by Andrew Orlowski
Wednesday, 12
October 2022
Explainer
07:30

The next time Wikipedia asks for a donation, ignore it

The online encyclopaedia is not short on cash
by Andrew Orlowski
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales

No one wants to be a bad person, and you probably felt pretty bad when you saw the heart-breaking appeal and just carried on clicking. Wikipedia is midway through a six-week fund-raising drive in Anglophone regions including the United States, the UK, New Zealand and Australia. The banner ads beg for “just £2”, which doesn’t sound like much, for all that free information. But before you start feeling too guilty, it’s worth considering some facts.

These banner ads have become very lucrative for the NGO that collects the money — the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit based in San Francisco. Every year the NGO responsible for the fundraising adds tens of millions of dollars to its war chest. After a decade of professional fund-raising, it has now amassed $400 million of cash as of March. It created an endowment, managed by the Tides Foundation, which now holds well over $100 million of that. The Foundation wanted to hit that figure in ten years, but found it had sailed past it in just five. In 2021, the appeals raised a total of $162 million, a 50% year-on-year increase. Yet the running costs of Wikipedia are a tiny fraction of the amount raised each year.

Wikipedia’s plea

Indeed, in the 2012/13 year the Foundation budgeted for $1.9m to provide all its free information on tap.

“WMF has operated in the past without staffing and with very minimal staffing, so clearly it’s _possible_ to host a high traffic website on an absolute shoestring,” acknowledged the Foundation’s then VP of engineering, Erik Möller, in 2013. He put the running costs at $10 million a year. Being generous, as some costs fall every year, let’s double that. Wikipedia can operate quite comfortably with the cash it has already, without running another banner ad, for twenty years. So where does the money go?

Not on the people doing the actual work on the site, of course. Wikipedia’s Administrators and maintainers, who tweak the entries and correct the perpetual vandalism, don’t get paid a penny — they’re all volunteers. What has happened is that the formerly ramshackle Foundation, which not so long ago consisted of fewer than a dozen staff run out of a back room, has professionalised itself. It has followed the now well-trodden NGO path to respectability and riches. The Foundation lists 550 employees. Top tier managers earn between $300,000 and $400,000 a year, and dozens are employed exclusively on fund-raising.

The NGO world of which the Wikimedia Foundation is now part uncannily follows Marx’s prediction that the middle class would devise an infinite number of ways of enriching themselves, while ensuring the proletariat, the volunteers at the Wiki-face, don’t share the riches. Understandably, the relationship between the unruly Wikipedia workers and their bourgeoisie betters at the Foundation is strained. When the Wikimedia Foundation proposed changing its name to the Wikipedia Foundation, many of them decided it was a slur and the attempt faltered. For the first time this year, dissent is evident: many recently condemned the Foundation for continuing to run misleading and aggressive appeals.

Without many people realising, Wikipedia has become the world’s most aggressive online chugger. It’s okay to say no.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
44 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 month ago

Thanks for the info. I didn’t know any of that.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Yes, very useful information. It justifies my previous refusal to contribute although like many I find it useful. I am afraid I tend to regard any appeal for funds with scepticism.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago

This is good journalism. Reporting facts on an important issue that are difficult to find or unknown to the average citizen. I have been a regular donor. I naively believed that my donations went to the actual upkeep of the website and to the people who actually do the work of maintaining all that information, checking references, correcting errors, etc. It’s disappointing to learn that all that money goes to building a parallel organization that is only tangentially connected to the main purpose of the site. Too many NGO’s end up like this, taking in money to support their bloated selves while contributing very little to their purported cause. Time to cancel my donation.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I could echo all of that: agreed, time to cancel.

Great piece, thanks for shining some light on their dirty little secret.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
1 month ago

I did donate, once, until I learnt better. Wikipedia’s blatant slander of dissident academics and politicians as well as the deliberate falsification of history do not deserve any support.
It is a pity that so many contributions made by genuine experts providing good information are tarnished by Wikipedia’s refusal to tackle its wayward editors (or maybe that is a feature, not a bug).

Maurice Austin
Maurice Austin
1 month ago
Reply to  Jürg Gassmann

Exactly right. For those very reasons they have never ever got one red cent out of me. If I need to look up “Height of Mt Everest” or “Capital of Buryatia” I go to Wikipedia. If I need to look up “Greta Thunberg” or “Black Lives Matter” or “Carl Benjamin” I go to multiple, multiple elsewheres.

R Poesje
R Poesje
1 month ago

I am a regular contributor to Wikipedia, and I have often wondered what the 550 (and growing) employees of the Foundation actually do all day, as Wiki editors like me would never have contact with them. Can anyone out there explain?

Last edited 1 month ago by R P
David Giles
David Giles
1 month ago
Reply to  R Poesje

Sorry, I’m too busy wondering why on Earth you contribute regularly to think about what their employees do all day.

A Wikipedia Editor
A Wikipedia Editor
1 month ago
Reply to  R Poesje

I am also a regular contributor to Wikipedia, and I do have significant contact with certain portions of the Foundation. First I’ll note some positives. Wikipedia and the public-service mission makes the Foundation an extremely attractive place to work. The Foundation has the luxury of hiring some of the most skilled, passionate, well intentioned people to fill almost any position.
The bad news is that they are staggeringly ignorant about how the community and Wikipedia actually work. They are hired for their skill at some particular job, they generally arrive with zero wiki experience, and what they do manage to learn about us is generally grossly distorted. The culture gap is enormous. They largely understand Wikipedia as some sort of social-network, because that’s all they have to compare it to. I think they kinda see editors as uppity facebook users. They want to help, but they keep pushing the same bad ideas because (1) they don’t understand how things work on our end, and (2) poor institutional memory due to staff turnover.
Ok, the question was what they do. The first thing is all of the tech work maintaining one of the highest traffic websites in the world. There are around 800 wikis, non-stop live editing, and data centers across the globe for speedy response times. This is a highly complex world-class network with world-class success. This part of the operation doesn’t need to understand the community, they just need to pipe the data through the databases and networks. There’s also various data collection, and some analytics/statistics specialists.
Another major activity is software development and maintenance. This area does suffer badly from lack of understanding how wikis work in practice. Many new software projects fail, wasting enormous work. Also a decade ago they initiated a strategy to eliminate wikitext. That obviously failed, and it resulted in an enormous continuing waste of work. They are still sinking massive labor into trying to kill off our wikitext engine and replace it with a new ridiculously over-complicated and buggy wikitext-mimic running on Visual Editor’s engine. They also have some machine-learning systems and they are looking to expand in this area. Also some user-interface design and graphic/art design.
There’s Trust&Safety – they deal with serious stuff like threats, child protection, criminal issues, off-wiki abuse, etc.
There’s a bunch of staff for community-relations.Some of these staff do have community experience. Some are assigned to various software dev teams, some working for Trust&Safety or other areas.
The Foundation gives out a lot of grants. I haven’t paid much attention to this area. I think it’s mostly many small projects, but there might be larger grant-making too.
The Foundation supports all sorts of affiliate organizations – small Wikipedia/Wikimedia orgs in various parts of the world. They get money for various things, like editions, I don’t know a lot there.
There’s a legal department. The Foundation is big enough and prominent enough to need several full time lawyers and support staff. Human resources department – I’ve seen indications that they are (or were) choking on the massive the massive hiring rate. Lobbying and advocacy related to our mission. Then of course the Fundraising department, an online team plus pursuing major donors. Various financial staff to deal with operations and the hundred-million endowment. There’s public relations/media. There are partnerships with other free-knowledge orgs. Various researchers. Significant time also goes into documenting almost everything on meta wiki mediawiki wiki or in various published documents. Then there’s all the standard stuff any org needs, like janitors. I’m sure I missed some things, but that should cover a large bulk of the staff.

Clover Field
Clover Field
1 month ago

There’s Trust&Safety – they deal with serious stuff like threats, child protection, criminal issues, off-wiki abuse, etc.

Am I right that this department monitors the lives of authors outside of Wikipedia in order to cancel them when possible?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 month ago

Surplus cash is actually an issue with many charities (and a problem some other charities would like to have!).
During a period where I was part of a fund-raiser for a kids hospital charity, I happened to be speaking to a surgeon at a Hogmanay do.
“Oh no, not the bloody kids again!” he said. I was surprised and asked him why.
His reply amounted to:
It is vastly overfunded.
Overseen by well-meaning but naive volunteers.
Who donate , without consulting donors, the surpluses to other unrelated charities that may sound nice (they all sound nice) but may well be little more than funnels into the pockets of your favourite African dictator.

  • So where should we donate to? I asked

Geriatric medicine. Unsexy but needs help. “Do you know how many patients were in the kids hospital over this Christmas?” he asked. “Six”.
Give locally to local charities with defined goals where you can see what happens to the money.
and even then, as outlined above, there is a risk that surpluses will be given away to some cause that you would never support,

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 month ago

I stopped my regular donations last year when I saw how they easily certain topics had been captured by left wing extremists ensconced as “editors”.
I doubt they will allow citations from UnHerd , for example, even if merely offered as proof that someone had published a statement on UnHerd.

Last edited 1 month ago by Brendan O'Leary
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago

You do have to filter out some stuff unfortunately – but even academia, scientists and historians are now confessing that they are tailoring their output to ‘fit in’ with wokeness and sensitivities.

DA Johnson
DA Johnson
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Why is this comment downvoted? Anyone who looks at political or even historical topics in Wikipedia can tell that they are “tailoring their output” towards the progressive viewpoint and suppressing opposing views.

Don Lightband
Don Lightband
1 month ago
Reply to  DA Johnson

It’s 100% true..Anything that refers to conservative authors as “white supremacist” has long departed from the encyclopedia sphere

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

I too have stopped contributing. A search around the web reveals that Wikipedia has so much money that it is spent in wasteful ways, sometimes contributing to political organisations (most of who I wouldn’t give money to).
It seems that many ‘charities’ separate out into volunteers to do the actual work and a professional layer of ‘managers’ who are often well paid and progressively inclined.
Include me out.

Richard Robinson
Richard Robinson
1 month ago

You’ve convinced me – I will never give a penny to Unherd.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 month ago

Good idea. I stopped some time back and then I got emails which I’ve sent to spam.

David Jennings
David Jennings
1 month ago

Thanks for the article. I donated for years until I learned of the drift from neutrality. Unherd readers may remember a 2021 interview of co-founder Larry Sanger with Freddie Sayers on Lockdown TV (which stopped my donations to Wikipedia). You can find it here: https://youtu.be/l0P4Cf0UCwU
Sanger said many revealing things, including: “You can trust it [Wikipedia] to give a reliably establishment point of view on pretty much everything. Can you trust it always to give you the truth? Well, it depends on what you think the truth is,”

Last edited 1 month ago by David Jennings
charles cheramy
charles cheramy
1 month ago
Reply to  David Jennings

la recherche en russe sur certains termes donne lieu à des surprises – essayez bio electro luminescence et regardez les commentaires de divers participants est et ouest.

David Simpson
David Simpson
1 month ago

malheureusement mon russe est encore plus limité que mon français ! mais votre commentaire m’intrigue et j’ai essayé de chercher la luminescence bio électrique sans succès

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
1 month ago

Lorsque l’on peut lire l‘anglais, pourquoi pas l’écrire? 

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 month ago

Je ne commenterai pas, car je parle français comme une vache espagnole!

Mike Fraser
Mike Fraser
1 month ago

News to me. Have been subscribing, gently, for years in ignorance of the statements made in this article. I will now reconsider.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 month ago

It’s even worse than this. I read a superb thread that was shared on Ed West’s Twitter. Wikimedia essentially use Wikipedia as a front to raise funds for far left political activists, taking public donations made in good faith and handing them out to political causes. Worth a look.

https://mobile.twitter.com/echetus/status/1579776106034757633

Last edited 1 month ago by Matthew Powell
Rob N
Rob N
1 month ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

I used to donate to Wikipedia as it used to be a great site/resource. However once it became clear that it was pro all race, gender etc madness I stopped. Glad I did, even more so now I know that its support was more than ‘just’ Wikipedia.
It is now definitely a ‘force for evil’.

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
1 month ago

Many thanks for this alert. I’ve responded to the appeals in the past, feeling I ought to pay for a service I was using. No longer!

David Simpson
David Simpson
1 month ago

Thank you for this. I have been asked twice for a donation recently and refused – the previous time I accepted – guiltily, because I do use it / hard not to since google offers it almost every time i do a search. But I have been suspicious about them for a long time, ever since I learned how appallingly the editors treated Rupert Sheldrake (no politics, he just held the « wrong views »)

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
1 month ago

Anyone who is politically on the right, and those that value freedom of speech and impartiality, should not fund Wikipedia.
Jimmy Wales seemed to begin with high minded ideals for the site. He eschewed commercialisation of the site, and a potential income of tens of billions. The $400 million reserve is loose change in comparison to what Wikipedia would be worth on the open market. But Wales has allowed the site to be corrupted; not by money, but by political ideology.
Wales gets quickly angered by criticisms of Wikipedia’s patent leftist bias. But when the site allows shamelessly partisan outlets such as the New York Times, MSNBC, CNN, NPR, to be used as authoritative sources to confirm facts, but not Fox News or the New York Post, the bias is obvious.
Outlets like Wikipedia and the BBC, who are freed from commercial pressures, could be a real force for good if they moderated between the positions of the Left and Right by providing a balanced presentation of facts. It’s sad that they chose instead to become political partisans for the Left.

Lorna Dobson
Lorna Dobson
1 month ago

Thank you for alleviating my guilt.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago

I’m a daily user of Wikipedia for all sorts of topics that take my fancy, mainly biographies of people referenced in documentaries and history books, and I contributed small amounts a few years ago out of a sense of obligation as a regular user. Once I realised it was a very successful money-making exercise I stopped.
But I would probably pay a subscription if it was demanded.

Ci Cero
Ci Cero
1 month ago

Good to know. Could the money, however, be there for ensuring long-term viability?

A Kolbe
A Kolbe
1 month ago
Reply to  Ci Cero

How much more long-term viability would you want? In 2015, the Washington Post published an article titled “Wikipedia has a ton of money. So why is it begging you to donate yours?”
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/12/02/wikipedia-has-a-ton-of-money-so-why-is-it-begging-you-to-donate-yours/
Today, the Wikimedia Foundation has five times as much money, and the fundraising messages still make people think that they are struggling to have enough money to keep Wikipedia running.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
1 month ago
Reply to  A Kolbe

I pay a subscription because Wikipedia provides me with a fantastic data source, well referenced and usually well moderated. I am not so naive as to imagine that you don’t get that without paying professional people to do things professionally. I will continue to subscribe

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

Volunteers provide your product. They don’t get paid, son. Wiki does not need your cash.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 month ago

Wikipedia? Why would I pay for, let alone read, carefully curated propaganda?

charles cheramy
charles cheramy
1 month ago

– encyclopédie universalis – à revoir

Hugh Finlay
Hugh Finlay
1 month ago

This information has been disseminated very slowly since you cannot edit Wikipedia’s Wikipedia page to include it. I now take the same satisfaction I get when receiving threats from the goons trying to collect money for the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation in ignoring it. It is sad that was originally a clever idea which could have been a source for good is being increasingly twisted. I have had to explain to my twelve year old son that the further you get from simple facts in Wikipedia the more careful you have to be.

Last edited 1 month ago by Hugh Finlay
Paul Wary
Paul Wary
26 days ago

I love it when you learn as much from the comment section as from the article.

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
1 month ago

glad to see an article on this – do check this thread – fascinating additional info – https://twitter.com/echetus/status/1579776106034757633?s=20&t=vtAsN70tyLetTep49RmjrA

John Havenhand
John Havenhand
1 month ago

I was a firm believer in Wikipedia and contributed monthly for about two years in the early days. I stopped a few years ago when it became clear it had been captured. The “neutral point of view” became severely compromised in my opinion. I first noticed it when “skeptics” insisted that Sheldrake and many other scientists were “pseudo scientists”. This was nothing more than fundamentalist “scientism” they clearly hadn’t read his papers, his methodology, his data so they tried to close him down and edit his page to cast him in the worst possible light. Then the cancel and “close down fundamentalists” moved on to a broader target group who were labelled “far right”. I appreciate that Sanger no longer identifies with Wikipedia as he thinks it has a left bias. But it’s more than left. Woke doesn’t do it justice either. Perhaps it is a combination of the Overton Window, leftism, wokeism and downright opposition to open debate when ‘ the science” and politics is settled!

Chuck Itall
Chuck Itall
1 month ago

Wikipedia is another clever way the deeper establishment keeps the public brain washed and useful idiots by lying about everything except maybe dry technical matters like how a carburetor works but as far as politics and history they lie through their duplicitous teeth.. I will never give them a DIME of my money..and ill keep using them for free without an ounce of guilt as they have NO integrity or the intellectual courage to ever find any. Liars for the status quo don’t deserve any respect

charles cheramy
charles cheramy
1 month ago

Chacun modifie ce qui a été écrit la veille par ses copains ou concurrents. Est-ce réllement une mafia comme le prétendent certains ? moi je dis que Wikipédia est devenue une classe de 6ème sans surveillance. C’est bien ça

William Fulton
William Fulton
1 month ago

I got hit up (and paid) a number of times until I decided they should adopt a subscription model. Say 5 £ a year.