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Does Wikipedia Really Need Your Money?



If you have landed on Wikipedia to look-up some esoteric phrase last week, you might have come across this awkwardly emotional donation plea. The Wikimedia Foundation (WMF), which maintains Wikipedia, began a fundraising campaign in India recently and it has garnered a lot of attention on social media.


And it is easy to see why. After all, it often acts as the first point during a search on any given topic (although questions have been raised on the veracity of the information due to its articles being collaboratively created and edited by a community of volunteers). The supporting numbers are staggering. Wikipedia is a public good that spans more than 50 million articles across 300 languages. 1.5+ billion unique devices access Wikimedia projects every month. With 350 edits per minute and roughly 6,700 pageviews per second, it is the 13th most popular website in the world, ranking above Amazon and Instagram. Readers in India visit Wikipedia more than 840 million times each month across 23 languages, the fifth highest number of views from any country. And Wikipedia did this without wavering from its 2006 promise to remain ad-free to avoid conflicting commercial interests. Yet, Wikipedia had an uptime of 99.97%, redesigned its apps and sites to be up to 51% less data-intensive and invested in ORES, an artificial intelligence service that automatically identifies and notifies potentially problematic content to editors.


However, does WMF actually need your donation? In today’s article, we explore the rationale behind these donations and try to validate the hypotheses they are based on.

While there may be more sophisticated arguments and beliefs where donating to the WMF is a great choice, based on anecdotal evidence and social media posts, the major reasons why people decide to donate to Wikipedia are as follows:


1. Wikipedia is in danger of shutting down

The short answer to this is no:

  • According to their 2018-19 annual report, the Foundation is sitting on net assets of USD 165 million. Of its total expenses of USD 91 million, operating expenses contribute to 56% of it (including ongoing engineering improvements, product development, design and research, legal support and administrative costs). So it could effectively run for more than 3 years without raising any money and just drawing on its reserves.

  • While millions of small donations - 7 million donors with an average of $15 per transaction - make up the majority of the Wikimedia Foundation’s operating budget every year, the Foundation has its fair share of larger organisations stepping in - Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Siegel Family Endowment, Google and a slew of corporate matching gift programs including Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, Intel and BMGF. Moreover, the Wikimedia Endowment Fund has been created in 2016 to serve as a permanent safekeeping fund to generate income to support the operations and activities of the Wikimedia projects in perpetuity (Arcadia has donated $5 million, while Musk Foundation, Amazon, Google and George Soros have donated more than $2 million).


2. It has helped so many people, so it's important for me to pay back

While WMF hosts the websites and maintains the underlying software, people have derived value from the content - something which has been created completely by volunteers. Neither are these donations going to past individual voluntary contributors. One could argue that adding content or fact checking and editing articles on a topic of your expertise a better way to pay back.


3. The donation contributes to increasing or improving content quality on Wikipedia

Donations don't go to content creators; WMF is dependent on 250,000+ volunteers who add and edit articles. Rather, they go into running the Foundation, where salaries account for 50.4% of its expenses (WMF has 400 odd people on rolls, predominantly software engineers for tech support). Grants and awards to volunteer contributors account for only 13.7% of its expenses. WMF has had mixed results in its efforts towards improving content quality, or expanding the range of editors and the quality of contributions.


4. WMF is extremely well run so there’s value in donating to it

The Wikimedia Foundation is reasonably well-run and efficient, but not extraordinarily so. It has a 98.14 rating by Charity Navigator, a US based non profit which rates 160,000+ charities. 71 charities across the world are rated a perfect 100.


A global consultation process in 2017 to develop a direction for the Wikimedia movement has led to the creation of Wikimedia 2030, with long-term goals of knowledge equity and knowledge as a service. With this in mind, WMF is modernizing their technical infrastructure, increasing diversity of content and contributors and increasing global traffic. WMF is trying to address these through discretionary spends - investing in Kiwix - a solution to make content accessible for people without online access, organising meet-ups of volunteers across the world, grants to organisations, including the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery for 248 images of historic women to be added to Wikimedia Commons and partnering with the UN for expanding human rights content. This has led to WMF increasing its operating expenditures to USD 111.5 million for FY 19-20, a 20% increase over FY 18-19’s budget. Spending on the above programs accounts for 76% of this budget, a slight % increase over 2018’s allocation.


Apart from the drive to expand content, particularly from underrepresented regions or groups, are the investments being made by WMF the best use of its resources? It is possible that other non-profits are in a better place to address these issues more efficiently.

Disclaimer - while some of the reasons for donating might be misguided, I do not intend to imply that there is anything morally wrong or imprudent about making small donations to WMF. Even I belong to the ranks of the misguided ones.


About the author: The post is written by Abhirup Roy with relevant edits from our editorial team. Abhirup is a graduate from IIM Ahmedabad and works with Zolo Stays. All views expressed in the post are personal, and not related to any organization to which the writer belongs.


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