An Interview with Florence Devouard

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Haegwan Kim: I’m going to talk with Florence Devouard, who was the Chairwoman of Wikimedia Foundation in 2006-2008. Thank you so much for your time. At first can I ask how did you become the Chairwoman of the foundation?

Florence Devouard: Jimmy Wales decided to create the Wikimedia Foundation, back in 2003. A support for Wikipedia was not necessarily planned to be a non-profit at first, but in 2003, it was decided that a non-profit would support Wikipedia. So the Wikimedia Foundation was created at that time and needed a Board of Trustees of up to five people. Jimmy Wales asked two of his business partners to be the first two board members. But he also wanted the community building Wikipedia to have a say and he decided that two people would be elected to represent the community.
We ran the first election in 2004, pretty much like regular elections; candidates made a presentation, and were asked some questions. Every wikipedian could participate. I don’t exactly remember how many people were candidates at that time but it ended up that two people were elected and they were both women which was quite unexpected. So, I joined the Board at that time. Of course, Wikimedia Foundation at that time was nothing. It owned three servers, there was one bank account and I think we owned the domain name and that was more or less it. There was nothing else – no staff, no office, nothing.

HK: How did you guys promote the Wikimedia Foundation?

FD: Well, we never promoted Wikimedia Foundation, we promoted Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation was hosting Wikipedia, collecting funds so that we could run the project and we were working happily as volunteers. And what happened is that Jimmy Wales got very involved at first and then in 2005 or 2006 the project became very well-known, lots of visitors, lots of mentions in the press, many requests for conferences. So, Jimmy Wales didn’t quite have the time anymore to be the chair of Wikimedia Foundation. Then, I proposed myself and that’s how I was elected by the board to be its Chair.

HK: How did you tackle with financial problems of the foundation?

FD: Well, that was a big problem for us. We had two different directions. The first direction would have been to put some advertisement. That would solve the problem but we didn’t want to do that. The community didn’t want to put advertisements on the articles and that made sense because it’s very weird to see an advertisement, let’s say, a car builder on the car article. So, we decided to go against that and the only real way we could find to collect money was to do some fundraising. We have been doing that since 2003 and it’s pretty successful. We currently only advertise it online. We don’t ask for money by sending mailings or putting some advertisement in newspapers as many non profit organisations do.

HK: Can I ask about your thought on the key element to make a successful non-profit organisation?

FD: Supporting others. Why is the Wikimedia Foundation successful? I think it’s very, very largely depending on the community. The community is in charge of Wikipedia, not Wikimedia Foundation. So, it’s not using the volunteers to do certain things, it’s mostly supporting the volunteers doing things. The Foundation is not on the front, it’s more in the background. It’s more a support function. It does have leadership and staffs now, of course, but it’s mostly here to support the project and to support the people taking care of the project. So, it’s really a hands-off attitude. That would be the first reason.
The second reason is that the organization is truly international. Beside the Wikimedia Foundation, the wikimedia mouvement is also made of about 35 national associations supporting the projects. All these organisations are independent. So, they really do things according to the culture of their own country; it’s not an international organisation, it’s a global organisation.

HK: Can I ask your perspective on the future of Wikipedia and Wikimedia Foundation?

FD: I wish we knew! We certainly expect to go on growing. In particular we need to focus more on developing countries, whose voice is not weighing in sufficiently yet. We have a reasonable number of participants from India and China but it still needs to improve. Africa is hardly participating yet it’s working quite well now in Morocco, in Egypt and also the Arabian countries. But the countries of middle Africa, people are not online yet, so we miss their voices. So, there’s a lot of works to do to get them involved somehow. One of the answers to this is mobile. Many things will be done in the coming year regarding mobile and content.

HK: I want to ask you about your definition of success.

FD: It’s to have the opportunity to do something which is beyond ourselves, bigger than us, and that can be helpful for other people.

HK: Can I ask your advice to achieve success?

FD: Working for the entire world, seeing things globally. One of the things I noticed for Wikimedia, which I think is very important, is that we are not American or Chinese or Indians or Germans or whatever. We are worldwide. Our message is for all humain beings. Our project is written by all humain beings, regardless of their nationality, gender, color, political view or religious views. We try to go beyond politically frontiers.
When I look at many non-profits, they tend to only focus on their region, their country or their nation whilst I think it should be taken global very often. That would be my advice.

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