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Because the Foundation is not a Foundation, it is an association

in this blog, I could not help but react at « And in fact the Wikimedia Foundation works perfectly alright without democracy, as does the Nobel Foundation. The former only needs to keep the servers running. The latter only needs to find the best scientists. Both tasks can be accomplished with a handful of administrators and a network of experts. These small tasks are independent of the whole body of article-editing or science that they serve.« 

Why reacting ?

Well, first because I do not think that the Foundation is working perfectly alright. Second because I object to the mission statement as described by Lars. I (and all Foundation people I presume) tend to see it much larger. But looking at the stated the mission of the Foundation bylaws, I can not blame him.

« Wikimedia Foundation is dedicated to the development and maintenance of online free, open content encyclopedias (…) and other collections of documents, information, and other informational databases in all the languages of the world that will be distributed free of charge to the public under a free documentation license such as (…). The goals of the foundation are to encourage the further growth and development of open content, social software WikiWiki-based projects and to provide the full contents of those projects to the public free of charge. « 

It would be difficult to draft a more fluttery mission statement. We have to fix this…

Then, it came to my mind that… the premise that the Foundation does not need members because it is a Foundation and Foundation are used for purposes where democracy is not an issue… struck me as totally aside the point. Because the Foundation is not a Foundation.

We need members because our goals are actually complex and we need a very diverse set of attitude, because our goals are politically loaded.

I then wondered why on earth we were officially a Foundation ? What the differences were between a Foundation… and an association and why do people set up Foundation or Association ? And whether all Foundations were with no members ?

Here are beginning of answers (from Kelly, Xirzon, Cimon, TimShell)

It’s more common to see a foundation when the foundation was created to carry out one person’s dream especially when that one person is substantially well-funded and where that person wishes to retain permanent control over the organization.

An association, contrariwise, is more commonly used when many people, often with limited resources, want to come together to accomplish a goal. The association format, with membership, is used to pool resources to accomplish what one could not do on his or her own. In a membership society the one individual will not be able to retain control for long, as the other members will generally expect to be allowed to have some say in the running of the organization. Associations often have staff.

There is more control in a non-member foundation than in a member association since there is less chance of outsiders joining and taking over a foundation than a member association. On the other hand, members of an association may be kicked off much more easily if things go wrong.

Foundations are more likely to have staff and are likely to be grant-issuing bodies e.g. the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli Lilly Foundation. Apache is called a foundation and has members. FSF also has membership

There’s no legal distinction in the US between a Foundation and an association (well, there are at times) but an incorporated association and a foundation are not legally distinguishable except sometimes for tax purposes. They’re both not-for-profit charities, corporations not engaged in business for profit and incorporated under statutes intended for that purpose

According to Wikipedia : Foundation (charity) — a kind of philanthropic organization, set up as a legal entity either by individuals or institutions, with the purpose of distributing grants to support causes in line with the goals of the foundation.

Foundations typically dispense money. WMF does not do this. As has been pointed out, the fact that WMF has the word Foundation in its title is a bit misleading. WMF is a non-for-profit corporation that is not really a Foundation, and which is misleadingly named. WMF is more accurately an association.

If we ever develop a sustaining endowment, *that* would be a proper foundation. The foundation (if we had one) would be the holder of our investments and would pay out to the association funds necessary to do its work.

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