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Volunteering for Good
Wikipedia, Esperanto and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often have complaints, or at least reservations, about the Church’s organization: The leadership are out-of-touch with the needs of real members. They mostly come from English-speaking Western cultures. They’re sitting on a bunch of cash when they could be using it to relieve suffering in the world. They’re more concerned with their public image than with making quality-of-life improvements for their volunteer leadership. They rely too much on volunteers, who aren’t trained or qualified for the work they are expected to perform. And the list goes on.
None of these criticisms, however, is unique to the Church—or even particularly rare in large organizations driven primarily by volunteers. Other organizations experience exactly the same problems. In the last few years I’ve had extensive experience with two other non-profit organizations—the Wikimedia Foundation, the parent company of Wikipedia and its sister projects; and Esperanto-USA, the American national organization for the promotion of the Esperanto language. Both of them are staffed primarily by volunteers who buy into the organization's mission and values. Both are organizing movements where people can do genuinely good things in the world. And both of them are burdened with exactly the same organizational problems that many see in the Church.
Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia written by volunteer editors. Editors generally value accessible, accurate information and adhere to various Wikipedia policies to summarize secondary sources about everything from naked mole-rats to The Way of Kings. Wikimedia Foundation is a large, international corporation that employs over 700 staff and contractors. Their revenue in the 2022-2023 financial year was $175 Million. But, just like the Church, Wikipedia uses untrained volunteers for the bulk of its work.
Esperanto, a language created by a Russian Jew living in Poland in the nineteenth century, is designed to be easy to learn and a neutral territory for international communication. People who teach themselves Esperanto in the United States do so out of linguistic curiosity; they stay in the movement to participate in an international community of Esperantists working to bridge the gaps between other languages and cultures. Esperanto-USA, the national organization of Esperantists in the United States, is made up of volunteers and one part-time office worker. Compared to other national Esperanto organizations, Esperanto-USA has fewer active members and its members stretch across a much larger area.
Recently, I’ve had occasion to observe both Wikimedia Foundation and Esperanto-USA up close. As a Wikipedian-in-Residence at the BYU Library, I’ve seen the tension between the desires of the volunteer Wikipedia editors and Wikimedia Foundation’s larger mission. I’ve been in meetings and conferences with members of Wikimedia Foundation and passionate volunteers from all over the world. On the Esperanto side of things, I’ve been leading the Utah Esperanto club for the last four years, and I’ve been a regional coordinator for over a year. I was also part of the committee to find people to be Esperanto’s future leadership. The contrast between the struggles of current Esperanto speakers in the USA and the desires of its leadership was apparent at the annual Esperanto-USA conference, which last year occurred during the World Esperanto Congress in Montreal.
One problem I’ve seen in these organizations is an attempt to have a one-size-fits-all template for organization. Ward members in rural areas drive for hours to meet, and in person meetups for Wikipedia editors and Esperantists have similar problems.
The leaders of Esperanto-USA have been pushing local groups for the last few years. They keep saying that local groups are the key to strengthening Esperanto in the United States. But what are they actually doing to support local groups?
“After I moved, I didn’t have a local group and I tried to create my own. But what did E-USA do to support me? Nothing,” my friend, an extremely active Esperantist whom I’ll call Matthew, complained to me.
While Esperanto-USA agreed to list the information for my local Esperanto club on their website, they hadn’t provided me with any other resources or training. The local group model was successful in some places but a poor fit for my own region. Along with leading the Utah Esperanto club for the last four years, I’ve recently become the local coordinator for the Southwest region. At the Esperanto-USA annual conference, I suggested that my region could meet periodically online, since local clubs were almost nonexistent.
The member of the board of directors over regional coordinators told me, “That sounds like a great idea for your local coordinator!”
“I am the local coordinator!” I reminded him.
Even though I’ve been leading Utah’s Esperanto club for a few years, none of the national-level leadership recognizes me as a local leader. Before the pandemic, my local group met once a month. Three or four of us would get together at parks and practice speaking Esperanto in person. Over the pandemic, we met online a few times, but attendance was sparse. At our traditional Halloween viewing of an Esperanto-dubbed B-horror film, my husband and I were the only attendees. Talking to my fellow Esperantists at the World Esperanto Congress, I learned that having an inactive local group was a common experience. One person used to lead the group in Colorado, but hadn’t tried reviving it since the pandemic. Another Esperantist from Colorado was interested in attending a local group, but lived several hours away from the other Coloradan. An Esperantist from Maine said he had no local group. How were we supposed to support our local Esperanto group when we didn’t have one?
Last year, Wikimedia Foundation had a similar promotion for local Wikipedia editors to get together and watch online portions of their international conference, Wikimania. I wasn’t able to attend, but I heard that there were two editors at Utah’s meetup! Events for existing local editors make sense in urban areas with a lot of editors, like Washington, D.C., and southern California. But in the Utah Wikipedia scene, trying to make physical events happen feels like a huge effort for little payoff. Even when I do meet editors in person, I feel more kinship to the editors who edit the same topic areas as I do than to those who live near me. Griping about the snow is something I can do with any of my co-workers or neighbors, but only certain Wikipedia editors understand the emotional back-and-forth in the discussion of whether or not No Man Knows My History should be considered a reliable source for information about Joseph Smith on Wikipedia. What’s the point of meeting people in person for a service we perform online?
Wards are different from online Wikipedia communities. Since our service is focused on our neighbors, it makes sense to meet our fellow Church members in-person. Since I live in Utah, it can be easy for me to forget how much harder it is to be a church member in states outside the Jell-O belt. In Utah, my child’s primary teacher can drop off a coloring sheet on their way back from church. I can walk to our stake center or to where my ministering sisters live. In most other wards, those things require significant investments of travel time. Smaller wards also encounter the difficulties in creating a cohesive youth program when no one goes to the same high school, or there are only two or three young people in the ward. Early morning seminary and mid-week youth events are bigger sacrifices for members who live further away from their meetinghouses.
Volunteers are the lifeblood of Wikimedia Foundation, Esperanto-USA, and the Church. All three organizations expect volunteers to do work that others are paid to do professionally. Most other churches have paid clergy, for example. The administrators who run English Wikipedia are all volunteers. Their work includes bureaucratic tasks like approving new pages and closing arguments as well as the tricky interpersonal business of deciding when to warn or ban another user for bad behavior. In online communities in general, this work is often done by volunteer moderators, but increasingly, in large online communities, the work is done by paid community managers. But not on Wikipedia or its sister projects! Wikimedia Foundation employees don’t directly edit Wikipedia articles to avoid the appearance of an authoritative viewpoint. Even Wikimedia Foundation’s grants are carefully awarded to promote “outreach” and not editing Wikipedia itself.
There are multiple downsides to leaving all the editing and administrative tasks to volunteers. For example, all of the tools used to track image views on Wikimedia projects are created by volunteers. The volunteers who create these tools don’t reliably update them or fix them when they break. That makes sense—it’s just a hobby for them. But people like me who do paid work with cultural institutions need good information on how our contributions are being viewed and used. For example, the Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Met uploaded an image of the Gould Stradivarius, which appears on the Wikipedia page about that violin. Other professionals from the Met have uploaded thousands of images to Wikimedia Commons for use on Wikipedias. The administrators funding these positions need accurate information about how often those images are being viewed, or they may not be willing to continue their funding. There are tools to estimate image views; I’ve presented on them. Recently, I and other Wikimedians-in-Residence have actively complained to Wikimedia Foundation employees about the lack of good tools for tracking image views. The people we met with were sympathetic to our problem but said that they were pulled in a lot of directions. To us, the benefits of providing support for image metrics were clear: better metrics would mean more high-quality image donations from libraries and museums. To them, we were one more fire to put out.
Esperanto-USA also relies heavily on volunteers, which negatively affects the organization’s productivity. Volunteers in Esperanto-USA make up the board of directors and are tasked with supporting existing Esperanto learners in the USA and in promoting Esperanto to new potential learners. Again, in many non-profits, this kind of work is done by paid professionals, who are usually trained for the tasks required and who can be held accountable for ensuring that work gets done.
This is not the case with volunteers. Matthew, who was a board member for Esperanto-USA for three years, said it was one of the worst experiences of his life. We agreed that the current E-USA leadership was completely dysfunctional, even though they worked admirably as volunteers and were generally nice people. The volunteers in leadership were burned out, with some no longer fulfilling their leadership duties. “One way we are supporting local groups is with our new handbook for local groups leaders,” our E-USA president said two years ago, and urged, “Ask your regional coordinator about it!” I asked my regional coordinator. She hadn’t heard of it. In fact, the handbook wasn’t yet finished. A volunteer eventually sent me a draft and asked if I wanted to help write it. I felt inadequate to the task. There were clear gaps in communication between volunteers and members. From my perspective as a middle-managing volunteer, fixing the problems of the organization seems impossible.
“So, should we simply do away with Esperanto-USA?” I asked Matthew.
“No, no. They have money. They have status as a nonprofit. But to change the leadership, we need to vote in new people.” There: we had a problem with a definite solution. And as a member of the committee to find people to put on the ballot, I helped to find and encourage some of those new people, including our future president of E-USA, Brandon Sowers. Brandon told me that the organization should support our ideas, because “we, its members, are Esperanto-USA.” He wants to make Esperanto-USA a net, not a pyramid. But any organization that is sufficiently large needs to have leaders.
Esperanto-USA suffers from leadership who want to impose their ideas on members. Wikimedia Foundation at least tries to have the appearance of allowing their volunteers to have a say in what they work on. New features or improvements for Wikipedia are voted on in a yearly community wishlist, and Wikimedia Foundation creates or enacts a few of the most popular ideas. But the amount of time and effort that the corporation invests into improving the nuts and bolts of Wikipedia seems small compared to the amount of money it spends on their grants program. Thirty-one percent of its budget goes to “direct support to communities,” which mostly signifies the grants program (compared to the 42% allocated for “website support”). Much of the outreach funded by grants is in the form of editing events, where people learn how to edit Wikipedia and try to improve Wikipedia pages in a single day. The events are helpful in increasing awareness about how Wikipedia works, but they rarely produce long term, experienced editors (and some would argue that they also fail to produce high-quality edits). Despite that, they still receive a lot of funding.
We might compare Wikimedia Foundation’s outreach efforts to the Church’s missionary efforts. Every year, over 80,000 missionaries focus on converting new people to our faith. And they are extremely inefficient. Sometimes people wonder if missionaries would make more impactful changes if they spent more time serving people rather than proselytizing them. But, like the arduous work of outreach in an international nonprofit, the benefits of “outreach” work are difficult to see right away. For Wikimedia Foundation, there is benefit for them to be seen as having a similar mission to cultural heritage institutions. When the organization Art + Feminism holds an editing event, it signals to their community that they believe that open knowledge and accessibility are important. Even if none of the people who attend the event are “converted” to being new Wikipedia editors, attendees understand that Wikipedia is worth editing. Similarly, when missionaries spend time working on potentially embarrassing TikToks, it shows that they understand that many of their potential converts use social media and that, even if no one person is “converted” by a single video, it helps them to form an image of approachability and creativity in communication.
Organizations based on volunteer labor have unique challenges. Volunteers donate work because they believe that that work is valuable and aligned with their values. They are not accountable in the traditional sense. They can’t be fired or deprived of a salary, and if their work is criticized too heavily, they will likely stop volunteering.
Volunteering my energy for the Esperanto movement sometimes feels disappointing. The Esperanto word for “to disappoint” is “elrevi.” It means, literally, to take out of a dream. I had joined the dream of a common language years ago. A dream not unlike other crazy, idealistic organizations I had joined—like editing Wikipedia and making the world’s vast stores of knowledge available to the masses, or being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and seeking to build the Kingdom of God on Earth. Maybe instead of focusing my effort on reviving my local group, as Esperanto-USA leadership wanted me to, I could find ways to contribute to Esperanto culture in ways that are meaningful to me personally. I can and have. I volunteered to administer the Esperanto-USA Discord. I started a serious study of the Mormon Esperanto Society. I wrote Esperanto proverbs on the walls of the central tower in the Esperanto Minecraft server. And I decided to get my local Esperanto group together, but only if I could interest at least one other member in a meeting.
I’m lucky that my work with images on Wikipedia and their metrics isn’t the only part of my job. The current status of tools for image metrics and Wikimedia Foundation’s lack of built-in professional support for tools that are vital to the work done by cultural heritage institutions is disappointing. It’s especially disappointing because this is a problem we have had for many years. But it may not be the end of the story. In the meantime, I can focus on the impactful work I can do, like improving information and citations on Wikipedia pages and piloting data uploads.
I think that sometimes we feel a similar disappointment with Church organization. Instead of focusing my effort on fixing the Church’s problems that are outside my power to correct, I could find ways to contribute to the Church’s mission in ways I find personally meaningful. I can and have. I found commentary and community outside my local ward to satisfy my desire to study the scriptures more closely. I performed research to celebrate the Church’s heritage of valuing literacy and literature. I participate in organizations to promote Mormon literature. And I support my church-going and church-leaving friends in their faith journeys, wherever those may lead.
The Church as an organization has multiple problems. Some of them stem from it being a complex, international nonprofit. They don’t signify unusual corruption, malice, or lack of inspiration, but simply that the Church is a large, unwieldy organization that is trying to do a lot of things at once. There are problems that come with trying to organize a lot of passionate volunteers. The body of our Church’s organization is one that we are all part of. We may not be able to influence the way Church policy is enacted in foreign countries or even in our own stakes. But we can choose who to fellowship and how. We can volunteer by deciding how to fulfill our own callings and how to sustain our fellow ward members in their callings. And that is what I am—a volunteer for God.
Rachel Meibos Helps is the Wikipedian-in-Residence at the BYU Library and a writer of interactive fiction and scholarship on Mormon literature.