Foundation 360: Building the relationships and resources we need to thrive. Interview with Megan Hernandez, Advancement Department

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

On a hot California afternoon in 2009, Megan Hernandez opened her laptop at the kitchen table. Exhausted from a full day of substitute teaching long division and bandaging up scrapes from the playground, she sat browsing recent Craigslist job postings. The posting for a fundraising position at the Wikimedia Foundation caught her eye. “I was a big Wikipedia reader at the time but I didn’t know it was run by a non-profit organization,” She told us. “Back then, I had some sense that people could edit but didn’t really understand the massive role of the unique volunteer communities.” 

Megan had just returned from a year teaching and fundraising at a non-profit in Peru, and with some mission-driven fundraising experience under her belt, she was curious to learn more. “I began to research the movement, and when I was offered the job I felt incredibly honored to be invited to be a part of supporting the mission. Nearly 12 years later, that feeling remains.” 

We talked with Megan about her work at the Foundation as the Vice President of Advancement, and about the projects she is most proud of from this past year.*

Q: Let’s start with the basics about what the Advancement Department does. I’d love to get a metaphor from you to help us understand its different roles. If the Advancement Department were a plant in a garden, what would it be?

MH: I would imagine that people might immediately think of some noticeable flower that blooms once per year, like a fundraising campaign. If I think about it, though, it’s really more like the soil. It helps feed the garden, giving it the resources it needs to grow.

Bringing in revenue is one part of what Advancement does. It sustains all the work the Foundation does with and for the movement, and also directly funds things communities do independently. The funds we raise make it possible to build new product features, to fund community projects that make our movement more inclusive, to manage all our data centers and keep the sites up and running, to be leaders in the fight for freedom of expression online, and much more. 

Community Resources and Partnerships fall under Advancement, too. They are also critical parts of the soil. Community Resources distributes funds (set to reach $15.6 million next year) to affiliate and community groups to support growth at the grassroots level. And the Partnerships team builds the strategic relationships connecting the roots of our movement to other networks, other gardens.

Q: I’m sure you get this question a lot, but imagine someone at a party asks you to describe the work Advancement does at the Foundation. What’s the quick overview?

MH: The Advancement Department is responsible for generating revenue, building strategic partnerships, and providing resources to our community to advance the goals of the Wikimedia movement. In essence, we ensure the Wikimedia movement has the resources and the relationships it needs to thrive. 

At parties, people often tell me they donate to Wikipedia. I always thank them for their support.

Q: Advancement’s work was significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us about how you adapted?

MH: The COVID-19 pandemic caused all of our teams to adjust and pivot. The Partnerships team was able to jumpstart a meaningful collaboration with the World Health Organization to make more trusted WHO content free to use across our projects. In October, the Partnerships team announced the collaboration, opening up the availability of new resources for  editors, especially those in the medical community, who were interested in increasing the quality and reliability of COVID-19 content on-wiki (with Wikipedia being one of the most frequently viewed sources for medical content). With this collaboration, WHO started uploading different kinds of relevant content to Wikimedia Commons for editors to use, such as a series of infographics addressing common misconceptions about COVID-19. 

It was great to see all the outstanding work that communities did with the WHO materials. To give a few examples, editors embedded content across relevant Wikipedia articles (like the article on “clothmask” or “5G“), and, outside of Wikipedia, editors working on the Wikivoyage article on the COVID-19 pandemic also used WHO content. To date, WHO’s content has had over 2 million views thanks to the work of the editor communities. Media Views by Categories and GlamTools has all the up-to-date metrics on this.

It was also amazing to see affiliates building on this partnership. Wikimedia Community User Group Malaysia collaborated with their WHO local representative to create an article competition — WikiSihat — covering COVID-19 and broader health areas. The competition also promoted quality translation of relevant articles from English Wikipedia to Malay Wikipedia. The WikiSihat event ended on May 7th, and more information about its impact is coming soon.

Then, of course, there were the changes we made around fundraising. We adjusted our strategies based on the impacts of the pandemic around the world. We pivoted to host new types of virtual events with donors, introducing them to Foundation leadership and celebrating Wikipedia’s 20th birthday. We also scaled back where it made sense — in conversation with communities, staff and donors about the devastating impact of COVID-19 in India, we cancelled an upcoming fundraising campaign to readers based there. Fundraising in new regions is a critical part of our strategy because it raises awareness about the Wikimedia movement and how it operates, and allows more diverse groups to contribute to sustaining free knowledge. However, when difficult situations like this arise, we check in with the local community and try to be as responsive as possible and make changes based on their advice.

I really want to take this opportunity to extend a personal thank you to the volunteer communities and all those who contribute to making the Wikimedia projects a valuable resource that readers are inspired to support financially. We heard from many people who relied on Wikipedia even more than usual during the pandemic and wanted to support it. In spite of all the uncertainty, the work of the whole movement helped us exceed our fundraising targets and put the Wikimedia movement in a secure financial situation. There were so many uplifting messages from donors this year, emphasizing just how critical Wikimedia projects are for so many:

I’m using Wiki more now than ever looking up all the medical terms that are being use in regards to COVID-19. And the answers to all my questions…are always there. So, as always, keep up the wonderful work you and your volunteers do. Stay well and safe.

I wish I could donate more, but I’m afraid that circumstances do not allow.So, from the UK, and on behalf of myself and my family, thank you to all those who keep Wikipedia open to all…

 “£2.35 was all I could afford to give Wikipedia at the moment.However, I thought it was truly important to give something to Wikipedia…It has helped me to learn and grow my skills through lockdown. It has helped to remind me that life is not just what we are going through right now. The world will survive, it will prevail, and we will get through this.”

Q: What was some of the most important work that happened in Advancement in the last year?

MH: The Community Resources team has been working on a new grantmaking strategy together with communities. The strategy will increase local decision making around grants and distribute resources based on regions rather than project type. It comes with an increase in the grants budget of over $7 million (over 90%), the majority of which will go directly towards getting underrepresented communities the resources they need to grow. We have welcomed new colleagues from Mexico, Kenya, India and the Czech Republic to help support this strategy and the growing global community of grantees. 

Another big project we started this year was the Wikimedia Enterprise API. The Wikimedia movement has been talking for a long time about the possibility of building a self-funding “enterprise grade” API. Of course, information on Wikimedia projects will always be free to use, but the Enterprise API gives large organizations the option to pay for faster, more comprehensive and reliable data services. This creates another revenue stream that can directly sustain the free knowledge ecosystem into the future — one that complements our primary funding model of small donations from individuals.  The suggestion appeared in two different Movement Strategy recommendations: Increase the Sustainability of our Movement (by creating a new revenue stream to protect Wikimedia’s long-term sustainability) and Improve User Experience (by improving the quality and quantity of Wikimedia content available to readers who do not visit our sites directly, including more consistent attribution). We are proud to be building one of the first completely new products in response to Movement Strategy, and look forward to making Wikimedia projects even more available to more people around the world.

Want to learn more about the Advancement Department? 

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.