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If you have been on Wikipedia in the past few days, you must have noticed an appeal from co-founder Jimmy Wales. It comes up every December, like clockwork. The world’s largest publicly-edited encyclopaedia needs donations, from you, to keep running.
But does it really?
Earlier this year, the Wikimedia Foundation (which runs Wikipedia) raised over $140,000 in its first week of accepting Bitcoin donations, according to Coinbase. That’s a significant amount of money, but the annual fundraising drive’s goal this year is to raise $20 million in the month of December.
What Does Wikipedia Need The Money For?
Like any website, Wikipedia has server costs, administration costs, staff costs, and more. For a website the size of Wikipedia, these costs are tremendous. It claims nearly half a billion unique visitors and over 20 billion page views every month. Wales calculates that raising $48 million over the course of the year pays for “less than a penny per person [visiting the site] per month.”
The Wikimedia Foundation’s 2014-2015 Annual Plan clarifies that the total operating budget calls for $58.5 million in spending, including $8.2 million in spending allocated for grants. These grants are spent in growing the community and content, although it doesn’t state the exact places that this money is spent.
The bulk of the expenditure goes towards better engineering and infrastructure. The new Wikipedia Android beta app (read our review) is a great example of the end result of this work. The staff is also planned to increase from 191 to 240.
Then there are initiatives like Wikipedia Zero, which serve Wikipedia at no cost to the user, especially useful in developing countries. Wikipedia Zero has been quite successful, serving 65 million page views per month, far higher than the 35 million estimated by the organization.
Wikipedia is transparent in saying it exceeded the planned revenue targets in previous years and expects to do the same this year. Of course, this has meant Wikipedia has plenty of reserves already. This currently stands at $28 million in cash and $23 million in investments, which the foundation explains as a decision to have a minimum of six months worth of total spending, in case of emergency.
Everything Might Not Be As Transparent As It Seems
What Wales says can create the picture that internet hosting is the major cost. But the Wikimedia foundation spends only about 6% ($2 million) on it. You know what gets the same amount of money? Travel and conferences.
“There is also a huge bucket for ‘other operating expenses’ totaling nearly $12.5 million — some of which certainly pays for expensive downtown office space in San Francisco,” writes Gregory Kohs, editor of Wikipediocracy.
Critics of Wikipedia often point to how much money is spent on “movement entites”, which are organizers who arrange for workshops and events to celebrate Wikipedia. On offer to the attending writers is just soda and pizza, Kohs says.
If you think Wikipedia should spend more money on the people who make and manage the content, you aren’t alone. Sue Gardner, the former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, raised some “significant concerns” last year before she left the organization:
I believe that currently, too large a proportion of the movement’s money is being spent by the chapters. The value in the Wikimedia projects is primarily created by individual editors: individuals create the value for readers, which results in those readers donating money to the movement… I am not sure that the additional value created by movement entities such as chapters justifies the financial cost, and I wonder whether it might make more sense for the movement to focus a larger amount of spending on direct financial support for individuals working in the projects.
Gardner also called for more accountability of these movement entities who request funds, to clearly define success or failure.
The Case For Donating To Wikipedia
So why should you donate to Wikipedia when it could be cutting costs and tightening its belt? Wales reasons that it’s important to invest in engineering and innovation, which leads to things like the new visual editor, supporting more languages, or making mobile apps.
Most people love Wikipedia because you can learn something new every day with Wikipedia. Wired journalist Emily Dreyfuss wrote about her reasons to donate, which echo the frustration felt by many readers when they see Wikipedia begging for money, but also why it’s a good idea to donate nonetheless:
Wikipedia is the best approximation of a complete account of knowledge we’ve ever seen. It’s also the most robust. The most easily accessed. And the safest. It exists on servers around the world so, unlike the library at Alexandria, it can’t be burned down.
But it could be cached. It could be left to stagnate, neglected and forgotten. Worse, it could become the rarefied domain of the monied elite, like so much information before it. I’d hate to see that, and hate it even more if I’d been part of it. So, fine, Jimmy Wales. I will do my part.
NYMag also interviewed four people who donated to Wikipedia, to find out why they did it despite knowing they could still use the site.
And then there are people like Jim Pacha, who donated his entire estate to the Wikimedia Foundation.
The Case Against Donating To Wikipedia
There are enough people who believe Wikipedia doesn’t need your donations any more.
The cash reserves aside, it’s argued that the site’s potential to generate revenue hasn’t been tapped. While Wikipedia is staunchly against advertising (for the potential conflict of interest in the authenticity of its content), there are other revenue models that could be explored. Wikipediocracy’s Kohs makes a case for licensing content to sites like Google, which use Wikipedia’s material in its search results–and makes money off it through advertising. Similarly, you can even make your own books from Wikipedia, a service that the foundation could offer at a small price.
Not everyone is against the idea of ads, though. ZDNet’s Stephen Chapman is fine with seeing ads, or coming up with any other revenue model that is sustainable. His logic, at its core, is compelling:
You know… while Wikipedia is certainly something special, it’s not so special that it can’t be easily replicated by someone who could do it better and make a killing doing so. If Wikipedia fails to meet its monetary requirements, then the idea of Wikipedia and the information therein is all out there, just waiting for someone else to come along and do it all again in a different, more easily sustainable manner.
Gardner’s desire to spend more money on the contributors has resonated with many people. One of them is Newsline’s Mark Devlin, who urges readers not to donate because “your money goes to a group of incompetent programmers and a management team that jets around the world for ‘outreach’.”