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"Wikipedia's independence" or "Wikimedia's pile of dosh"?

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By Andreas Kolbe
Andreas Kolbe is a former co-editor-in-chief of the Signpost, and has been a Wikipedia contributor since 2006. The views expressed in this opinion article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Signpost. Responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section.J
Financial development of the Wikimedia Foundation (in US$), 2003–2021
Black: Net assets (excluding the Wikimedia Endowment, which passed $100m in June 2021)
Green: Revenue (excluding third-party donations to Wikimedia Endowment)
Red: Expenses (including WMF payments to Wikimedia Endowment, typically $5 million per year)

This month, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) has been fundraising in the Global South. It has also published finance updates in its quarterly reviews. This seems, therefore, a good time to review the Foundation's fundraising messages against the background of its increasing wealth.

A vast surplus

The Wikimedia Foundation has been doing very well in recent years. In 2020/2021 (the WMF's fiscal year runs from July to June), the Foundation reported an increase in net assets of over $50 million while the Wikimedia Endowment – which is held by the Tides Foundation and organizationally separate from the Wikimedia Foundation – increased in value from $62.9 million to over $100 million. Altogether, then, the work of WMF fundraisers last year brought in about $90 million more in revenue than the Foundation spent, bringing total Wikimedia assets to over $330 million.

How are things shaping up in the current financial year, due to end on June 30? The Finance & Administration department's third-quarter review, put online this month, states that in the first three quarters of the 2021/2022 financial year the Wikimedia Foundation already exceeded its annual target of $150 million, taking $153.6 million in revenue while spending less than it budgeted for.

As a result, Foundation assets rose by another $51.9 million. Together with this year's increase in the value of the Endowment and the Foundation's as yet unreported fourth-quarter revenue, this means that the WMF will now have a very comfortable cushion of about $400 million. Almost all of this is in cash and investments.

Historical perspective

It is worth remembering that the influx of such substantial amounts of money, raised mostly through email campaigns and fundraising banners placed on Wikipedia, has completely transformed the WMF as well as its assumptions about what kind of organization it is – or should be.

In 2013 – less than a decade ago – Erik Möller (the WMF's VP of Engineeering and Product Development at the time) thought the Wikimedia mission would be sustainable on "$10M+/year". Indeed, 2010 marked the first time annual WMF expenses exceeded $10 million – three years after Wikipedia first became a global top-ten website. Today, the WMF is an organization with around 600 staff and contractors, rising compensation for its top executives (eight of whom saw compensation for their roles increase to more than $300,000 by 2020) and annual salary costs estimated at around $200,000 for each full-time employee – more than twice as much as the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Internet Archive, for example, judging by a comparison of the most recent Form 990 for each.

Money is also changing the very nature of the movement: an increasing number of decisions are no longer made on-wiki, by a community of unpaid volunteers, but by functionaries and paid staff of the WMF and its affiliates. In days past, the contributors that built Wikipedia were only bound by a shared interest in free knowledge; but money has increasingly become part of the glue that ties the movement together. And the WMF holds the purse strings, controlling the unprecedented wealth that results from its fundraising success.

Fundraising messages

The WMF mainly uses a two-pronged approach in its fundraising: it sends emails to past donors, inviting them to continue their support, and it places fundraising banners on Wikipedia. According to the most recent Fundraising report, 35% of WMF revenue is brought in by emails, 29% by desktop banners, 25% by mobile banners and 11% by other sources. The timing of the email and banner campaigns varies by country. This month, emails and banner campaigns ran in India, Latin America and South Africa.

The WMF makes sample email texts and designs available for review (see Meta). Below are six key phrases from the first of the three India emails shared on Meta that caught my eye – and, I am sure, that of many recipients. Emphases (bold text) are mine.

"A subscription fee"

(1) We choose not to charge a subscription fee, but that doesn't mean we don't need support from our readers

(2) kindly consider giving again, or even increasing your gift, to keep Wikipedia free and independent.

The email's authors are first introducing the notion of a subscription fee – by commenting on its absence – and then go on to say that people should give again to keep Wikipedia free – which in the context of the previous passage can only mean they should give to avoid a subscription fee being charged in the future.

What the reader is not told is that the very WMF mission is "to make and keep useful information from its projects available on the internet free of charge, in perpetuity."

It is only because of this commitment that the volunteers who actually write Wikipedia – a task in which the Wikimedia Foundation plays no part – are prepared to do it for free.

There is also an obvious logical contradiction in begging people – especially people in developing countries – for money "to keep Wikipedia free".

"Keep Wikipedia online, ad-free and growing"

(3) About a year ago, you donated Rs. 313 to keep Wikipedia online for yourself and millions of people around the world. Each year, fewer than 2% of Wikipedia readers choose to support our work.

(4) please renew your gift to ensure that Wikipedia remains independent, ad-free, and growing for years to come

(5) can we count on you to renew your solidarity with a small donation? It will keep Wikipedia online, ad-free, and growing for years to come

References to keeping Wikipedia "online and ad-free" were commonly used on fundraising banners in the mid-2010s, and were discontinued after significant controversy (see the 2015 Signpost report). It is somewhat surprising, therefore, to see them used in emails sent to donors in India today. The WMF has confirmed that it has no intention of retiring these stock phrases – which would have been far more justified fifteen or twenty years ago, when the Foundation was finding its feet financially, but seem very out-of-step with current financial realities.

The above quotes also refer to Wikipedia's "independence" – a theme that has been used on the Wikipedia banners as well (in phrases like "This Sunday, we request you to sustain Wikipedia's independence" or "protect Wikipedia's independence").

But if this independence is to be measured by the WMF's money reserves – which are now over ten times greater than they were ten years ago, and about three times greater than they were as recently as five years ago – it is surely under far less threat than ever before.

"To support the volunteers"

(6) 31% of your gift will be used to support the volunteers who share their knowledge with you for free every day.

This is another interesting phrase. 31% of 2020–2021 donations revenue would have been about $50 million. The WMF says the 31% figure comes from the annual report (where it is called "Direct support to communities" and refers to 31% of spending, which is of course much less than 31% of revenue). But even so, it is somewhat unclear what specifically this amount refers to. It is an order of magnitude greater than the WMF's grants to the community in 2020–2021. And those who write our articles, take our photos, and maintain our armadas of bots and modules and templates are doing it for free.

What do you think? We'd love to hear from you below.

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Elon Musk Takes on a Beleaguered Icon
What is a recession? Wikipedia can't decide
Yes, it is possible. Musk would have to create a non-profit to buy it and keep it non-profit[2], and the W?F would have to be willing to take Musk's money - and when has the W?F ever not been willing to compomise their integrity for personal gain? (Example: fibbing to poverty stricken parts of the world to get them to give more.) Guy Macon Alternate Account (talk) 19:53, 30 July 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Just to be clear, the actual claim that Wikipedia "Wikipedia has changed the definition of ‘recession’ and locked the page from further edits"[3] is unadulerated bullshit. Just look at Talk:Recession#ATTENTION NEW VISITORS TO THIS PAGE and the "The infamous sentence in various revisions" section of Talk:Recession#RfC: Phrasing of the infamous sentence. One can only hope that the various media outlets pushing this will read the actual evidence and issue a correction. --Guy Macon Alternate Account (talk) 21:30, 30 July 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]
Dining out a few early evenings ago my companion mentioned that I'm a Wikipedia editor. Got the frequent "OH, wow, I send a contribution every year." Gave the usual answer, "That's nice but what we Really want is your mind. Go ahead, click EDIT and fix something. If you do it wrong the cleanup crew will take care of it. Yes, me and several thousand others." No time to go into details, of course, nor the question of where the money goes; the main point is "Anyone can edit".Jim.henderson (talk) 16:55, 2 August 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]

English fundraising emails

The WMF has posted samples of the English fundraising emails to be used in the upcoming email campaign, scheduled to run from September 6 to November 20. The texts are almost identical to the ones critiqued here – asking people to donate to "keep Wikipedia online", "protect Wikipedia" (I've copied the email texts below, for reference). Everything is focused on Wikipedia, as though the Foundation were struggling to keep Wikipedia up and running, and there is nothing specific about the WMF's many other projects and activities, including the Strategic Direction.

Should the volunteer community try to provide donors and the public with more background information? If so, what's the best way to go about it? --Andreas JN466 11:31, 10 August 2022 (UTC)Reply[reply]

Email 1

From: jimmy@wikipedia.org donate@wikimedia.org
Subject: You are one of those rare exceptions
Date: August 3, 2022 at 7:58 PM
To: nisrael@wikimedia.org

My name is Jimmy Wales, and I'm the founder of Wikipedia. In the past, you donated to keep Wikipedia online for yourself and millions of people around the world. Each year, fewer than 2% of Wikipedia readers choose to support our work. You have been one of those rare donors, and for this I want to thank you warmly. I'm grateful you agree that we can use the power of the internet for good. We will achieve this not as individuals, but as a collaborative movement of knowledge seekers. Together, we can rebuild trust in the internet, and by extension, in each other.

Will you renew your solidarity with a donation?

This is awkward to admit, but I have to be honest: 98% of our readers don't give; they simply look the other way when we ask for an annual donation. We choose not to charge a subscription fee, but that doesn't mean we don't need support from our readers. We don't send a fundraising email every month. We respectfully ask for just one donation this year so that Wikipedia may continue to move forward and offer knowledge to the world.

If all our past donors gave a small amount today, our fundraiser would be over. Unfortunately, most people will ignore this message. We have no choice but to turn to you: please renew your gift to ensure that Wikipedia remains independent, ad-free, and thriving for years to come.

We're a non-profit. That means we aren't selling the articles that millions of people read on Wikipedia each day. We don't profit from the knowledge you seek. In fact, we firmly believe that knowledge should exist outside of the realm of supply and demand. That's hardly a given nowadays; so much of the world's digital knowledge is driven by profit.

Wikipedia is different in that it doesn't belong to the highest bidder, the advertisers, or corporations. It belongs to you, the readers, editors, and donors. You're our community, our family. You're the reason we exist. The fate of Wikipedia rests in your hands and we wouldn't have it any other way.

It's readers like you who safeguard our non-profit mission. You help us maintain our integrity, quality, and accessibility. Today, please consider giving again, or even increasing your gift, to keep Wikipedia free and independent.

Now is the time we ask: can we count on you to renew your solidarity with a small donation? It will keep Wikipedia online, ad-free, and growing for years to come.

https://donate.wikimedia.org

Thanks,
Jimmy Wales
Founder of Wikipedia


Renew your donation

Where will your donation go?

42% of your gift will be used to sustain and improve Wikipedia and our other online free knowledge projects.

31% of your gift will be used to support the volunteers who share their knowledge with you for free every day.

27% of your gift will give the Wikimedia Foundation the resources it needs to fulfill its mission and advance the cause of free knowledge in the world.

Email 2

From: jimmy@wikipedia.org donate@wikimedia.org
Subject: It's non-negotiable
Date: August 3, 2022 at 8:01 PM
To: nisrael@wikimedia.org

WIKIPEDIA

You have been a Wikipedia donor in the past and have donated once.
You've unlocked:
Bronze Badge / Silver Badge / Gold Badge / Platinum Badge

When you gave in the past, you were one of those rare donors who kept Wikipedia thriving for yourself and millions of other readers.

Ready to earn your next badge? Please match your last gift today.

I took the liberty of emailing you a second time on behalf of the Wikimedia Foundation (the organization responsible for the protection of Wikipedia), because I wasn’t sure you got a chance to read the first email we sent to nisrael@wikimedia.org, the address we have on file for you since your last gift. I hope this badge will act as a reminder of how crucial your commitment to supporting free knowledge has been and still is to us.

At every turn, we have been pressured to compromise our values, but I'll be honest: This isn’t negotiable for us. People always ask us, why not just run ads to make revenue? Or capture and sell reader data? Or make everyone pay to read? While these things seem like the norm online nowadays, we'd like to remind you that there is another way--a way that doesn’t jeopardize the neutrality of our content and threaten your personal data. We just ... ask! Not often, but it works. After 21 years of saying no, I can still say we are proud to have left that money on the table.

We’re a non-profit. Only 2% of our readers give, but we manage to serve hundreds of millions of people per month. Imagine if everyone gave? We could transform the way knowledge is shared online.

I've been happily stunned by the response from our donors, but we haven't reached our fundraising goal and we don't have a lot of time left. We’re not salespeople. We’re librarians, archivists, and information junkies. We rely on our readers to become our donors, and it’s worked for over 20 years.

This year, please consider making another donation to protect and sustain Wikipedia.

We know people’s circumstances have changed a lot in
the last year. Some find themselves with less to spare, but
a lucky few happen to have a bit more. If you’re one of
the lucky ones, will you give a little extra to keep Wikipedia growing?

Renew your donation

Give 5

Give 20

Give 35

Give another amount

Any gift will unlock your next badge.

Thank you,
Jimmy Wales
Wikipedia Founder

DONATE NOW

Email 3

From: jimmy@wikipedia.org donate@wikimedia.org
Subject: Our final email
Date: August 3, 2022 at 8:01 PM
To: nisrael@wikimedia.org

I know you've heard from me twice already, so I'll get straight to the point. In the past, you were among the extremely rare readers who made a donation to invest in the future of free knowledge. If you've made it far enough to open this email, could you take a minute to help us out?

Many of our readers see our emails and think they'll get round to it later, but life happens and of course they forget. Our annual email fundraiser is coming to an end, so if you've been holding off until “later”, this is your moment.

I'm asking you respectfully: Please, renew your donation; it matters.

Around the time our fundraising campaign starts, I hear from friends, family, and long-lost classmates who see our fundraising messages while they're looking something up on Wikipedia. It's a reminder of how many folks, from all walks of life, rely on Wikipedia.

This incredible public support is crucial for our organization and our movement to thrive. It allows us to serve the world, and to do so with independence and integrity. We don't belong to anyone, because we belong to everyone.

You donated in the past and we sincerely thank you. If you still see value in Wikipedia, please sustain your support in 2022 and keep Wikipedia thriving.

This is our biggest fundraising moment of the year. It's when we launch the online campaign that brings in donors who will propel us throughout 2022 and beyond. I'm one of them. I'm a regular donor.

We are the non-profit that supports one of the world's most visited websites. We don't generate revenue by selling off our users' data to the highest bidder. We don't run ads that could jeopardize the integrity and neutrality of our content.

Though our size requires us to maintain the server space and programming power of a top site, we are sustained by the support of our donors who give an average of about $16. This year, will you take one minute to keep our work going?


5 / 20

25 / Other

Renew your donation

Give less this year

Thank you,
Jimmy Wales
Wikipedia Founder

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