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:
- Wikipedia is written by volunteers. If you want to give someone a gratuity, try to give it to the people who did the work.
- 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.
- 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:
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.
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
repair. 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.
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.
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:
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.