Since it first went online in 2001, Wikipedia has grown beyond the seemingly boundless online library of information it is today, to leave behind a distinct cultural imprint. For millions across the world, the website is the first stop for answers to some of their most pressing questions.
So when an alarming red and white banner began to appear across the top of every Wikipedia page earlier this year — asking for donations to keep the site up and running — many users in India were left puzzled. The fundraising drive sparked heated debates amongst social media users — some of whom questioned whether one of the world’s most popular websites really needed donations to stay afloat.
“We ask you, humbly: don’t scroll away,” the message, now pinned atop every Wiki page, reads. “We depend on donations from exceptional readers, but fewer than 2% give. If you donate just ?150, or whatever you can…Wikipedia could keep thriving. Thank you.”
Wikipedia’s mission, according to its founders, is to ensure that everyone can share in and access free knowledge. With the website’s recent call for donations, Wikipedia users in India are quickly realising the heavy cost involved in keeping knowledge free.
“Wikipedia is unlike other free sites that have had to change their business model over the years to ensure their survival by selling ads, instead it has become one of the few successful free knowledge sites left on the Internet, in large part because it’s supported by readers around the world,” a spokesperson for Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s parent organisation, told The Indian Express.
According to SimilarWeb, Wikipedia.org has 5.2 billion visits in July 2020 and was the eight most popular site in the world.
So, why is Wikipedia asking for donations?
In a recent blog post, Pat Pena, Director of Payment and Operations for Wikimedia Foundation, offered a few clarifications about the fundraising campaign launched in India recently. “Reader donations are critical to supporting Wikipedia’s global presence,” Pena wrote. “To meet the needs of readers in India and around the world, we operate an international technology infrastructure comparable to the world’s largest commercial websites.”
Hosted by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia uses a network of volunteer contributors, editors and engineers to expand its ever-growing repository of information and to make it available to users across the world for free. Since Wikipedia does not carry any advertisements, it depends almost entirely on donations made by its millions of readers around the globe. A tiny slice of the website’s total revenue is generated from merchandise, including t-shirts, pencils, notebooks, and pins embossed with Wikipedia’s branding.
The website also has several corporate contributors. Notably, last year, E-commerce giant Amazon made a $1 million donation to the Wikimedia Foundation. “The Alexa team shares a similar vision with Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation: To make it easier to share knowledge globally,” Amazon had then said in a statement.
With the money it generates through these contributions, Wikipedia is able to keep its servers running and also maintain the site and ensure that it is secure, loads quickly, and protects user data. Generous donations from its massive user base also helps the site maintain its independence. “Donations also allow us to dedicate engineering resources to ensure that you can access Wikipedia in your preferred language, on your preferred device, no matter where you are in the world — from a dial-up modem to a brand new smartphone,” Pena’s recent blog post read.
The website is run entirely by a team of around 250 employees and over 250,000 global volunteers. In 20 years, Wikipedia has amassed over 50 million articles in nearly 300 languages. While donations help pay the salaries of its staff members, the volunteers contribute their services to the website for free.
“The site’s volunteer editors contribute to the platform, and oversee Wikipedia’s rigorous editorial standards including verifying the information added to the site,” the Wikimedia Foundation spokesperson explained to The Indian Express. “This volunteer community has developed strict guidelines for identifying [reliable sources](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Reliable_sources) of information that support updates to an article.”
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Does Wikipedia really need donations from its readers?
When the banners requesting donations began to pop up on computer and smartphone screens, some users feared that the online encyclopaedia was on the brink of bankruptcy. Its balancesheet however, tells a different story. According to a Wiki page on its fundraising statistics, the website was able to raise $28,653,256 between 2018-2019, bringing its total assets to $165,641,425. The previous financial year, it garnered $21,619,373 — a marked rise from the $56,666 it earned through donations in 2003.
Over the years, through fundraising campaigns and generous corporate endowments, Wikipedia’s assets have grown exponentially. Given its considerable net worth, many have criticised the website for the doomsday-esque tone it adopts in its call for donations. Asked about the same, the spokesperson for the Wikimedia Foundation said, “As a website that hundreds of millions of people have come to rely on, we have a duty to ensure Wikipedia remains accessible, up to date, and relevant for its readers.”
“We hope the public in India, and in other countries, will consider making a contribution to Wikipedia with the same goal, and with an eye towards the future; it’s also the reason why our messages are written in that spirit.”
A charitable website of this scale needs a constant influx of donations. According to a detailed report shared by Wikimedia Foundation in 2019, about 49% of its annual financial gains was spent as direct support to the website; 32% was used for training, tools, events and partnerships for its network of volunteers; 13% was spent to recruit and pay its staff members; and the remaining 12% was used for its various fundraising initiatives.
It is not uncommon for large nonprofits like Wikipedia to continuously add funds to its reserve, which acts as a safety net if required, a Washington Post report stated. Charitable organisations are encouraged to maintain an adequate cash reserve in excess of their annual expenditure in case of an adverse situation. So if a donor suddenly pulls out or if costs increase, the nonprofit isn’t left high and dry, as the Nonprofits Assistance Fund has pointed out in the past.
While the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has choked businesses across industries, it has presented a new opportunity for the website. Wikipedia has found an uptick in the number of people turning to the site as a reliable source of information during the health crisis. “Billions of people around the world are set to come online in the next few years. This pandemic has accelerated that trend, and the Foundation’s fundraising program is meant to help us address the new and pressing challenges that will come with that wave,” the spokesperson said.
Is this the first fundraising drive Wikipedia has conducted?
Wikipedia’s recent donation drive is most certainly not its first. The charitable website is supported by its readers across the world and depends on their donations to survive. Fundraising campaigns are carried out at specific times every year in most parts of the world.
According to Pena’s blog post, readers in India flock to Wikipedia more than 750 million times a month, the fifth highest number of views the site receives from any country. Given the readership garnered in India, it is rather surprising that Wikipedia launched its first full fledged fundraising drive in India only this year.
“As with other campaigns that we’ve launched in other regions, we wanted to ensure that we were delivering the same valuable experience to readers in India as we have in other countries,” Wikimedia Foundation told The Indian Express. “In order to meet that standard, to provide a convenient way to donate, we needed to implement new payment methods in India, which we didn’t have until now.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, which seems to have brought life to a grinding halt for millions across the world, Wikipedia was forced to delay the fundraising campaign it had scheduled for spring, this year. “The reality is that we’re now only into the first eight months of a pandemic that the World Health Organisation has said will last longer than they originally thought. So this crisis has forced us to approach our fundraising program with an abundance of caution,” the spokesperson said.
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