Wikipedia Has Lots of Money
If you’ve been on Wikipedia at any point in the past week, 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 Wikipedia.org — 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 three 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.”
At other nonprofits, of course, even those in the media field, 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.
But concerns linger, particularly among Wikipedia’s more cynical or independent-minded members. 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.”