Let us revisit the debate that took place three months ago. I will focus here on concerns expressed about the banner and e-mail wordings, rather than complaints about the size and design of the banners.
Fundraising banner wording
Slide 16 of the survey findings document displays a sample fundraising banner. For reference, it reads as follows:
DEAR WIKIPEDIA READERS, We'll get right to it: This week we ask our readers to help us. To protect our independence, we'll never run ads. We survive on donations averaging about $15. Only a tiny portion of our readers give. If everyone reading this right now gave $3, our fundraiser would be done within an hour. That's right, the price of a cup of coffee is all we need. We're a small non-profit with costs of a top website: servers, staff and programs. Wikipedia is something special. It is like a library or a public park where we can all go to learn. If Wikipedia is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online and ad-free. Thank you.
This is one of several, all very similar wordings that were used. For a longer example, see the image above right.
A number of longstanding community members felt that the messages on the fundraising banners were misleading, given the Wikimedia Foundation's unprecedented wealth. Below are excerpts from posts made by community members on the public Wikimedia-l mailing list. Emphases are mine.
I am however negatively-struck by the finishing statement, a return to the old motto of "keep us online without advertising for one more year". I thought that we had collectively agreed that banners that directly threaten advertising next year were not going to happen any more. Remember when we used to get lots of mainstream media reports saying "Wikipedia will soon have ads!" as a result of those campaigns in the past? (This is different from simply saying "we don't have ads and we're proud of it", etc.)
I agree that the urgency and alarm of the copy is not commensurate with my (admittedly limited) understanding of our financial situation. Could we run a survey that places the banner copy alongside a concise statement of the Foundation's financials, and which asks the respondent to indicate whether they regard the copy as misleading.
Quantitative assessments of fundraising strategy ought to consider impact on all assets, tangible or not. This includes the Foundation's goodwill and reputation, which are (by common wisdom) easy to squander and hard to repair. It is critical that we be maximally deliberate on this matter.
In addition to the survey suggested above, I want to also propose that we:
(a) solicit input from a neutral reputation management consultancy, and
(b) create a forum for staffers to talk openly about this matter, without fear of reprisal.
Today I had a coworker private message me, worried that Wikipedia was in financial trouble. He asked me if the worst happened, would the content still be available so that it could be resurrected? I assured him that Wikimedia is healthy, has reserves, and successfully reaches the budget every year. Basically I said there wasn't much to worry about, because there isn't.
The messaging being used is actively scaring people. This isn't the first person that's asked me about this. When they find out there's not a real problem, their reaction quickly changes. They become angry. They feel manipulated.
I'm alarmed about the content. That should come to no surprise to the fundraising team, because I can't imagine this content hasn't been written to evoke the maximum amount of alarm. But it crosses the line towards dishonesty.
Lila, the concern is not that the fundraiser is working, which your soundbite confirms, but that it is deceiving people, or at least manipulating them 'too much' to be consistent with our values.
One way to test that would be to organise a survey for donors, informing them of the current financials, the current strategy document and current status on achieving that strategy, a breakdown on where the money is currently going and ask them whether they are happy with the amount and tone of the information they were given before being asked to donote. [sic] WMF donors may already being [sic] surveyed like this (ideally done by academics in the discipline rather than WMF staff/contractors); if so, hopefully that data can be shared.
The fundraising rules also need to make explicit that lying is flatly unacceptable. Having the first rule be "don't lie" might be the easiest solution here, though it's shocking that this needs to be written down. The fundraising teams, past and present, regularly lie to our readers in an effort to extract donations. Specific examples of lying include [...] repeatedly making manipulative and misleading suggestions that continued donations keep the projects online.
The Wikimedia Foundation recently raised $20 million. Assuming a generous $3 million to keep the projects online per year, that's over six years that the projects could continue operating before needing to ask for money again. Contrast with e-mails and in-site donation advertising that suggest that the lights will go off soon if readers don't donate today.
And we're not talking about semantic arguments, we're seeing blatant falsehoods.
Does the survey address or invalidate these concerns?
Some of the main findings of the survey are:
Ignorance and misconceptions about the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia are common. For example, slide 3 states that "Although a majority of Wikipedia users correctly identify the organization that supports it as a non-profit, many are misinformed or uncertain."
The most common reason for donating is, "I use Wikipedia often and want to support it", refined after additional questions to "I use Wikipedia and would like to see it remain a source of information" (slides 9–10).
Most users find the fundraising messages "convincing" (slide 23).
In aggregate, these findings—that people are generally not well informed about even the most basic organisational aspects of Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation, that they would like Wikipedia to remain available to them, and that they find a banner message calling for donations so that Wikipedia can stay "online and ad-free for another year" convincing—are not particularly surprising. This is precisely what the criticism on the mailing list was based on.
Most importantly, I found no evidence in the Lake Research Partners document that what John Vandenberg and Ori Livneh asked for in the posts quoted above—i.e. that survey respondents be given detailed information about current financials, strategies and cost breakdowns, and then asked to re-assess the fundraising messages—was done as part of this survey.
Receiving such information is certainly capable of drastically changing some donors' minds, as illustrated by the following comments posted on Twitter:
i can assure you, @Wikipedia WILL NOT see another penny from me. I know plenty of charities that r much more in need
I am astonished about their deceiving and unethical be[haviours] in regards to their #keepitfree #donation campaign
That the survey findings remain silent on this topic is unfortunate.
The Wikimedia Foundation's revenue has increased every year of its existence, and by about 1,000% over the past six years or so. (See Wikimedia Foundation#Finances.) In addition, the Foundation has tended to overachieve its revenue targets and underspend in recent years, leading to substantial increases in its reserve.
The December 2014 fundraiser apparently was the most successful ever. According to WMF fundraising data, more than $30 million was raised from December 2 through December 31—over $10 million more than the fundraising target mentioned in the January 2015 Wikimedia Foundation blog post, "Thank you for keeping knowledge free and accessible". The combined total for November and December 2014 was close to $40 million, around two-thirds of the planned total for the 2014/2015 financial year.
The automated thank-you e-mail for donors reportedly read (my emphasis),
My name is Lila Tretikov, and I’m the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation. Over the past year, gifts like yours powered our efforts to expand the encyclopedia in 287 languages and to make it more accessible all over the world. [...] Our mission is lofty and presents great challenges. Most people who use Wikipedia are surprised to hear it is run by a non-profit organization and funded by your donations. Each year, just enough people donate to keep the sum of all human knowledge available for everyone. Thank you for making this mission possible.
On behalf of nearly half a billion people who read Wikipedia, thousands of volunteer editors, and staff at the Foundation, I thank you for keeping Wikipedia online and ad-free this year.
Is it true that each year, "just enough" people donate to keep the sum of all human knowledge online and available for everyone? No. Looking at the figures, each year just enough people have donated for the Wikimedia Foundation to have been able to
From a historical perspective, it's interesting to contrast the current state of affairs with what Jimmy Wales told a TED audience in 2005 (time code 4:35, emphasis mine):
So, we're doing around 1.4 billion page views monthly. So, it's really gotten to be a huge thing. And everything is managed by the volunteers and the total monthly cost for our bandwidth is about 5,000 dollars, and that's essentially our main cost. We could actually do without the employee ... We actually hired Brion because he was working part-time for two years and full-time at Wikipedia so we actually hired him so he could get a life and go to the movies sometimes.
A fundraising message focused on keeping Wikipedia "online and ad-free" was entirely appropriate at a time when that was indeed the project's main cost. But those times are long past.
The influx of hundreds of millions of dollars—a reflection of the goodwill Wikipedia's volunteer-created content generates around the world—is bringing about a major structural change in the Wikimedia movement, creating hundreds of paid jobs at the Wikimedia Foundation and in Wikimedia chapters around the world, in particular to move software engineering tasks from volunteers to paid staff (with mixed results to date). It's where the lion's share of donors' money is going.
The survey leaves me with little confidence that readers and donors are aware of these facts, and it tells us nothing about how they would feel if they learnt them.
If the uppermost value involved in Wikimedia fundraising is to generate as much money as possible, then the findings of this survey can be used to argue that there is no problem. According to the survey results, people don't mind the fundraising banners all that much; they find them compelling—and donate money as a result. The most recent campaign was outstandingly successful in financial terms. This is what fundraising campaigns are for, right?
Critics like those quoted above might counter that the Wikimedia movement's aspirations are about providing full and accurate information to the public, and that transparency and honesty should take precedence over self-interest.
In a little over eight months' time, there will be another December fundraiser. I look forward to seeing which of these arguments will prevail, and whether the 2015 banners will once more ask people to donate tens of millions of dollars in order to keep Wikipedia "online and ad-free".
Andreas Kolbe has been a Wikipedia contributor since 2006 and is a longstanding contributor to the Signpost's "In the media" section. The views expressed in this editorial are his alone and do not reflect any official opinions of this publication. Responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section.