Washington Post asks, “why give to Wikipedia?”

The Washington Post just published a story about the Wikimedia Foundation’s annual fund-raising campaign:

Wikipedia has a ton of money. So why is it begging you to donate yours?

Reporter Caitlin Dewey, who quoted me and several others, did a good job with a tough topic. I’m glad to see the Foundation’s approach called into question in a publication like the Post.

However, there’s an important piece the article doesn’t delve into.

The Foundation frequently justifies its own actions by identifying itself as an advocate for “the reader” — which seems to imply that volunteers are not. The refrain is reminiscent of the oft-ridiculed political/rhetorical sentiment “Think of the Children.” But the claim rings hollow to many Wikipedia volunteers; we are also motivated to offer value to the site’s readers. And we do so, by and large, on our own time.

A 2013 study by the Wikimedia Foundation found, 73% of contributors said “I like the idea of sharing knowledge and want to contribute to it.” It was the most popular answer in the study. Wikipedia volunteers are motivated by a desire to build a better world, not by a narrow desire to make things better for themselves.

Wikipedia is not near-anarchic, as the article suggests (though the comparison is understandable). Our decision-making structures are sophisticated and complex — often to the point of being infuriating. I don’t say they are ideal; many have criticized Wikipedia for becoming too bureaucratic. But there is coherence to what Wikipedians want, and careful observation can yield a good understanding of the common themes. Two examples illustrate this nicely:

  1. In 2010, an earlier incarnation of the Wikimedia Foundation invested $1 million (then a huge portion of its budget) in engaging 1,000 stakeholders to generate a five year Strategic Plan for the movement. That plan expires this year, and there is no commensurate effort to build a new one. In fact, last month, the Executive Director downplayed the value of strategic plans.
  2. Last year, I wrote an open letter to the Foundation’s leadership, requesting two simple changes to how it approaches software development — one of its most prominent activities. That letter has been signed by 1,000 people, but the Foundation has never formally acknowledged it, and has not addressed the second of the requests. This year, the three Trustees (out of ten) who are popularly elected all lost their bids for reelection. It was the highest turnout such an election has ever had, and Wikipedia’s resident historian Andrew Lih (also quoted in the Post piece) identified the software development clash as an important factor.

Wikipedia, arguably the most widely-read publication in history, has been fueled by the contributions of 100,000 volunteers, who are motivated by a wish to serve all humankind. Any implicit claim that it is fueled by a few hundred staff at the Wikimedia Foundation, or by the donations that fund it, deserves skepticism.

Dewey asked, “And if the community doesn’t want what’s best for Wikipedia long-term?” It’s a fair and worthwhile question.

But she stopped short of directly asking the same question about the Wikimedia Foundation. She stopped short of the kind of question many of us find ourselves asking more and more as the years go on, and as the budget grows: “What if the Wikimedia Foundation raises money on the strength of our work, only to undermine that work and sink the project?”

When I worry about the future of Wikipedia — and I do — I don’t worry about whether the Wikimedia Foundation has enough money.

Instead, I worry about whether the Wikimedia Foundation will ever tap into its greatest resource. I worry about whether it will learn to listen effectively to the volunteers who build Wikipedia, and to engage with us with respect and purpose.

About Pete Forsyth

Pete Forsyth is the principal of Wiki Strategies, and a Wikipedia expert. Full bio here: wikistrategies.net/pete-forsyth
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