Before the pandemic, Wikimedia Ukraine regularly provided scholarships for Ukrainian community members to attend major international events like Wikimania. In 2021, as Wikimania returned in the online format, we ran scholarship programs for two online conferences – Wikimania itself and CEE Meeting.
The scholarships could cover small expenses that enabled people to participate in online events – such as data plans, childcare, or technical support.
In this article, we summarize how we organized these programs and what we learned by providing online participation scholarships for the first time.
How we structured scholarship programs
Within the scholarship programs, we offered to cover all reasonable expenses directly related to virtual Wikimania / CEE Meeting participation, such as technical equipment or care services.
The most popular request was purchasing technical accessories that enable online participation – for example, one scholarship recipient bought headphones so as not to distract other family members when participating in the conference.
The second most popular category was covering a reserve data plan for applicants who feared their existing internet connection wouldn’t be sufficient to participate in online events.
As examples in the call for applications, we also offered to cover the cost of renting technical equipment like laptops, as well as childcare. However, we received no requests for these two items.
We spread the word about the scholarship opportunity on Ukrainian Wikipedia’s Village Pump and various UkWiki noticeboards, as well as on Wikimedia Ukraine’s social media channels.
We also reached out directly to members of Wikimedia Ukraine NGO, as well as to community members who participated in international events before. For Wikimania, we also ran a two-day SiteNotice banner campaign on Ukrainian Wikipedia.
Application & approval process
Application for scholarships opened a few weeks before the event and closed a few days before the conference started.
The scholarships were available to all community members in good standing. The formal prerequisite was having either at least 100 edits in Ukrainian-language Wikimedia projects or demonstrated non-edit contribution, such as event organizing.
To apply, people had to fill out a brief Google Form, which took about 5 to 10 minutes to complete, as well as sign up for the conference itself.
For scholarships to in-person Wikimanias, we used to create a scholarships committee that would review and grade all applications, choosing winning ones. However, for online scholarships, given that the monetary amounts were much lower, the process was considerably simpler – the applications were reviewed by Wikimedia Ukraine’s programs coordinator, with final approval by the Board member responsible for the community support direction.
We ended up approving all applications that were filled according to the rules of the program. (Only one application was rejected; the applicant there asked for an expensive item not related to online event participation).
As a general rule, scholarship recipients had to make the expenses themselves before or during the conference – and get reimbursed after submitting the report after the conference.
Scholarship reporting consisted of submitting documents certifying the expenses, such as receipts, as well as a brief narrative report detailing most interesting ideas the participant heard during the event in general and during one specific session of their choosing.
Reports were checked and approved by Wikimedia Ukraine’s programs coordinator, with the financial part additionally checked by the accountant.
Observations and lessons learned
Relatively few people used the opportunity
In the end, we saw relatively few people actually using the scholarships – in 2021, Wikimedia Ukraine granted four scholarships for Wikimania and five scholarships for CEE Meeting.
We ended up spending just over $100 on all individual scholarships in 2021, which is considerably less than we could have committed had there been more requests.
Perhaps the main reason for the scholarships’ relative unpopularity is that most community members already have the technical conditions to participate in online events. Particularly, internet connection is generally cheap and ubiquitous in Ukraine, so expensive data wasn’t an issue.
The biggest obstacle from participating in international online events isn’t strictly technical but rather a broader one. While it’s natural to take a leave for work or studies, or family commitments while traveling to a conference in another country, it’s less so when you can join via Zoom or Remo from your bedroom. (Wikimedia Ukraine’s scholarships didn’t compensate for taking unpaid leave from work, though we did offer to cover care services).
Even when other commitments aren’t an issue, online events obviously don’t create the same in-depth environment that helps leave everything else behind and focus on the conference.
However, scholarships helped popularize international events
Although few people applied for a monetary scholarship, the Ukrainian community’s participation in both conferences was much higher. It would be safe to say that more people from our community attended Wikimania and CEE Meeting than ever before.
That’s partly just because of the online nature of the events and partly because both conferences were interpreted in Russian, a language many Ukrainians know. However, we noticed that Wikimedia Ukraine’s communications around these events for the community played a big role in attracting more people.
Scholarship programs were a good opportunity to remind people about the events – even if they didn’t actually need a scholarship to participate.
For example, thanks to a banner campaign about Wikimania scholarships, Wikimedia Ukraine’s blog post about the conference became one of the most popular entries of the year, attracting 500 page views in a few days.
Having run two scholarship programs in 2021, we learned that providing scholarships for online events isn’t a panacea, and organizing local in-person meetups around international online conferences like Wikimania when possible is probably a more efficient way to engage people (Wikimedia Ukraine organized two in-person meetups around Wikimania 2021, a local meetup in Kharkiv during Wikimania and a conference in Kyiv after Wikimania). At the same time, scholarships for online conferences do play an important role, whether directly by enabling people to participate in the events they otherwise couldn’t attend or indirectly by helping spread the word.