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.