The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wikipedia has a ton of money. So why is it begging you to donate yours?


If you’ve been on Wikipedia at any point in the past 24 hours, you probably noticed a dramatic, black-and-yellow banner plastered atop your screen: “DEAR WIKIPEDIA READERS,” it begins in all caps — before launching into a desperate, paragraph-long pitch for money.

The banner heralds the start of the Wikimedia Foundation’s December fundraising drive, an annual Internet tradition as reliable as year-end lists and April Fool’s fakes. This year, WMF — the nonprofit that administers — hopes to raise $25 million to keep the site “online and growing.” Reading that, you may well assume that the world’s seventh-largest site risks going dark if you don’t donate.

In reality, that couldn’t be further from the case.

“People will come up to me during fundraising season and ask if Wikipedia’s in trouble,” said Andrew Lih, an associate professor of journalism at American University and the author of “The Wikipedia Revolution.” “I have to reassure them that not only is Wikipedia not in trouble, but that it’s making more money than ever before and is at no risk of going away.”

In the fiscal year that ended last June, WMF reported net assets in excess of $77 million — about one and a half times the amount it actually takes to fund the site for a year. On Dec. 3, 2014 — the single biggest day of last year’s fundraising campaign — the foundation pocketed enough money to power Wikipedia’s servers for 66 straight weeks.

This sort of financial situation is actually far from unusual among large nonprofits, which hope to guard against future shortfalls by amassing current reserves. But when the Wikimedia Foundation follows that model, it gets reprimanded: It grew out of the near-anarchic online community surrounding the wiki movement, and is still beholden to its ethics.

“It’s an advertisement that says ‘we will never run advertisements,’” complained Pete Forsyth, a former member of the Wikimedia Foundation’s fundraising team and a current Wikipedia consultant. “It’s an embarrassment to Wikipedia.”

[The story behind Jar’Edo Wens, the longest-running hoax in Wikipedia history]

At other nonprofits, of course, even those in the media space, fundraising drives rarely provoke such contempt. NPR regularly solicits its users for donations, often in doomsday terms, and any number of stable, well-funded charities peg vocal campaigns to Giving Tuesday events. It is, in fact, considered industry best-practice to maintain a cash reserve in excess of your charity’s annual operating expenses, per the Nonprofits Assistance Fund — that way, if costs go up or a major donor disappears, the organization isn’t left out to dry.

“Based on guidance from the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, our reserve amounts to one year of operating budget,” said Samantha Lien, a spokeswoman for the Wikimedia Foundation. “If there were circumstances that affected our ability to raise those funds during that period, we could end up in an urgent situation — the reserve is a safety net to protect Wikipedia against such a possibility.”

Without such protections, Wikipedia could theoretically go dark. (While the encyclopedia is written and edited entirely by unpaid volunteers, the Wikimedia Foundation handles servers and legal services and tech support and otherwise keeps the lights on.)

For the past seven years, unpaid community members have also served on the board of the nonprofit, but that’s not the true source of their influence: Since 2002, when a large group of Wikipedians staged a “Spanish revolt” and left the site for Enciclopedia Libre, the site’s minders have become hyper-sensitive about alienating their amorphous community.

Last year, when the users of one Wikipedian listserv protested the wording of a fundraising ad, employees of the Wikimedia foundation flocked to the chain to placate them. Despite the fact that that particular ad had proved most effective in a series of A/B tests, WMF vowed to change its wording in response to fears that the ad exaggerated Wikimedia’s financial situation or otherwise deceived donors.

Sure enough, the message on this year’s ad is slightly more mellow than the one that greeted readers last year, warning that the site “survived” entirely on small donations. (“As far as I am concerned, the Wikimedia Foundation has satisfactorily addressed this problem,” said Andreas Kolbe, a prominent Wikipedian who had previously complained about the ads’ language.)

[You don’t know it, but you’re working for Facebook. For free.]

But concerns linger, particularly among Wikipedia’s more cynical or independent-minded members. (This is, it’s worth pointing out, a sizable demographic.) In forums and listservs, Wikipedians have eviscerated the foundation’s ever-more-professionalized fundraising efforts, which rely heavily on A/B testing and focus groups and are projected to cost $5.6 million this fiscal year. Others have expressed alarm over the ballooning of the foundation’s annual expenses, and the corresponding growth of its cash reserve.

“The Wikimedia Foundation has gotten far off track,” said Forsyth, the former fundraiser. “Every year, it builds its campaign around a budget many millions larger than the year before.”

Some of those core editors don’t even want the site to have a reserve, which they associate with abuse and corporate malfeasance; others have questions about how all those extra millions are being allocated. They’ll point to the fact that the foundation has, in the past nine years, grown to 240 employees from a mere three, with plans to make further additions to its advancement, HR and marketing teams. (These additions, outlined in WMF’s annual plan for 2015-2016, will bring the organization’s headcount to 280.) They’ll ask why WMF publishes breakdowns on which countries donate the most money, but doesn’t supply the same details on how it redistributes those funds back to different local projects.

They’ll point out that thousands of Wikipedia “volunteers” essentially work on the site full-time, driving its success — but that while they get nothing tangible for their efforts, WMF bankrolls its employees’ cooking classes, massages and gym memberships.

Arguably, that’s the minimum price of attracting talent in a market where employees have their pick of giant, perk-filled tech firms. But in the ongoing culture clash between Wikimedia and its cyber-libertarian constituents, such real-life practicalities tend to get overlooked.

“Wikipedia is absolutely unique in that it’s a nonprofit operating in the space of multibillion-dollar brands,” Lih said. “On top of that, it has to answer to this cacophony of voices — to divine what the community wants, and then respond to that.”

And if the community doesn’t want what’s best for Wikipedia long-term? Well, it’s just a matter of time until we see inside that particular can of worms. Leaving aside Wikipedia’s other well-documented problems, there’s already evidence that donations might be due for a fall-off. Page views are down across most editions of the site, and more people than ever read Wikipedia on their phones, where they’re far less likely to donate.

For the Wikimedia Foundation, that means a choice between more aggressive, more alienating fundraising ads — and a very difficult place. The question goes to the very heart of the Wikipedia experiment: Can anything truly survive long-term on the Internet’s whims?

Correction: Due to a math error, this story originally reported that Wikipedia’s net assets are “about three times” the site’s annual expenses. In fact, they are about 1.5 times the site’s annual expenses. We regret the error.

Liked that? Try these: