It has been something of a mixed twelve months for Wikimedia UK, the UK arm of the Foundation which operates to fundraise for, and promote, Wikipedia. Before Christmas last year it was successful in securing charitable status for itself, having gained approval from the Charity Commission of the promotion of Wikipedia as a charitable purpose.
This was a dramatic and positive development for the organisation, which demonstrated that it was possible for charities to secure recognition, even where their purposes were not those identified specifically within the Charities Act 2006. In addition to the extra credibility that registration as a charity secured, there was a further tangible benefit: Wikimedia would be able to receive Gift Aid on donations, thereby securing an additional contribution to its coffers through the rebates available where UK taxpayers make those donations. With these advantages, the charity projected generating revenue over the following year of in the region of £1.4 million (a significant increase on the £1.05 million raised in the preceding 12 months).
Developments over the following year, however, while often as dramatic, have not been quite so positive.
First came controversy in July 2012 when Ashley Van Haeften, then the Chair of Wikimedia UK, was sanctioned by the English Wikipedia Arbitration Committee for inappropriate conduct. This included posting a link to material that was deemed unsuitable, and using his position to launch personal attacks on other users, with a view to discrediting them. He was banned from the English Wikipedia, notionally indefinitely, but with the ability to seek a review of the decision once every six months.
Curiously, Wikimedia UK did not consider that these findings impacted on his ability to operate one of its trustees, or indeed as its Chairman. The charity made clear that issues which were the subject of the Arbitration had been known and openly canvassed as part of the process of Mr Van Haeften’s election to the Chair, which had only taken place in May. Nevertheless, the charity cannot have felt that having its name associated with such stories was entirely beneficial.
The next development did rather more to shake Wikimedia’s equanimity. In early October it was announced that an independent adviser would be appointed (by, it should be stressed, Wikimedia UK itself) to investigate the governance of the charity, following the resignation of its trustee Roger Bamkin. The review will consider the extent of the charity’s compliance with a suite of documentation which it has put in place, setting out its guiding principles and adherence to such external requirements as the well-known Nolan Committee principles (Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership).
The review’s report is not due until the end of January 2013, and it remains to be seen whether any breaches of the Trustees’ Code of Conduct or the charities governance principles did occur. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the investigation and Mr Bamkin’s resignation were prompted by allegations and concern that there had been failures to follow proper “conflict of interest” procedures in relation to Mr Bamkin’s simultaneous involvement with on the one hand the charity which fundraises for and promotes Wikipedia, and on the other hand with ventures which made use of Wikipedia’s functionality for commercial gain. In particular Mr Bamkin had been involved in projects to integrate Wikipedia more closely with real world physical locations, those locations being self-evident from the names of the projects: Gibraltarpedia, and the perhaps not quite so glamorous Monmouthpedia.
For Wikimedia UK, the timing could not have been worse. While the review is ongoing, the charity has had to hand off a significant part of its fundraising responsibilities to the parent Wikimedia Foundation which operates out of the US. A consequence of this has been that donations made as part of Wikimedia’s annual fundraiser (because they are being processed overseas) no longer attract the Gift Aid benefit referred to above.
While the review has been commissioned in order to demonstrate the high standards to which the UK charity holds itself, and there is seemingly confidence within Wikimedia that its governance will be vindicated by the review, such scrutiny and the practical consequences have therefore come at a high price in any event, for the organisation in its first year of operation as a registered charity.
The lessons to be learnt from this are equally applicable to any charity, however long-established. The procedures that an organisation has in place may well be robust, but it is equally important to ensure that they are always adhered to. More importantly, it is critical for all those associated with a charity to remember that in their conduct they are representing the charity’s principles and ethos, and that it only takes the suspicion of wrong-doing to tarnish that charity’s reputation.