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Make your Wikipedia donations count

By the Masked Maggot and Gregory Kohs

It’s that time of year again. The full-contact sport of Christmas shopping is reaching its peak, meteorologists are waxing on about polar vortices, and the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) is asking you to donate money (to pay for “servers, power, rent, programs, and staff”). If you use Wikipedia and appreciate its content and functionality, should you donate money to the WMF? The informed donor understands that the WMF spends your money on just about everything except improving Wikipedia’s content, which comes as a surprise to uninformed donors. If you do decide to give a cash donation to support Wikipedia, this year we suggest not donating to the WMF, but instead contributing directly to the Wikipedians who write the actual Wikipedia articles you find most useful. Later, we’ll show you how.

What is the Wikimedia Foundation, and why do they ask for money?


The Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit organization that was formed in 2003 to support the community-written encyclopedia Wikipedia. It had become clear to Jimmy Wales (who was the Internet entrepreneur who underwrote Wikipedia’s limited budget up until then) that trying to monetize Wikipedia with advertising or paid sponsorships would be too disruptive to the community of writers. Indeed, nearly the entire team working on the Spanish-language Wikipedia jumped ship in 2002 in response to even a mild suggestion that Wales’ company might run a few ads on Wikipedia pages, to help pay for staff. For the first several years of its operation, the WMF did genuinely support the Wikipedia community. The WMF remained a small organization with just a few employees to help organize the volunteer writers, photographers, and administrators, maintain and expand the servers, and support the (mostly volunteer) programmers who worked on small improvements to the core Mediawiki software. Back in the 2005-06 tax year, the WMF had total expenses of less than $700,000. But now, the WMF runs a budget of nearly $46 million.

When you draw back the curtain to see just how the WMF is spending this staggering influx of money, you discover that improving Wikipedia’s content is not really in the budget. Nearly $20 million goes toward salaries and wages — but none of the staff edit Wikipedia as part of their job function. Almost $6 million was spent last year on awards and grants — mostly funding international and regional “movement entities” that assemble staff and workshops to celebrate Wikipedia. Certainly, some of the workshops produce content for Wikipedia, too; but the writers are not typically compensated with anything more than pizza, sandwiches, and soft drinks. Even though most donors believe it’s the major cost factor, less than 6% of the WMF budget is spent on Internet hosting. Meanwhile, nearly as much (about $2 million) pays for 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.

The WMF staff busy themselves on things that rarely have anything to do with writing, organizing, or exercising editorial discretion over the actual written product of Wikipedia, which hundreds of millions of readers enjoy. Rather, the WMF now considers itself a software and technology organization. Some have argued that the WMF is doing more harm than good with its software innovations. The last two software roll-outs produced by the WMF were called Visual Editor and Media Viewer — both were loathed by a wide swath of loyal users. The WMF responded to the community’s rejection of its software by literally forcing it back on the community with a tool called “superprotect”. In turn, the international Wikipedia community fired back with a protest petition signed by over 900 registered users, which is an unheard-of level of turnout in the Wikimedia movement.

In fact, it appears that the Wikimedia Foundation has nearly run out of legitimate ways to spend the donors’ money, because much of it goes into the organization’s savings accounts and bonds, or pays for software programmers who are off-putting to the Wikipedia community of editors.

Meanwhile, the executive director position at the WMF earns a generous annual compensation package of a quarter-million dollars. Donors also subsidize travel budgets for California-based staff to attend hard-to-reach Wikimania summit locales (such as Haifa, Hong Kong, or London), and donor money underwrites an ever-growing team of outsourced lawyers and internal counsel who handle complaints and cases related to Wikipedia.

Where the WMF has paid for content



There have been two main cases where Wikimedia Foundation money subsidized new content on Wikipedia. Both came to light in 2012, and neither were handled in favorable ways. The first, known as “Gibraltarpedia”, began when the government of Gibraltar signed a deal with a director of Wikimedia UK (one of those “movement entities” that are largely funded by the WMF) to promote tourism in Gibraltar by showcasing topics in Wikipedia related to the tiny British territory. The conflict of interest from perceived commingling of donor funds with government PR funds erupted in the global press.

The second major WMF paid content project involved the Stanton Foundation and the Belfer Center. The trustee of the Stanton fund delivered over $50,000 to the Wikimedia Foundation, asking them to bankroll a Wikipedia editor who would be assigned to her husband’s office at the Belfer Center at Harvard University. Even though the WMF generated a job description asking for “an experienced Wikipedia editor”, the Belfer Center rejected all of the experienced Wikipedia editors pointed its way, selecting an applicant with no Wikipedia experience at all. Others later found evidence that he had plagiarized content from Belfer Center authors into Wikipedia. Embarrassed by the ensuing scandal, the WMF apologized to the community and vowed that no such paid editing arrangement would ever again be entered into.

An alternative way to fund Wikipedia

So, here we are in December again. Every holiday season, the WMF alerts readers with intrusive ads that the organization needs more money (ironically enough) to “keep Wikipedia free of advertising”. But there are unspent WMF cash reserves of $28 million (an increase of nearly $6 million over last year) plus investments of $23 million (also up nearly $6 million) to prevent any emergency slippage into ad-supported content. Early signs point to this year’s advertising being more intrusive than ever, potentially blocking out most of the Wikipedia article page (with Media Viewer software, of course). The reader would be begged for money, before allowing continuation on to the free content. Further, we suspect that most financial donors intend their cash donation to be a sort of “thank you gift” to the people who write Wikipedia, even though a vanishingly small amount of the money donated to the WMF ever finds its way directly to the authors of Wikipedia. But there’s a way you can change that. It’s called the Reward Board.

Considering all of the financial waste and community antagonism emanating from the Wikimedia Foundation, the Reward Board has the potential to be a more effective destination for those who want to support Wikipedia. The Reward Board is a page on Wikipedia where you can request improvements to articles on a particular subject that might need cleaning up, expansion, better images or other media, or that simply need correcting. For example, if you want better information or photographs relating to antique cars, reindeer, local wildflowers, or even home insulation, you can open a request and let the writers know how you’d like to see things improved. You can even request that a brand new article be written about something that Wikipedia doesn’t yet cover that it really should. Past offers on the Reward Board have paid to create articles ranging from the Fleetwood Mac song “Sentimental Lady”, to the Tennessee State Museum, to a canning company called Silgan Holdings.

If the article improvements are made to your satisfaction, you can pay the content writer directly, or you can offer to donate to a charity of their choosing. (It helps to make sure you have an e-mail address completed in your account preferences, so that you can communicate privately with recipients through Wikipedia’s private e-mail forwarding system.) Generally speaking, a Reward Board offer between $20 and $50 will accomplish an impressive amount of content creation. You may wish to remind any taker of a Reward Board offer that per the new WMF Terms of Use deployed earlier this year, they must disclose that they were compensated to make these edits to Wikipedia. Although person-to-person payments may not be tax exempt in the way a donation to the WMF may be, the Reward Board is a way to see Wikipedia improved in a tangible way, and what better method to directly thank the people who do the actual work of creating Wikipedia?


Image credits: Flickr/401(K)2013, Flickr/Images_of_Money, Flickr/RaMaOrLi, Krustilu Productions

17 comments to Make your Wikipedia donations count

  • brian

    I don’t care how much they have or spend, I use this site at least once a day, every single day of the year. They deserve 5 dollars from everyone.

  • Peryglus

    Most of the rewards posted on the Reward Board at current are just barnstars, which are not a real incentive. The only other things are a Dogecoin and a ticket to somewhere. No cash.

    • The fact that there are not current cash offers on the Reward Board doesn’t remove the fact that cash has been offered (and paid) numerous times in the past. I hope that this blog post inspires and outpouring of cash offers, and that Wikipedia’s content is thusly improved for millions of readers.

  • lspooner

    Additionally, the people who are getting the money, have little to do with the upkeep of the site. They are just paid execs.

  • Ross McPherson

    Seeking information from Wikipedia is like asking people in the street for directions. Paying is absurd. There are real beggars and real charities with real needs. Keep your donations for them.

    Some Wikipedians get their reward by imagining to themselves that they are providing a real public service, others find the work rewarding because they have nothing better to do. They are all wrong.

    A few Wikipedians get satisfaction out of bullying and scheming. Wikipedia does offer great opportunities for this. Funding them is unnecessary and even anti-social.

    Make the world a better place and remove Wikipedia from your search engine TODAY.

  • Steve

    I could not agree more with Brian! Also use it everyday, has been invaluable in allowing me to complete my PhD, so my GBP10 is well worth it.

    I dislike “Freeloading”, I believe if I use it, like it and derive value, it is reasonable to expect to pay for such a service.

    • eagle

      There have been a few instances of PhD candidates using Wikipedia as a part of their thesis research, and they have all ended very badly. Wikipedia does not contain reliable content for incorporation into a review of literature, and because it is a group writing project, any writing or expository work cannot be claimed by a PhD candidate as his/her own work. In one case, the PhD candidate sadly learned that the relevant Wikipedia text was a copyright infringement. Wikipedia is not research-friendly as a tool for conducting experiments in social media and related fields, and most universities have standards and protocols for the consent of humans to be used as the subject of experiements, with these standards barring PhD candidates from using Wikipedia editors as human lab rats. (Of course, Wikipedia treats its content creators worse than most researchers treat human lab rats.

  • Ross McPherson

    You use WP for your PhD? Either your PhD includes WP as a topic for original research or you are telling fibs, Steve.

    Come on, tell us what your PhD is about.

  • greg

    They could make hundreds of millions using ads. They morally ask for donations and I don’t care if they have 200mil unspent, I’m poor and will still donate them $5, I use them so much, love them, and admire their morality and creativity. God bless.

  • Piers Allbrook

    I use Wikipedia many times every day. It is a source that, while not totally free of bias, has a built in a correction process which is pretty good as it approaches a democratic mean; the excesses of political propaganda are nipped out.

    As a research tool? Obviously not and for a PhD the mind boggles! But as an introduction to topics in which ones knowledge is weak or out of date it is invaluable. The other point is availability to almost all rich and poor; my heart leaps in admiration.

    A word on advertising which is of course commercial propaganda of the worst type as it conditions people to become mindless consumers, the antithesis of Wikipedia. There are informative sites on products in Wikipedia if we want to find them and as such provide valuable information on consumer products often unavailable directly from manufacturers; not mindless advertising hype. Its absence is a magnificent relief and for the information it provides and the freedom from Ma Keting I am VERY happy to contribute a monthly sum.

    Unfortunately Google is another model so my screen has an unfair barrage of drivel which intrudes into MY space. As they say in the USA get out of my face Google!

    Anyhow in summary NO ADVERTISING and XXXX happy to give $$

    • Hersch

      Ironically, one of the main reasons that we in the USA might be inclined to say “get out my face Google!” is that Google invariably puts Wikipedia articles at or near the top of the list in search results, which encourages Google’s readers to become “mindless consumers.”