In the summer of 2010 I saw a banner on Wikipedia asking me to come along to an event at the British Museum.
“Wikipedia and museums,” I thought. “What a great idea. People should do more of that.”
Little did I know that this would set me off down a path that would see me spending five years as a trustee of Wikimedia UK, a post from which I am finally stepping down next week.
When I was elected to the Wikimedia UK board, we weren’t even a charity. The first task was to sort this out. After many dozens hours from volunteers and thousands of pounds of legal fees later, we finally persuaded the Charity Commission that Wikipedia was a “public benefit” – more difficult than it seems thanks to an arcane point of British law – and were registered as a charity.
At the same time, we were hiring our first staff and trying to make the best use of an increasing pile of expressions of interests from museums, libraries, universities, and charities. After the first success of the British Museum project, it became clearer and clearer to institutions across Britain that working with Wikipedia was something that they could and should do.
The more contacts we made the more doors seemed to open. The seeds were sown then for many of the Wikimedia UK’s most prominent projects – like our partnerships with Oxford Unviersity, the Natural History Museum and the Wellcome Trust – even if many of them took years more work and discussion before they came to fruition.
New charities often encounter problems, as you go down the path from a bunch of passionate people talking in a pub to being a charity with a six-figure budget and serious responsibilities. I took over as Chair in summer 2012 after the charity encountered some of those problems, and my first months in the role were spent dealing with a string of tense phonecalls with our own Board and with the Wikimedia Foundation, arranging – and then implementing – a review of our governance. There were many lessons to be learned, and I know that the results of the Wikimedia UK governance review were read and used by dozens of other Wikimedia chapters worldwide hoping to avoid falling into some of the same pitfalls.
It’s truly remarkable to think back on how far Wikimedia UK has come in the past five years thanks to the efforts of so many people – everything we do depends on the hard work and commitment of our volunteers and our staff – and it has been a real pleasure and privilege to serve on the Board for so long.