Future Tense

The Huge Fight Behind Those Pop-Up Fundraising Banners on Wikipedia

Dollar signs behind the Wikipedia logo
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Dilok Klaisataporn/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Wikipedia.

Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.

You have likely encountered them before: the banner ads on English Wikipedia that encourage you to donate. Typically, they run for about a month at the end of the year. As one of the proposed December ads puts it, “If you donate just $2.75, or whatever you can this [whatever day of the week it is], Wikipedia could keep thriving for years. The price of a cup of coffee is all we need.” Many people see the banner ads on Wikipedia as something like the site’s version of a PBS fundraising drive—a bit annoying because they distract you from your regularly scheduled wiki browsing, but not particularly painful. If you’re not interested, just scroll away.

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But for many of Wikipedia’s most dedicated contributors, this year’s proposed banner ads presented something like a moral crisis. The Wikipedia editing community recently held a poll rejecting the proposed banner ads, pressuring the foundation that supports the site into drafting alternative ads with softer language. “The wiki community is challenging the Wikimedia Foundation’s right or ability to run fundraising ads on English Wikipedia,” said Lane Rasberry, a long-term Wikipedian and data scientist at the University of Virginia.  “I can’t imagine the Facebook or Twitter communities organizing a protest like this, attacking hundreds of millions of dollars for the parent tech company. It’s unprecedented. Could not happen anywhere other than Wikipedia.” Over the course of a messy monthlong debate, participating Wikipedia editors protested that the proposed ads were misleading and unethical, while raising the specter of what would happen if the site’s contributors and the foundation failed to come to an agreement before the start of the annual fundraising season.

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Since then, the noise appears to have died down somewhat, according to Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales. “When the foundation responded with a set of proposed banners that fit some of the things that people were asking for, I found that dialogue to be incredibly constructive,” Wales said.

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To understand what happened, it helps to know a little about wiki politics. The Wikimedia Foundation was established in 2003, two years after Wikipedia itself, as a nonprofit organization to fund the internet encyclopedia and other crowdsourced wiki projects. Since then, there has been a long-term debate about what decisions should be decided by the Wikipedia community—that is, the site’s volunteer contributors—versus the WMF and its staff.

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While Wikipedia volunteers are primarily focused on producing content for the encyclopedia, the WMF is a major fundraising organization, bringing in $165 million from 13 million donations during the 2021–22 fiscal year, according to its fundraising report. According to WMF staff, about 87 percent of that funding comes from individual donations. The rest comes from major gifts and grants from philanthropic institutions, companies, and foundations, including $1.76 million in matching gifts from corporate philanthropic programs. (Disclosure: I have donated to the WMF for the past few years, though my donations have always been the small, “cup of coffee” amount. Cue the “I’m a Good Person” song from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.)

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The foundation makes the case that “every donation we receive is invested back into serving Wikipedia, Wikimedia projects, and our free knowledge mission.” Wikipedia is among the top 10 most visited websites worldwide—and the only one run by a nonprofit organization. The internet encyclopedia is not funded by advertising, doesn’t charge a subscription fee, and does not sell user data. It’s worth underscoring that Wikipedia’s approach is heartening and relatively unique—other top websites are shamelessly exploiting user data or introducing haphazard subscription plans. In an interview, Wales characterized Wikipedia as “the opposite of Elon Musk” in that the project tends to make decisions slowly based on its long-term mission and because it uses a more community-minded approach.

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The self-governing wiki community has long insisted that the WMF consult them when it comes to key decisions about how Wikipedia is managed, a process that WMF’s CEO Maryana Iskander referred to in an interview as “healthy democratic noise.”

That noise got a lot louder on Oct. 25 on a Wikipedia community discussion page called the Village Pump. That day, the Village Pump hosted a “Request for comment,” or RfC, about the proposed banner ads for the annual year-end fundraising campaign. In this monthlong debate, volunteers voiced concerns that the ads gave the false impression that Wikipedia was under dire financial stress. The language in the draft ads urged donors to “support Wikipedia’s independence” because “without reader contributions, we couldn’t run Wikipedia the way we do.” Several Wikipedia editors characterized this message as unethical. When an administrator closed the debate on Nov. 24, he noted that “there was broad, near-unanimous consensus that these fundraising banners should not be run on the English Wikipedia in their current form.”

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Jim Heaphy, a 70-year-old Wikipedia editor and administrator who lives in Grass Valley, California, told me that he opposed any messaging that suggested the WMF was running out of money. “Wikipedia is under threat. But it is not under threat financially,” Heaphy said in an email. “The Wikimedia Foundation is rolling in cash.” Heaphy told me he sees the main threats to Wikipedia as coming from authoritarian regimes, ideologues, spammers, and vandals. (See Slate’s previous coverage of how Wikipedia has been censored in different forms by Russia, China, and Turkey.)

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Whether the WMF is “rolling in cash” perhaps depends on your perspective. In the early days, the WMF operated on a shoestring budget that funded Wikipedia’s servers and technical infrastructure, but paid for very few full-time employees. Since then, the organization’s financial situation has changed dramatically. The WMF’s net assets grew from about $57,000 in June 2004 to $180 million as of June 2020. “I’m proud that we’ve managed to grow like this,” Wales said. The WMF also launched an endowment in January 2016 to safeguard the future for Wikipedia and related projects such as Wikidata. This endowment reached its initial $100 million fundraising goal in September 2021, well ahead of its 2026 target date. Wales and the foundation’s CEO, Iskander, told me that having reserves that cover 12 to 18 months of operating costs was in line with standard best practices for nonprofit organizations. For reference, the WMF’s annual operating budget for the 2022–23 year is $175 million. But as the foundation points out, the WMF still operates at a fraction of the budget and staffing as for-profit internet companies despite having the same (if not higher) levels of global traffic.

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It’s important to note that WMF staff do not directly write or curate any of the content on Wikipedia as part of their job duties. That painstaking work is done by Wikipedia’s volunteer editors, who provide free labor to the site for various reasons. Some of them consider it a public service—and some of them simply find the work itself interesting as a hobby. (The latter seems more common, actually, in my experience.)

Critics of the WMF’s fundraising efforts said that only a small percentage of the foundation’s annual budget goes back to the volunteers themselves—that is, the people who produce the content. Then again, many Wikipedians oppose the idea that contributors should ever be paid, since this conflict of interest could distort the content of articles and create bizarre gaming incentives like those that existed on the defunct crypto project Everipedia.

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How does the WMF direct funds to the Wikipedia editing community? The foundation supports events for volunteers, such as edit-a-thons and the annual user conference, Wikimania. They also support volunteers and affiliate groups via grant-making, which makes up about 13.5 percent of the foundation’s budget. This year’s grant recipients include AfroCrowd, an initiative to create and improve information about Black culture and history on Wikipedia, the Wiki Loves Monuments photography contest in Peru, and several other organizations across the world.

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The WMF also invests in Wikipedia’s technology, though some contributors report that’s a sore subject. “We still have a lot of technology on Wikipedia that’s 1990s software, and you don’t find such software anywhere else on the internet,” Rasberry said. In an interview, Iskander noted that product and technology have always made up the biggest portion of the foundation’s budget and that there are more than 40 teams devoted to the effort. The challenge, Iskander said, is prioritizing requests made by small and medium-sized languages along with those of the large and active community on English Wikipedia.

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One reason why so many Wikipedians were upset about the ads, they told me, is that they think the public does not understand the difference between the WMF organization and the broader community that participates as volunteers—and that they see this as a problem. Back in 2020, hundreds of volunteers voiced their objection to the Wikimedia Foundation’s rebranding proposal to refer to itself as “Wikipedia.” As the user pythoncoder phrased it at the time, “Strong oppose because the new name suggests that the WMF is the boss of Wikipedia / controls its administration and content.” (When asked about the renaming idea, Wales said, “I think it’s pretty dead. But I don’t think anything’s ever dead-dead around here.”)

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Regarding the tension over this year’s banner ads, Wikipedian Ryan McGrady told me, “It seems like the moves the foundation has made in the last few days have gone a long way towards calming things down.” Rather than using the originally proposed ads, the WMF staff proposed several alternatives. At press time, some of these revised banner ads have begun to run on English Wikipedia. One ad reads, in part, “your support is requested by the nonprofit that hosts Wikipedia and twelve other free knowledge projects. If you can comfortably afford it this year, please join the readers who donate.” While that language sounds far less urgent, it also reflects the underlying situation more accurately: A few people give and Wikipedia is financially secure for now, though further donations are appreciated.

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So, bottom line: Should someone with financial means donate when they see Wikipedia’s banner ads running in December? It depends. In my view, people who volunteer a lot of time improving Wikipedia’s content have already made their “gift” and should feel no obligation. For everyone else, the calculus is personal. One volunteer suggested donating to smaller but allied organizations like OpenStreetMap, which provides map data that is used for Wikipedia pages. Other contributors said that even if Wikipedia is only indirectly supported by the WMF, the WMF is still the best-positioned organization to advance free knowledge overall by virtue of its scale and connections.

Clearly, Wikipedians are right to engage in vigorous discussion about how donations are solicited from visitors and to oversee how those funds are actually spent. For me, there’s also the small matter of the external environment. In recent years, Wikipedia has been attacked by authoritarian regimes and powerful billionaires—people who do not necessarily benefit from the free flow of neutral information. If $3 helps hold them off, then that’s coffee money well spent.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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