An Organizer’s Perspective Part II: How do Movement Organizers help us reach broader audiences?

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This blog post is Part II of a three part blog series exploring how campaign organizing helps the Wikimedia movement grow participation and respond to movement strategy. You can find Part I here, Part III here and learn more about our current campaign, #WikiForHumanRights here.

In the last post, I discussed how the New Editors Research and subsequent Growth Team software allows us to make real progress on more welcoming experiences for editors who click the edit button. However, some potential audiences need a human invitation before they click edit to become invested in our movement. These Social Changers and Joiner Inners are inspired by the potential for knowledge to change the world and want to join the community we have.

If you have been around the movement for any amount of time, you have probably encountered one of our campaigns, an editathon, a partnership with a cultural heritage program or an activity organized by an affiliate. In fact, each year the Wikimedia grantmaking programs, alongside external fundraising by our affiliates, supports these programs with 10+ million USD a year.

Community-led programs are important, because cultural institutions, educational communities, activist networks and other non-profits don’t always “get” how our communities work — they need an introduction, training and support. Importantly too, certain types of new editors need help fulfilling their purpose on the wikis. 

Who provides this support? Movement organizers. Organizers are an important layer of the Wikimedia ecosystem that provides human and accessible relationships to our movement. In 2019, we published the Movement Organizers Research to better understand organizers: Who are the facilitators that introduce new audiences to contributing? Where do they come from? How do we make sure that our movement makes it as easy to contribute as an organizer as it is to edit? 

The Spanish language version of the Movement Organizers research. By studying organizers in Ghana and Argentina, and talking to organizers in other parts of the world, we were able to define what the “do” is in reaching out to other audiences.

The research found that organizers face unique challenges as they mediate between our largely on-wiki contribution communities and the needs of newcomers from external audiences. These challenges can exhaust enthusiastic organizers. But they are very concrete challenges to address: from technical needs in order to run editing events in our community (partially being worked on by the Campaigns Product Team), to a whole range of non-technical support and skills, ranging from how to run successful activities to how to deal with on-wiki conflicts (partially being addressed by the Universal Code of Conduct). Important for growing and sustaining the Wikimedia movement, Organizers are key in building common purpose with outside movements.

Where do organizers come from?

If we want to invite knowledgeable people outside the movement to edit, how do we find the organizers that can provide that invitation? The Movement Organizers research found that Wikimedia organizers come from two places: the editing communities and a broader collection of outside movements and professional communities. 

When we think about how we recruit organizers to the movement they often come from two places: the existing communities or by an invitation to join. Invited organizers have the added benefit of understanding the external communities they come from.

The first path to organizing is through editing and transitioning from editing to facilitating the community. Most of our affiliates have strong roots in that tradition — stories like the one I described in the first post of going from enthusiastic editor to organizer abound. But this group has real limits in terms of recruiting: most people thrive in our editing communities because they are more interested in the editing itself, not the social structures around the movement.

However, the second and more promising route for recruiting organizers is from other movements and professional communities. These people are slightly different from the social changer persona developed for New Editor Experiences: they tend to have complex organizing lives outside of the Wikimedia movement, and they see Wikimedia as a platform for sharing the knowledge that advances their larger mission. 

In Argentina and Ghana for example, in the research we saw social activists and open source community leaders eagerly joining the movement. However, even with deep organizing experience, coming from outside movements to Wikimedia is not easy: there are technical, social and learning curve barriers, in addition to the complexity introduced by working in 300+ languages and adapting tactics to nearly every country in the world.

However, if we are serious about accessing the missing potential contributors to Wikimedia, in order to achieve our longer term goal of “anyone who shares our vision will be able to join us”, we need to make all of that complexity simpler. 

How do Organizers invite social changers? 

The first response at movement events, like Wikimania or regional conferences, when you ask a question like “Who will edit?”, tends to be focused on audiences that replicate the self-selection bias of the open source communities I mentioned in the last post: of highly educated people, with digital skills from locations where we are already active. 

These instinctive biases close us off to the real promise of recruiting the social changers and the invited organizers that we need: the people who sit at the edge of our movement who can be taught how we work, if we work to understand where they come from, how they work and what our movement can learn from them. Some of the most successful organized groups in the movement have become those bridges into other movements. Movement Strategy is clear: we need 10,000s more connections if we will fulfill our mission — the sum of all human knowledge.

When preparing the Movement Organizers research, one of the organizers that I first interviewed said something that has stuck with me since, and driven my approach to movement building. She said something like: 

“If you are going to successfully invite a group of people you don’t know well to dinner: the first thing you need to do is visit their house, see how they serve dinner, figure out the conversations they are having, and create a welcoming invitation that meets their expectations.”  

If we are serious about looking for and growing the contributors of all types to Wikimedia — we need to look for and cultivate the organizers who are excellent at speaking the language of these other communities of practice and design practical, hands-on ways for these communities to join us. We need to get beyond the one off, random-invitation-to-dinner editathons where we rarely retain participants, and move towards the welcoming recurring weekend picnics that help their communities feel at home. 

That also means, as organizers, we need to be careful not to over-promise or communicate too early, when we are not ready for a target audience or when we are not ready to speak their language and provide support that nurtures their participation in the movement. I, occasionally, still find myself doing this in meetings with partners or new organizers, who want to work with the Foundation, and that infectious vision takes hold. This is a well meaning habit that hurts us as a collective of organizers: we will leave bad impressions, and wear ourselves out chasing audiences or activities that we aren’t prepared to nurture and care for.

So this is great in theory, what about in practice?

In my first post, I described how my early years of outreach as a volunteer felt largely unproductive. Most organizers who come from the first path to organizing enthusiastically run editathons and other outreach activities. For certain parts of the movement, there was some success with these tactics — particularly in GLAM institutions and among photographers — where the work of professionals fit closely with the work of our editing communities. 

Carol Mwaura, one of the librarians trained by the library association AfLIA who has become an active organizer and editor in the community in Kenya. Targeted organizer recruitment matters, and we can get better at it.

However, when you look at the last few years, I feel like the work of movement organizers has felt increasingly impactful because they have innovated in tactics. As a community, we have gotten better at listening to audiences and effectively targeting them as both the contributors and organizers that will join our work: 

  • By focusing on librarians (after listening carefully to movement leaders from the sector) with #1Lib1Ref, we have been able to grow a network of library partners in different corners of the world, such as Romania or across Africa with AfLIA
  • Black Lunch Table expanded their already successful black artist archiving program to include Wikimedia tactics in a way that meaningfully grew their reach — they connected their larger goals to our way of working in the movement.
  • Art+Feminism has become excellent at retaining organizers from outside the movement to run events year after year. Organizers from Art+Feminism regularly show up in other campaigns and editing events, such as #Lib1Ref. 
  • WikiGap has effectively leveraged the style of organizing found in Art+Feminism and paired it with the global presence of the Swedish embassies to retain partners and editors from the gender activism all over the world.
  • The Education team at the Wikimedia Foundation has made a fairly significant pivot from focusing on student first programs (box-checker audiences who are rarely retained as editors or organizers but produce good content, and where retention is focused on instructors as organizers), to Reading Wikipedia in the Classroom, which facilitates secondary school teachers (one of those social changer audiences) as both new organizers and entry points to editors in the movement.

For each of these programs, retention and invitation of both editors and organizers starts from a place of: Why does a target audience want to contribute? If we teach them, will the people actually stick? How do we make them stick? Success at invitation in each of these activities comes from a very targeted message to a very specific community motivated to change the world through knowledge or communication. Each program says “We know you (specialized audience) will edit or organize if you understand why editing/organizing helps you achieve your goals in the world. Here is how.” 

These programs have succeeded because they have divorced themselves from “anyone can edit” (see Part I of this series), and aligned themselves with “who wants to contribute, why, and how?”.

What next?

So where does this hard-learned insight leave us for sustaining the movement? 

  • We need to look in the places where we have already had some success and reinvest in gathering places for organizers, i.e. with librarians, educators, cultural professionals, gender activists and photographers for example– where we know we can invite them to our communities and they will stick. These programs are often well known and celebrated across the movement, but they need more investment in tools, infrastructure, capacity, and advocacy to reach their full potential.
  • We need to look at the growing edges of our movement where action is already happening, and make sure we are prepared with organizers ready to greet new audiences. From where I sit, I am seeing the most energy in communities growing to welcome people interested in: Sustainability, LGBTQ+ communities, African diaspora communities, communities around indigenous languages and cultures, and Human Rights. I am sure I am missing a few. 
  • And we need to imagine how we find new recruitable audiences with social causes and start listening to their movements. We need to identify the knowledge gaps and topics for impact described in the Movement Strategy implementation process, so that we might match new audiences with new actions that help create the change they want.

If we are serious about a healthy and vibrant movement, we need to get better at communicating with each other why and where we are focusing — and make sure that we aren’t unintentionally losing organizers and the many publics that could be contributors along the way. Our enthusiasm for “anyone can edit” shouldn’t be an excuse for engaging these audiences without collective preparedness. 

In Part III of the series, I am going to describe why the implementation of the Movement Strategy initiative of “Align with Environmental Sustainability Initatives” may actually be pointing at one of the best opportunities for us to reach new movements. The world needs us to focus on Sustainability and the Climate Crises now: the Climate movement cares about factual communication; and it gives us the opportunity to address some of our biggest, most impactful knowledge and community gaps.  

If you got to the end of this post, and want to get involved in the Sustainability work, the currently running #WikiForHumanRights campaign is designed to help local organizers test outreach tactics to local communities focused on sustainability. Or if you are an experienced editor, join the writing challenge.

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