Much has been said, thought, and shouted about this month's big Request for Comment on the Wikimedia Foundation's proposed banner ads for 2022 – said RfC was closed on the 24th by Joe Roe, citing a "broad, near-unanimous consensus that these fundraising banners should not run on the English Wikipedia in their current form". This interview, carried out a couple days later, is from Lisa Seitz-Gruwell, the WMF's Chief Advancement Officer. Questions were submitted by The Land.
1. The Wikimedia Foundation has indicated some significant changes to its fundraising as a result of a recent Request for Comment. For those who haven't been following – what's changed? How much input are English Wikipedia editors going to have in fundraising banners from now on?
The close of the RfC included some clear direction about some of the messaging that we've used in different fundraising banners. We have been following this RfC over the past two weeks and collecting feedback and specific suggestions about how to change the banners based on some of the comments in the RfC. We created a new page where we are sharing banner messaging for the upcoming English Wikipedia banner campaign alongside volunteers. That page includes five options for banners that were written with ideas from volunteers, and a space for volunteers to suggest other ideas as well.
We will be introducing more direct community input into fundraising messaging. That's a commitment that our CEO Maryana Iskander emphasized in her note to the community on November 25. We don't know what that process looks like yet, however the fundraising team welcomes your help and ideas on the banners.
2. Could you explain what happens inside the WMF when Wikipedians raise concerns about something. For instance, concerns about fundraising messaging have been raised one way or another for some time now. At what point does the WMF notice community concern on an issue, and at what point does it act on it?
There are many people across the Foundation who are constantly reading, discussing and responding to the questions we hear from the communities. For example, Julia Brungs, JBrungs (WMF), Advancement's Community Relations Specialist, is dedicated full-time to engaging our communities around fundraising and can usually be found on talk pages answering questions and sharing the latest updates. With such a global movement, community conversations happen in a variety of different spaces, including on and off-wiki, and determining what the prevailing feeling is amongst a majority of volunteers is not always easy.
There are some changes that staff can make on their own in response to community feedback and do so immediately. However, there are some requests that have far reaching impacts that require buy-in from others. For example, the changes that we are making to fundraising in response to the RfC may have significant budgetary impacts for the Wikimedia Foundation. A decision of this magnitude is not one that the fundraising team can or would make by itself. The Board of Trustees have been thoughtful partners as we've made changes to the fundraising approach in response to the RfC, with the understanding that this may require adjustments to the budget.
3. In recent years the Wikimedia Foundation's expenditure has grown significantly, but the amount of fundraised income has grown even faster than expenditure. In some ways, this is a great problem to have. But will there come a point where the Foundation has enough money?
We try to fundraise more than we spend because it is a best practice for nonprofits to have operating reserves. For example, in order to receive the highest rating from nonprofit rating agencies like Charity Navigator, a nonprofit must have a minimum of 12 months of operating expenses held in reserve. Recently, the board adopted a working capital policy that defines how much the Foundation should have in reserves, which they set at 12 to 18 months of operating expenses. If the annual budget grows, we have to in turn grow the reserve in order to stay within that target range which is why we try to raise more than we spend.
But I want to get to the heart of your question of whether the Foundation has the money it needs. We have a vision to share the sum of all knowledge and a 2030 strategic direction. We have a lot more work to do to come close to achieving these goals, whether that is maintaining and improving our sites so more people can access and participate in knowledge, supporting the growth of knowledge in other languages (many of which have far less content than English Wikipedia), increasing awareness about the Wikimedia projects – the list goes on. As Maryana stated in her response, the Foundation has seen rapid growth over the past several years. We're not going to continue to grow at the rate we have in the past. The emphasis will be on better delivering on these goals with the resources we have.
4. What's the purpose of the Wikimedia Endowment, and how can community members be sure that the money in it will be spent in line with our values?
The Wikimedia Endowment's purpose is “to act as a permanent fund that can support in perpetuity the operations and activities of current and future Wikimedia projects.” If you look at the mission statement of the Wikimedia Foundation the phrase “in perpetuity” is there, meaning we are called upon to build something that ensures we can fulfill the mission forever. Until we founded the Wikimedia Endowment seven years ago, we had very little we could point to that was focused on the long term. Currently, we are in the “Endowment Building Phase,” meaning we are building up the principal of the fund. Last year, we hit our initial fundraising goal and are now considering the plan going forward. Last year, we conducted interviews with donors and community members to get their ideas for more focus for what the Endowment should support. The Community Committee of the Wikimedia Endowment includes community members Phoebe Ayers and Patricio Lorento as trustees, and is developing a proposal for what the endowment should support in the short term and it will be shared in 2023.
5. What are the Wikimedia Foundation's internal policies and expectations about ethical fundraising, and are there any regulatory or professional codes of practice that the Foundation follows? For instance – does the Foundation follow the Association of Fundraising Professionals Code of Ethical Standards?
Ethical fundraising shouldn't just be a policy, but part of our overall culture. This year, we conducted a training on the “Culture of Philanthropy,” first for the fundraising team and then as a plenary at our annual all-staff meeting. This is the idea of acknowledging and working for the common good, the same type of intrinsic motivation that I think drives many in our volunteer communities.
Within that overall approach, we follow best practices for ethical fundraising – including those laid out in the AFP policy, such as valuing the privacy of groups impacted by our fundraising, prioritizing mission over personal gain, and staying up to date on various ethical codes in the philanthropic profession. There is one part of the AFP Code that is slightly at odds with how we operate in that we share more data about our overall fundraising revenue and provide more frequent unofficial data than they recommend, in order to be as transparent as possible.
6. How do you see the Wikimedia Foundation's fundraising evolving in future? Are there any challenges on the horizon? In the long term, do you expect fundraising to be decentralised, in line with the Movement Strategy recommendations?
Change is the only constant in our fundraising. We keep evolving our fundraising based on the organization's and the movement's needs and external factors.
Over the years, we have diversified our revenue strategy. Increasingly, people are accessing Wikimedia content in other places besides our sites, including through voice assistants. The potential challenges mean that we need to continue to adapt our fundraising model as we have done over the years, shifting from a primary model of readers seeing banners on the desktop version of Wikipedia, to also engaging on mobile devices, over email, and a monthly giving program, among other things. The Endowment, discussed above, and Wikimedia Enterprise, are also strategies to increase our long term resilience.
Both in the long term and the short term, we expect continued changes in how we raise funds for the movement and where those funds go. When it comes to decentralizing fundraising, we are having conversations with affiliates about that now. In addition, the new funding strategy for movement grants embraces a more participatory decision-making model where volunteer regional committees evaluate and make decisions on grants. There are many other discussions happening that will also have an impact on this question, such as the concept of regional hubs and what that means for the role of affiliates, the Foundation, and new structures in the movement. I don't have answers to these questions yet, and this is something that we will need to decide together alongside the communities.