Foundation 360: Uncapping our growth potential. Interview with James Baldwin, Finance and Administration Department

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The Foundation 360 series profiles important work happening at the Wikimedia Foundation, and the people behind it.

Myleen Hollero / Wikimedia Foundation / CC BY-SA 3.0

James Baldwin, Director of Finance, is always among the best dressed people at the Wikimedia Foundation offices in San Francisco. Often the first to arrive and the last to leave, he somehow manages to keep his demeanor calm and his button-down wrinkle-free while solving complex problems hurled at him from all teams at all times. 

He has been keeping his shirt pressed since 2016, when he had his first finance job as a contracts negotiator for an Aboriginal community in the arid bushland of Pilbara, Australia. The contracts he works on today may be different from the ones he negotiated between that community and the mining companies operating on their land, but he brings that experience, and his passion for social impact, with him.

In the middle of one of his regularly overscheduled workdays, James made time to talk to us about what being part of the Wikimedia movement means to him, and how the Finance and Administration Department’s work feeds the movement more than you might think.*

Q: James, You have been at the Wikimedia Foundation since 2016. What keeps you here? 

JB: As a numbers person, I am always thinking about the scale of the impact of Wikimedia. It’s just so massive. No matter how many times I think about it, I can never wrap my head around what it means to get over 15 billion monthly page views. It’s just a number I can’t conceptualize. It’s mind boggling, and it’s humbling.

As finance people, we often get associated with Wolf of Wall Street types. Most people would probably be surprised to know how many finance professionals are out there that really do care about social good. Those of us working in finance at the Foundation could really be doing this work anywhere, but we are here because we are driven by impact.

Q: The Finance and Administration Department has a number of different functions. It seems like all impact the movement, either directly or indirectly, even though people might not be aware of that. Can you tell us about each function?

JB: There are five buckets within Finance and Administration: Financial Strategy, Operations, and Compliance, as well as Information Technology Services, and Administration. Strategy oversees how we use our resources in service of our mission outcomes. Within Strategy, we work to provide finance consulting to the Grantmaking Team and directly to affiliate grantees. Operations powers the operational infrastructure of the Foundation like accounting, procurement billing, payroll, expense reports, and we do it for the movement as well through Grants Administration and processing grants through Accounting. Compliance is all the work related to keeping our 501(c)(3) (non-profit) status, which is critical to our movement’s ability to continue to receive funding–if no one can donate, we can’t fund anything! We also extend our compliance expertise to the movement by giving guidance to affiliate grantees on receiving funds from us in their countries, down to the most complicated cases. Internal Information Technical Services and Administration may not seem related to the movement upon first glance, but even they do work that supports the movement. They are in charge of running the laptop donation program to give used laptops to volunteers, and are in charge of booking all travel for community members that get scholarships to attend Foundation-coordinated events. So you can see why, for mission and impact-driven finance professionals, the Foundation would be a really engaging place to work.

Q: That’s a lot of different functions! Help us out: can you give us a sound bite about the work that Finance and Administration does in support of the larger movement?

JB: We make sure that the Wikimedia Foundation maintains our status as a charitable organization so that we can accept donations to fund free knowledge. We do this according to best practices in our sector, which is how we continue to receive a top 4-star Charity Navigator rating. We ensure that we can pay the cost of the servers and other critical infrastructure so that knowledge on our projects is available anytime, anywhere. And we make sure we can send millions of dollars to community groups across the globe — $15.6 million next year, an increase of over 90% from this year — while giving as equitable access as possible to those funds to groups in different countries. 

That last point of the sound bite is important and it is sometimes overlooked. We have grantees all over the world, each with their own national situations. As a US-based organization, we can send funds to almost anywhere in the world. Issues that generally arise are a result of the grantee not being able to receive those funds in their countries, or the funds being severely affected by local inflation. We work closely with grantees to set them up to receive funding from us, and to make any necessary adjustments based on inflation that allow our contributions to be meaningful. This is a whole body of work, and, without it, we would not be able to make sure that grantees and potential future grantees have equitable access to resources. There are some exceptions, of course, and we are always looking for ways to reduce the number of exceptions, but for the most part we are able to resolve issues and get the movement groups the funding they need to do their work.

Q: What’s one impact you were proud of contributing to this past year?

JB: The Community Resources team put together a new grants strategy with communities this year, and I was part of figuring out the financial side of that. Historically, we had been looking at grants data through the lens of programs: how much money goes towards the Annual Plan Grant program, versus the Rapid Grants program, versus the Project Grants program. We helped the Community Resources team slice the data to look at regions, to understand where the money is being sent. We saw immediately a big gap between what is being spent in the North Atlantic areas and the rest of the globe. So we asked, “What would it take to bridge that gap? What could we do to increase spending in these communities, without negatively impacting the grantees in regions with more access?” 

We were able to use that data to build a big increase in our grants budget next year. We are increasing the budget by over $7 million (approximately 95%), with the majority going to grantees in underserved regions. This will help us significantly decrease the gap in funding without negatively impacting current grant recipients. From a compliance standpoint, we also looked at what the operational barriers were in the grants process. We found ways of reducing reporting requirements for grantees to make them more efficient and trust-based.

Q: How do you think the Wikimedia world will be different as a result of these changes? 

I think these shifts will better reflect where we are as a movement. It will help us match our resourcing with the intentions of Movement Strategy by funding people across the movement to lead initiatives that serve those goals. Our grant programs hadn’t evolved in a long time, and it’s always challenging to change how funding is allocated. There is so much inertia when funding processes have been built up over time. To change that requires a lot of will and conviction, and an appetite to think differently, which can be rare. I was glad to see that conviction from Community Resources in Advancement and from the Finance and Administration Department. I think, as a movement, we’re going to uncap a lot of potential in areas that are growing, and we’re going to accelerate that growth. In Sub-Saharan Africa, and East Asia and the Pacific, for example, we see a lot of active affiliates already there that haven’t really gotten the resources to grow. Ten to fifteen years ago, the European chapters grew pretty quickly, and now we will have the structures and resources in place to help affiliates in these regions do that, too. It is going to be an important time for the movement, and I’m excited to see how we work together to unlock new possibilities.

Read more about the new grants strategy on Meta.

Have a question for the Finance & Administration department? Comment below!

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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