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The Wikipedia Fundraising Banner: Sad but Untrue

By the Masked Maggot and friends


We’ve been amused and bemused watching the reactions to the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) fundraising campaign over the past couple of weeks. Simply and clearly put, here’s why you should think twice about donating:

  1. Wikipedia is written by volunteers. If you want to give someone a gratuity, try to give it to the people who did the work.
  2. The WMF does not write the encyclopedia. While a few pennies (just under 6, in fact) of your donated dollar go to the internet hosting, the vast majority goes to providing salaries, travel expenses, and really nice furniture for the rapidly growing staff of what has essentially become a software company.
  3. The software produced has been fairly poor, and has been imposed by the foundation on the volunteers, who really wish the foundation wouldn’t do that.

This isn’t at all surprising to those of us who have watched the development of the WMF over the years. Jimmy Wales, who calls himself the “sole founder”, was actually more like a venture capitalist or a rainmaker: the idea, ideals, and architecture were developed on a philosophy listserv where Larry Sanger (don’t let Jimmy hear you call him “co-founder”) led the effort. The encyclopedia project itself was then taken up by avid volunteers from slashdot and usenet. Jimmy realized that he’d alienate the volunteers if he tried to monetize it, but as it turned out he could make a great living out of it by becoming the spiritual leader and taking paid speaking gigs. Recently, he even got a half-million dollars from a foundation dedicated to giving a good humanist aura to Dubai (the Wikipedians aren’t sure what to think about that).


The Wikimedia Foundation was set up to take over the management of the project when Jimmy got too busy with the speaking engagements. In its early years it was just what you’d want it to be: a humble organization with a small staff of community veterans which served to help organize and connect the volunteer community. This all changed in 2007 when they hired an executive director from the outside, and gave her a mandate to raise lots of funds to expand the organization. With that big pile of money, they looked around to see how to spend it. For a while they concentrated on building and supporting local autonomous chapters dedicated to improving the encyclopedia and other free educational resources, but had difficulty managing those groups. Eventually they turned their attention and money to the software engineering department led by Erik Möller, and have since expanded it massively.

As we’ve pointed out before, the community hasn’t been very happy about this. The WMF’s mission seems to be drifting further and further from its original purpose, but because they own the trademarks and the servers, they’re able to use the product to raise funds for their new mission. Even Mr. Wales doesn’t go that far.

The Wikipedians have had quite a lot to say about this year’s fundraising banner on wikimedia-l, the main mailinglist for the foundation:

Ryan Lane, creator of Wikimedia Labs, ex-Wikimedia staffer, wrote:

I know I used to write an email internally every year, saying our banners
are getting out of control, but that’s because every year they get bigger
and more obscuring of the content. This year, as usual, is not an exception.
However, this year the banners didn’t just get bigger, the copy seems to be
more fear inducing as well.

Today I had a coworker private message me, worried that Wikipedia was in
financial trouble. He asked me if the worst happened, would the content
still be available so that it could be resurrected? I assured him that
Wikimedia is healthy, has reserves, and successfully reaches the budget
every year. Basically I said there wasn’t much to worry about, because there

The messaging being used is actively scaring people. This isn’t the first
person that’s asked me about this. When they find out there’s not a real
problem, their reaction quickly changes. They become angry. They feel

My coworker told me that he donates generously every year, which is rare for
him because he doesn’t often donate to charities. He said this year’s ads
are putting him off. He doesn’t feel like he should donate.

I understand that efficient banner ads are good, because they reduce the
number of times people need to see the ad, but it’s not great when people
stop posting funny banner memes and start asking Wikimedia to switch to an
advertising model (seriously, do a quick twitter search).

– Ryan Lane

In a later post Ryan mentioned that it’s making him feel embarrassed to be a Wikipedian.

Wikimedia software developer (MediaWiki core Senior Performance Engineer) Ori Livneh speaks up as well:

I wouldn’t come out quite as strongly against these banners, but I share
the underlying sentiment.

I agree that the urgency and alarm of the copy is not commensurate with my
(admittedly limited) understanding of our financial situation. Could we run
a survey that places the banner copy alongside a concise statement of the
Foundation’s financials, and which asks the respondent to indicate whether
they regard the copy as misleading.

Quantitative assessments of fundraising strategy ought to consider impact
on all assets, tangible or not. This includes the Foundation’s goodwill and
reputation, which are (by common wisdom) easy to squander and hard to
. It is critical that we be maximally deliberate on this matter.

In addition to the survey suggested above, I want to also propose that we:

(a) solicit input from a neutral reputation management consultancy, and
(b) create a forum for staffers to talk openly about this matter, without
fear of reprisal

All that being said, since this is a tough thread, and since it is
Thanksgiving weekend here in the US, it is a good opportunity to express
how much I appreciate the work of the fundraising team. Banners are never
going to be popular and it must be tough as hell to do this work while
fielding rants and grumbles from everybody and their cousin. I consider it
a stroke of cosmic luck that I get paid to work on Wikipedia
and its sister
projects, and I am grateful to you for making that possible.

Of course our ears perk right up at the “fear of reprisal”. Perhaps things are as bad at the office as they are between the spokespersons and the community.

Martijn Hoekstra, a longstanding Wikipedia admin, wrote:

Dear fundraising team. Thank you for your efforts to make the fundraiser as
quick as possible. I understand that effective banners allow us to keep the
yearly donation drive as short as possible.

Yet the banners I’m seeing this year leave me troubled about the appearance
and the message presented. For the appearance, it is the size and
obnoxiousness that bothers me. They seem to be designed to annoy the reader
as much as possible. I know they only work when people notice them but do
we really *have* to (select one from list: play audio/ obscure our content
forcing a click through / use animated content / take up the majority of
the screen above the fold). It annoys our users, the people we do it all
for, to no end. Take a look at Twitter, it’s not just one or two people.

Secondly I’m alarmed about the content. That should come to no surprise to
the fundraising team, because I can’t imagine this content hasn’t been
written to evoke the maximum amount of alarm.

But it crosses the line towards dishonesty. Yes the WMF can use the
donations, and yes they generally spend it well. But the lights won’t go
off next week if You don’t donate Now. The servers won’t go offline. We’re
not on immediate danger. Yet that’s what this year’s campaign seems to want
the message to be. But don’t take my word for it, take a look at the
messages accompanying the donations. People are genuinely worried. They
will be angry if they find out they’re being manipulated, and they would be
right. Generally I’m proud of what we do as movement and proud of much of
the way we do it. These banners make me ashamed of the movement I’m part
of. And frustrated that I seem to be unable to change it in the long run, I
think I may have send out a similar email to this one last year.

For now, two requests.
# could you please stop misleading the reader in our appeal?
# could you please make the banners a little less invasive? So that the
don’t obscure content unless dismissed, and so that they take up more than
50% of the space above the fold.

I know you work hard for the fundraiser to be successful, and as brief as
possible, but please take in consideration the dangers of damaging our
reputation for openness and honesty, and the impact on our volunteers.

Kind regards,


John Vandenberg, a longstanding Wikipedia administrator, former arbitrator, and past president of Wikimedia Australia, chimes in:

Lila, the concern is not that the fundraiser is working, which your
soundbite confirms, but that it is deceiving people, or at least
manipulating them ‘too much’ to be consistent with our values.

One way to test that would be to organise a survey for donors,
informing them of the current financials, the current strategy
document and current status on achieving that strategy, a breakdown on
where the money is currently going and ask them whether they are happy
with the amount and tone of the information they were given before
being asked to donote. WMF donors may already being surveyed like
this (ideally done by academics in the discipline rather than WMF
staff/contractors); if so, hopefully that data can be shared.

In addition to the concern about the tone of the fundraiser damaging
the brand, there is a strong correlation between increased WMF revenue
(and the growth of chapters) and the loss of edit contributors. Has
research been done to rule out causation? i.e. specifically asking
previously highly productive volunteers who have stopped contributing
whether they feel the increase in funds has not resulted in their work
being adequately supported?

Finally, even David Gerard, who you might find just about anywhere on the web ferociously defending the WMF from any critic anywhere, is displeased:

“Wikipedia begging for donations per usual. “Advertising isn’t evil”
they say as they throw a second nag at me as I scroll down.”

https://twitter.com/enemyplayer/status/ … 4739988481

Obnoxious banners *really do damage the brand*.

What are the fundraiser metrics? If they don’t include effect on the
brand, they’ll be motivating damaging behaviour.

– d.

There’s many more opinions on the mailing list if you want to read more, including some strikingly tone-deaf posts from the WMF trustees and upper-level staff, but you get the point. It’s just another example of the WMF cashing in on the golden tickets, while alienating the volunteers who print what’s turned out to be golden tickets.

The good news is that the volunteers (and some of the staff) are starting to take a stand on it. Here’s hoping they’ll eventually win the day.


Image credits:  Flickr/aresauburn™, Flickr/Annie Mole ~ Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

25 comments to The Wikipedia Fundraising Banner: Sad but Untrue

  • Wikimedians have a habit of lying about how well off their foundation is doing. In 2012, the Wikimedia Foundation took in $35 million, yet longtime Wikipedia apologist David Gerard said in an interview that the site relied on “gaffer tape and string” to get by. In 2013, a year in which the Foundation took in $51 million, Wikimedia Foundation employee Brandon Harris had this to say: “We’re poor. It’s that simple. We don’t have a lot of money to pay large teams of app developers.”

    • Radiant Orchid

      Brandon Harris (Jorm) has left the WMF. He’s now teaching User Experience Design. If you like the dated and clunky Wikipedia interface, you can learn from the WMF’s former Senior Designer. Jorm’s the guy who brought the world such things as the “Moodbar” and “Article Feedback Dashboard” among other initiatives. Both of those high profile failures have been quietly retired. It’s just a shame he didn’t stick around long enough to see Flow unleashed on the unsuspecting masses.

  • metasonix

    And if you post one of the news reports about this on Reddit, this is the result. Note the top comment, upvoted 1122 times:

    “Wikipedias indirect contribution to the worlds economies is so big, people should stop bitching about them asking for some pennies”

    How does one counteract this type of mass stupidity?

  • HRIP7

    Here is the most recent Wikimedia financial statement (2013/2014):


    It speaks for itself.

  • Sidereal

    The relationship between the community and the software development team/projects and the non-technical WMF elements is far more complex than these recent blog posts would have readers believe.

    Much of the the supposedly overwhelming community opposition to the recent releases is undermined by the fact that many of the critics quite clearly don’t understand who the intended user is, or don’t understand how it’s supposed to work, or indeed simply don’t understand software projects of this scope/nature at all. Some of them don’t even understand the the difference between Wikimedia, Wikipedia and the WMF.

    Yes, on the whole it’s been buggy and communications have been poor, but the reality is, for what is being asked of the developers to create, people really don’t have any solid grounds to criticize at all.

    The community (and the people writing these blogs) might not like to hear it, but even if you chucked all the money donated in these drives directly at the WMF’s paid software teams, you wouldn’t see the sort of quality or slick communications/feedback cycles being demanded.

    The money required to do this to a professional standard is many times what’s available. By comparison to similar organisations who need similar software, the WMF is indeed a total pauper.

    And again, whether people like it or not, if the goal is to attract and retain volunteer editors with the necessary expertise to write good quality articles, there are solid reasons why most of the money and paid effort should be going into software initiatives.

    Those who advocate paying editors to take up the slack previously filled by volunteers have completely missed the point – you aren’t going to fix with money what has been broken by systemic failures in how new volunteer editors are treated by the increasingly small amount of existing editors, who are increasingly hostile and set in their ways.

    [note: the second half of this comment was removed. ~ Wikipediocracy staff]

    • Sidereal

      What a surprise. So, if I make a comment that’s critical of Wikipedia, it will pass moderation, but if I add to it criticism of the way Wikipediocracy works, it will not pass moderation?

      Remind me again, this site is supposed to be differentiating itself from the abusive practices or Wikipedia, or is it just simply a mirror, with the definitions of good and bad reversed.

      You dropped the ball this week and as a result missed out on a name-check in a media piece that was highly critical of Wikipedia.

      Have the guts and the honesty to admit that it’s not me who was responsibly for that, quite the reverse. Most your members, even some of your trustees, clearly know a lot less about these issues than I do, and a large part of your user base is dedicated to not seeing some of the things the media want to talk about, being covered at all.

      • We will hopefully be able to carry on with our slightly diminished knowledge “about these issues”, if it comes with the benefit of not having to be reprimanded every 7 or 8 minutes about the grave mistakes we make by not laying down and worshipping the greatness that is “Sidereal”.

        • Sidereal

          Ha Ha. The only person who seems to think they need worshipping here is you. You criticised me for not contributing to other topics, so it was funny to recall that when I posted in a thread about ITN to change that, you followed that immediately with a post about how it would be good if WO blogged about ITN. Then the thread just meandered off into off topic trolling. Nobody, not one WO member, even replied to my post, even though it was about the only one that had responded in the manner you apparently hope the forum would operate.

          Now, I know it’s not going to permeate your ego, but in my humble estimation based on such experiences, my knowledge of ITN from the perspective of writing a WO blog piece on it (good enough to actually be picked up by the media, something recent posts have failed to do), far exceeds by an order of magnitude anything available from the members you choose to keep. The person who started that thread on the forum didn’t even know the basics of either how ITN is supposed to work in theory, let alone how it’s actually working in practice.

          The same failings in depth/breadth of knowledge exist on WO in all sorts of other important topic areas, areas which you in your wisdom chose to deny me a voice on for no good reason except your ego.

      • metasonix

        Sidereal: {blah blah}

        Ah, shaddap.

        If you have an issue with Wikipediocracy, start your own blog or website and have at it. Better make sure you’ve got solid information before running anything, or at least try to make it somewhat entertaining.

        This blog is officially aimed at criticism of Wikipedia. NO “ocracy” at the end, okey dokey?

        • Sidereal

          It’s rock solid. I’ve got the reason why I was banned from the forum on record, the number and frequency with which WO has covered the topic of the GGTF/Eric on record (blogs and forum posts), and, in the public area at least, anyone is able to compare my forum contributions to the members who are supposedly bringing more to the table as far as the “official” aim of this site.

          Other than that though, what I suspect people would be more interested in, is how often the traits of Wikipedia and Wikipediocracy look remarkably similar. Their definition of trolling for example, seems to be the same – on both sites it’s not defined as it is in the real world, rather it’s defined as saying something ‘we’ disagree with, and is used as a pretext for bans which would otherwise be hard to explain.

        • Sidereal

          Hard to explain in terms of the official aim that is. It’s easy to explain once you realise just how many WO members are only here to advocate for views which the media, even the most critical of Wikipedia, would dismiss as garbage.

          Namely all those people who are only here to push the ‘Wikipedia needs more Erics’ line. The reason they’re here and not on their usual home of Wikipedia is because they know they can’t get away with this on Wikipedia, yet it obviously has nothing to do with the official aims of WO.

          I was only banned because the trustees are apparently easily bored by these issues being argued over here, and instead of forcing the people who are not posting anything in the forum that would ever make it into the mainstream press in the process of those arguments, they chose to ban me, the only person who was mindful of how to present it in a way that the media would take up.

          Result? The issue made it to the press without any mention of WO – and the only thing any trustee here had to say about that, was to make the ridiculous claim that the journo must have been acting on a request from Jimbo.

          Yet despite two blogs posts on the fundraising banner issue and counting, the only coverage I’ve seen that generate is a tiny piece in the Telegraph City section.

          Perhaps that’s because the blogs are being written in the usual house style of mixing some facts in with some deliberate bias to push the trustees own selfish motives as much as any more grandiose vision.

          Any site I would create to compete with WO would avoid those pitfalls, as I have no special personal financial interest in taking down Wikipedia, but I do have the necessary experience and knowledge to criticise it with some authority and in a way that’s digestible to non-experts, particularly the media.

          It’s sad that Greg and the other trustees don’t see it.

  • eagle

    Everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion, but there are better places to express your views:


    Consumer Protection Bureau
    Federal Trade Commission
    600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
    Washington, DC 20580



    Attorney General’s Office
    California Department of Justice
    Attn: Public Inquiry Unit
    P.O. Box 944255
    Sacramento, CA 94244-2550

    Don’t waste your time posting your concerns here or on the WMF mailing list. There are people whose full time job is to police misleading solicitations by charities. Thanks.

  • Sidereal

    At Jimbo Talk, Sparkzilla espouses the sort of view I’m talking about:

    “Costs, mainly for programming staff have doubled while the number of users is steady or even declining”

    Surely it’s beyond obvious to anyone who spends more than a day on these things, that, for good or for bad, the reason the WMF has ramped up the software spending is because they think one of the main reasons for the decline in editors is their crappy software.

    • HRIP7

      Sidereal, I think you’re right inasmuch as sorting out their software engineering is indeed the right idea, and you’re also right that it will require a far larger and better managed staff than they’ve had to date (which is exactly what their new VP Engineering, Damon Sicore, said recently upon joining Wikimedia).

      The problem with the fundraising banners is that the public is told something else. They’re told money is needed to keep Wikipedia online and ad-free, as though there were a danger of it blinking out of existence, or having to run ads for online poker, if people don’t donate now. And that is ethically problematic. Internet hosting is such a small part of Wikimedia expenses today that it really doesn’t figure.

      These fundraising messages are a hangover from the past, when Internet hosting truly was Wikimedia’s biggest expense (within a budget about one-thousandth the size it is today).

      Wikimedia is a non-profit with a much-loved product, Wikipedia. If they want money to expand and further professionalise their software engineering effort, they should simply trust the public with the truth, and start doing so now. Long-term, that is the more sustainable strategy.

      • Sidereal

        Yes, I was able to discern that basic point from the blog. I was merely following up on the issue of the software-community relationship and whether or not the WMF should be a software company, as it’s being referred to heavily in the blogs as well.

        I’ve got a few things I could say about the basic issue of the honesty of the banners, but that’s not really the sort of thing that needs any particular in-depth or historical knowledge to be able discuss, so I’m guessing whatever’s being said in the forum on that by all the non-troll users like Carrite & Writgeist et al will serve that purpose.

        Anyone who wants to get into real detail about some of the issues re. Wikipedia software projects, with reference to some real examples, that show how/why there is and always will be a fundamental disconnect between the software team and the editors who have been most vocal about the software, then email whichever anonymous coward/s actually decided I have nothing to bring to WO and persuade them to let me back on. They decided to use Zoloft as their go between to tell me. Another example of how WO is not so dissimilar to WP.

        Until then, I guess you’ll have to just get used to simply hearing a bunch of people on the forum who are still avid Wikipedia editors simply use WO as a platform to bitch and whine about issues like Media Viewer which they are hopelessly clueless but nonetheless extremely opinionated about. Just like you were previously able to hear Sitush whining here about arbcom procedures even though he had clearly never even bothered to read their basic instructions, and just like The Joy complained about ITN etc etc …..

  • Sidereal said: Surely it’s beyond obvious to anyone who spends more than a day on these things, that, for good or for bad, the reason the WMF has ramped up the software spending is because they think one of the main reasons for the decline in editors is their crappy software.

    No amount of spending on programmers can fix Wikipedia for two reasons 1) they don’t know what the problem is (hint: it’s the wiki software itself and 2) they are not interested in improving the lot of the people who create the content. The WMF is a fundraising organization. As long as Wikipedia continues to provide a platform for them to place ads for free money they will do as little as possible to change things.

  • Ross McPherson

    If new is always best, the world would be minus a lot of charming pubs. Wikipedia is like a pub without charm. Can they jazz it up and attract more clients by spending big? What is the point if the same schmucks are lounging around the bar, doing deals in the toilet and bashing strangers in the carpark? I’m not going there again no matter what they do technologically. Don’t go there, folks. It is scheduled for demolition.

    • SB_Johnny

      Concentrating more efforts on volunteer coordination and support would certainly seem to be a better place to spend the funds, but they’ve never really figured out how to do that effectively.

  • HRIP7

    This year’s thank-you message for donors apparently reads,


    “Over the past year, gifts like yours powered our efforts to expand the encyclopedia in 287 languages and to make it more accessible all over the world. We strive most to impact those who would not have access to education otherwise. We bring knowledge to people like Akshaya Iyengar from Solapur, India. Growing up in this small textile-manufacturing town, she used Wikipedia as her primary learning source. For students in these areas, where books are scarce but mobile internet access exists, Wikipedia is instrumental. Akshaya went on to graduate from college in India and now works as a software engineer in the United States. She credits Wikipedia with powering half of her knowledge.

    “This story is not unique. Our mission is lofty and presents great challenges. Most people who use Wikipedia are surprised to hear it is run by a nonprofit organization and funded by your donations. Each year, just enough people donate to keep the sum of all human knowledge available for everyone. Thank you for making this mission possible.”


    Each year, just enough people donate to keep the sum of all human knowledge available for everyone? No, Wikimedia. Each year just enough people donate for you to have been able to

    accumulate $28 million in cash and $23 million in investments and
    increase your annual spending by more than 1,000% since 2008.

    • According to Wikipedia, you’d never get the sense that Solapur, India is a “town” (population 951,000), and certainly not one where poor girls like Iyengar have to rely on Wikipedia because books are scarce. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, nothing unpleasant has happened in Solapur for the past 80 years.

  • […] Yes, the pop-ups for donations were very annoying.  I was very promptly tweeted back with an UNSOLICITED letter from Wikipediocracy a group who considers itself  the watchdog of all things Wikepedic. To this I […]

  • noname given

    You are loser ingrate idiots.
    What would it take for you to appreciate something ?

  • Rubbish computer

    I can’t believe I just read the whole of this thoughtful, accurate article without realising it was from last year. Do Wikipedia always do this in the run up to Christmas?