Every non-profit has two main jobs: service delivery (which is the mission work, the reason the non-profit exists) and revenue generation (how you pay for the costs of service delivery). If a non-profit is lucky, the two are aligned and support each other. But that’s rare — it’s more common for them to be completely disconnected, and often they’re in flat-out conflict.
When I started working at the Wikimedia Foundation in 2007, I wanted us to experiment with revenue generation. So we spent about two years doing a bit of everything: making friends with grant-making institutions, cultivating major donors, developing business deals, and running various forms of online fundraising including our annual campaign, mobile giving, and so forth.
The stand-out winner was online fundraising. It makes perfect sense: Wikipedia has 371 million unique visitors every month, and if even a tiny fraction of those people donate, we will easily cover costs. And that’s exactly what happens. New graduates give us 50 or 100 dollars for helping them as they go through school. Little kids donate, or their parents donate on their behalf. And all kinds of ordinary people around the world give every day, because they used Wikipedia to help them plan a trip, or understand a medical condition, or settle a bar bet, or get a job, or satisfy their abstract intellectual curiosity. People use it and they like it, so they want to make sure it sticks around.
So, the “many small donations” model makes sense for Wikipedia, because it aligns fundraising with the rest of the Wikimedia movement: it makes it global, and it empowers ordinary people. It also enables us to stay focused on our own mission and strategy, rather than being pulled off-course by large funders’ needs and desires. It makes us independent. It creates the right incentives: it supports us being accountable and responsive to readers. It reduces the risk that donors will grow (inappropriately) to be more valued by us than editors. It’s scalable, it minimizes risk and it’s replicable and transferable – so, it enables us to help equip our chapter organizations to fundraise too.
So, newly this year, the Wikimedia Foundation is reorienting our revenue generation strategy towards small donors, away from institutional support and earned income. This is good: there are lots of happy consequences. One is that I personally will have more free time.
Practically all Executive Directors complain that they spend way too much time fundraising. I never really felt that way. Wikipedia has never spent a single dollar on advertising, and so it hasn’t necessarily been well understood. I find people have all kinds of misconceptions about Wikipedia, and there are lots of interesting things about it that they don’t know: I’m happy to help them understand it better.
But there is an opportunity cost to fundraising – essentially, any hour that I spend thinking about donor cultivation, is an hour I’m not spending thinking about the work we’re trying to get done.
So I’m happy that beginning this year, I will have more time to dedicate to talking to Wikimedia editors, and thinking about the work Wikimedians are engaged in. This blog is part of that. I plan this year to do more “office hours” on IRC, to have more unstructured time to talk with Wikimedians, and to spend some time writing here.
I’m looking forward to it :-)