia and other communities, but this essay focuses on grassroots and volunteer communities.

Too much of a good thing?

The progression from benefit to dilemma goes something like this:

  1. Early community events are a shared hustle: whoever can come and is passionate about them makes them happen, helps find funds for themelves and their proposed speakers,  and the whole event powered by love and enthusiasm.   Special guests are encouraged to find their own funding; reimbursements and support for travel and lodging are reserved for those who absolutely can’t come without it.  Some outside supporters may offer limited scholarships to the needy.
  2. With experience and perhaps central organization, this gets easier every year.  Sponsors return for many years running.  The movement itself enjoys the events and starts finding funds to bring people representing the diversity of the movement.  Local branches of the community start funding travel for a few people from their region.
  3. The movement becomes well-funded, and starts supplying most or all scholarships from their central organization/foundation.  They begin hiring many of the core community members, and funding attendees who are contractors or staff.  The major meetings become a place to hold in-person business meetings for core parts of the movement, and those start applying for their own pools of travel funding.
  4. Suddenly, getting travel support of some sort is a prize that everyone who would like support, or thinks they may deserve it thanks to their good work, applies for.   It is a minor status symbol, rather than a sign of need.  Expectations start to be set that certain ‘core’ or active people will always be at such events – or will at least be funded to get there.

Herein lies the dilemma: some great participants can’t come on any given year for financial reasons. And most people enjoy in-person meetings.  On the other hand setting expectations that you can get scholarships if other people want to meet you can split the community, and may mean that when funds inevitably become tighter, people stop showing up.  The sense of pulling together to make the first conferences happen — that everyone should be able to raise their own funds, or share the cost of the event —  is lost.

More on unwanted side effects and possible solutions, after the jump.

Unwanted side effects

In extreme cases, a majority of conference attendees, or at least all those with valuable things to talk about and show off, come to expect they will be paid to travel and speak.  This starts to separate conference attendees into those who feel they have a right to be there, and are effectively paid to do so, and those who schedule vacation and savings to do so.  That doesn’t make for the best events.  Sometimes it means that people who are paid to come feel an obligation to do so, even on years when they don’t want to — so they come in and out as quickly as possible.

When funds become tighter and scholarships are not available, some of these people then stop coming — even those who gladly came on their own before funding was every available.   I have seen this happen in open source communities that had an influx of corporate money; it can happen in donation-funded movements as well.

Wikimedia is certainly facing this dilemma.  In the early days of Wikimania, I helped fundarise for travel scholarships and review applications — to improve the global balance of attendees.  I found the partnerships we made with international development foundations (like OSI) to support attendees from developing nations, were valuable in themselves.   Today the WMF directly funds the attendance of many attendees, and helps finance the conference itself with no expectation of getting that money back through tickets and event sponsors.  (Our rationale: it’s easier for the WMF to raise these funds globally than for a new event team each year to raise them locally, so why not do so?)  However the unintentional result is that this funding is coming to be  seen as a right, not a windfall.

Last year I believe more than a quarter of Wikimania attendees had their participation funded.  This year I have heard two people say they feel slighted because they weren’t granted a scholarship — was my work on the projects not good enough?   Other movement meetings are adopting the practice as well; at the annual Chapters Meeting in Berlin, organized by the German chapter Wikimedia Deutschland, an increasing number of attendees were supported by the organizers (rather than by their local chapters).

Possible solutions

A few communities make their events widely useful, and set ticket prices in a way that supports their operation, including any scholarships that help make the events awesome.  This broadens the network of people who care about the event, since most attendees now have to ask local institutions to sponsor their attendance; including encouraging the event to be framed in a way that is honored in their academic or professional or activist communities.  That sort of pressure improves the quality of the event, as well as its relevance to related work happening elsewhere in society.

Another alternative is to make remote participation a central part of events; and to encourage everyone in the community to collaborate with locals in the host community to get their ideas across.  Viewing big conferences as opportunities to share ideas, rather than opportunities for a fixed group of travel-lovers to meet every year, means that you get to inspire people in the host community to organize truly global sessions about whatever you care about.  This minimizes global travel — both cost and carbon, thank you — and focuses all attendees from the start on artefacts of lasting value: digital spaces where collaboration takes place both during and after the event.

As we plan for future years, I think we should aim for Wikimedia conferences to try many of these ideas:

  • be self-supporting, with reasonably tiered ticket prices and a higher top tier for public events
  • be more useful to academic, government, and institutional attendees — also part of our community! — so they can more easily funding from their own institutions and groups
  • make remote participation a central part of the event’s planning, budget, and structure – not an add-on. create ways for people to participate remotely or via satellite events in everything from panels and workshops to hackathons and parties
  • focus on scholarships for only those who have no other way to attend / come from countries without active communities / do not normally attend such gatherings
  • educate attendees about various ways they can find travel support themselves within their communities
  • don’t tie scholarships to community work: they should not be rewards or status symbols.
  • limit funding for most attendees to partial scholarships, so that everyone contributes a bit to cover the cost of the event*
* I include Board members in the last bullet point.  I still recall the day in 2005 when, watching the registrations come in for the first ever Wikimania, we saw Mitch Kapor sign up. Of course he could have asked for an invite and we would have comped him a ticket, but it made a difference that he registered and paid as a community member.
In the non-profit sector in the US, it is common for Board members to be expected to give to their Foundation. Within Wikimedia there is no particular norm; we leave it up to each Trustee’s judgement. But covering part of one’s attendance at Wikimania each year would be a worthwhile gesture.  Of course with Trustees, as with any attendee, exceptions should be made for need.

There are no easy solutions, but I consider the definition of the aim very simple: scholarships must be an added value for the society, not for the recipients.

When an event is considered useful without doubt, as in the case of Wikimania, it would be easy to reduce costs by saying that you should ask a scholarship only if your (family?) income is below a certain amount. This would easily convey the concept and hopefully community members won’t cheat.
Reimbursement of travel costs to give a presentation or organize something new, on the other hand, are justified only if nobody could do the same thing locally and the thing is very important (both aspects are quitge difficult to judge centrally, and grants given by the WMF to individuals for specific purposes are quite worrying).

Small personal experience. In 2010 Wikimania was near enough and I attended to reinstate an Italian presence after many years of absence, convincing a few other WMIT members. In 2011, the chapter helped with some scholarships. In 2012, the participation of Italians to Wikimania is considered obvious, and I won’t go again, but the chapter felt the need to fund it again a bit.

Comment by Nemo 04.22.12 @ 4:37 pm

This is so great. Thank you for writing it. When we run the next big funded hackathon (I’m currently working on sponsorships for the Berlin hackathon in June) I’ll keep a lot of this in mind. This year I did a bunch of outreach and specifically reached out to nontraditional attendees (people who work on gadgets, templates, and bots) to ask them to come to the event, and we are spending a big chunk of WMF’s volunteer development budget for the current fiscal year to encourage and sponsor such people. Next year, I think it would be good to follow your guidelines, to help avoid turning subsidies for travel to the Berlin hackathon into a default expectation.

Thanks again. Sumana Harihareswara, Wikimedia Foundation Volunteer Development Coordinator

Comment by sumana h. 04.23.12 @ 8:07 pm

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