Every year, Wikipedia flies a massive banner ad across the top of its website. It’s an appeal from Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, asking for donations to keep the website running.
Supposedly, Wikipedia needs your help to continuing running as it does. But does it really?
In June 2021, Wikimedia passed the $100 million mark on the Wikimedia Endowment, which wasn’t expected to be reached until 2026. Even excluding this nest egg, the Wikimedia Foundation saw a rise in assets of over $50 million during the 2020-2021 fiscal year.
What Does Wikipedia Need the Money for?
Like any website, Wikipedia has server costs, administration costs, staff costs, and more. For a website the size of Wikipedia, these costs are tremendous.
According to Statista, it claimed over 5.5 unique visitors and over 40 billion page views every month throughout 2021. In 2014, Wales calculated that raising $48 million over the course of the year pays for “less than a penny per person [visiting the site] per month.”
The Wikimedia Foundation’s 2021-2022 Annual Plan clarifies that the total operating budget calls for $150 million in spending, including $15.6 million in spending allocated for grants.
This is a significant increase in grants spent in growing the community and content, although it doesn’t state the exact places that this money is spent.
The bulk of this expenditure goes towards what Wikimedia refers to as Programmatic ratio. This includes all aspects of the platform’s development such as technical infrastructure, platform evolution, and brand awareness.
Almost a quarter of this budget goes towards what Wikimedia calls Thriving Movement. Thriving Movement is the process by which Wikimedia wishes to increase Wikipedia’s usage in underserved communities. This includes better translation support, as well as Wikipedia in the Classroom trainers for these communities.
Wikipedia is transparent in saying it exceeded the planned revenue targets in previous years and expects to do the same this year. Of course, this has meant Wikipedia has plenty of reserves already.
According to its 2020-2021 full year financial statement this currently stands at $86.8 million in cash and $137.4 million in short and long-term investments. The foundation explains this as a decision to have a minimum of six to 18 months worth of total spending, in case of emergency.
Everything Might Not Be As Transparent As It Seems
What Wales says can create the picture that internet hosting is the major cost. But the Wikimedia Foundation spends only about 8% of its total budget on it. That’s less money dedicated to its infrastructure than to the Thriving Movement.
“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,” wrote Gregory Kohs, editor of Wikipediocracy, in 2014.
Critics of Wikipedia often point to how much money is spent on “movement entities”, which are organizers who arrange for workshops and events to celebrate Wikipedia. On offer to the attending writers is just soda and pizza, Kohs says.
If you think Wikipedia should spend more money on the people who make and manage the content, you aren’t alone. Sue Gardner, the former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, raised some “significant concerns” last year before she left the organization:
I believe that currently, too large a proportion of the movement’s money is being spent by the chapters. The value in the Wikimedia projects is primarily created by individual editors: individuals create the value for readers, which results in those readers donating money to the movement… I am not sure that the additional value created by movement entities such as chapters justifies the financial cost, and I wonder whether it might make more sense for the movement to focus a larger amount of spending on direct financial support for individuals working in the projects.
Gardner also called for more accountability of these movement entities who request funds, to clearly define success or failure.
The Case For Donating To Wikipedia
So, why should you donate to Wikipedia when it could be cutting costs and tightening its belt?
Wales reasons that it’s important to invest in engineering and innovation, which leads to things like the better translation support, grants funding, and upcoming Parsoid rendering for talk pages.
Most people love Wikipedia because of how easy it is to learn new things. Wired journalist Emily Dreyfuss wrote about her reasons to donate, which echo the frustration felt by many readers when they see Wikipedia begging for money, but also why it’s a good idea to donate nonetheless:
Wikipedia is the best approximation of a complete account of knowledge we’ve ever seen. It’s also the most robust. The most easily accessed. And the safest. It exists on servers around the world so, unlike the library at Alexandria, it can’t be burned down.
But it could be cached. It could be left to stagnate, neglected and forgotten. Worse, it could become the rarefied domain of the monied elite, like so much information before it. I’d hate to see that, and hate it even more if I’d been part of it. So, fine, Jimmy Wales. I will do my part.
NYMag also interviewed four people who donated to Wikipedia, to find out why they did it despite knowing they could still use the site.
And then there are people like Jim Pacha, who donated his entire estate to the Wikimedia Foundation.
The Case Against Donating To Wikipedia
There are enough people who believe Wikipedia doesn’t need your donations anymore.
The cash reserves aside, it’s argued that the site’s potential to generate revenue hasn’t been tapped. While Wikipedia is staunchly against advertising (for the potential conflict of interest in the authenticity of its content), there are other revenue models that could be explored.
Wikipediocracy’s Kohs makes a case for licensing content to sites like Google, which use Wikipedia’s material in its search results–and makes money off it through advertising. Similarly, you can even make your own books from Wikipedia, a service that the foundation could offer at a small price.
Not everyone is against the idea of ads, though. ZDNet’s Stephen Chapman is fine with seeing ads, or coming up with any other revenue model that is sustainable. His logic, at its core, is compelling:
You know… while Wikipedia is certainly something special, it’s not so special that it can’t be easily replicated by someone who could do it better and make a killing doing so. If Wikipedia fails to meet its monetary requirements, then the idea of Wikipedia and the information therein is all out there, just waiting for someone else to come along and do it all again in a different, more easily sustainable manner.
Gardner’s desire to spend more money on the contributors has resonated with many people. One of them is Newsline’s Mark Devlin, who urges readers not to donate because “your money goes to a group of incompetent programmers and a management team that jets around the world for ‘outreach’.”
Is It Time to Donate to Wikipedia?
Every year, Wikipedia asks for donations, and every year, Wikipedia receives them. If you believe that Wikipedia requires further donations, then the site are receiving them at donate.wikimedia.org. If you’re unconvinced by Wikipedia’s stance and would rather support other charities, then there are other charities you can text to donate.
Regardless of what you decide, being informed is the most important thing that you can be. If nothing else, Wikipedia helps to do just that.
Source: Make Use Of