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Should Wikipedia beg us for less?

Why the tone in fundraising advertising does not appeal to the volunteer community

Should Wikipedia beg us for less? Why the tone in fundraising advertising does not appeal to the volunteer community

Wikimedia, a non-profit foundation that develops Wikipedia, among other things, employs about 700 people, has annual revenues of more than $150 million and net assets of $240 million. Although the organisation has no financial problems, it launches an annual fundraising campaign to help maintain the world's largest online encyclopaedia. What's wrong is the tone of these appeals. On the website's pages is a box in which the organisation explains that it is the small donations that make Wikipedia possible. The language is often typical of an appeal. The text conveys urgency and says, for example, that - unlike Google or Facebook - Wikipedia users' data will not be sold to third parties.

Or we read that a contribution to the preservation of the encyclopaedia would only cost a few euros. It is also not uncommon to see a smiley emoji at the end of the box. When you see these requests, you might think that Wikipedia is broke and that closing the site is only a matter of days away. But that's (thankfully) not exactly the case - as the Washington Post points out. The discrepancy between the alarmist tone of fundraising and Wikimedia's actual financial situation has long been a source of embarrassment for many volunteers working for the encyclopaedia. When the traditional fundraising appeal was issued this year, there was a long discussion within the working group that led to a change in the tone of the announcements - the last ones were less forceful and more realistic. But this is not the first time that discontent has arisen over the communication of fundraising appeals: in 2014, Wikimedia changed the content of an advertisement after a group of volunteers protested its wording. Whether as a hobby or a vocation, Wikipedia's community of volunteers works for free to create the encyclopaedia by creating new pages, editing and expanding existing pages, and checking that the information contained is sound. Apart from the complexity of the topics covered in the encyclopaedia and the difficult skills required to fact-check, it is important to bear in mind that volunteers work in an environment - Wikipedia - that is often marred by authoritarian governments questioning the content and malicious users vandalising the pages. Because of the valuable work they do, the positions of Wikipedia's community of volunteers, known as "Wikipedians", are therefore very important to the foundation to which the encyclopaedia belongs.

The fact that Wikipedia depends so much on its community, which is also very much involved in the site's decisions, means that the foundation in question is under a lot of pressure, much more than other charitable foundations. And with a majority of voters rejecting the 2022 fundraising text in a poll on Village Pump - where the community of Wikipedians hangs together - Wikimedia had no choice but to take a step back. Last year's announcements urged users to «support Wikipedia's independence» because «without reader contributions, it would not be possible to run Wikipedia the way it's done today». A Village Pump contact told US magazine Slate that «there was a broad and almost unanimous consensus that the fundraising texts should not be published in the English Wikipedia in its current form». At the end of what online encyclopaedia co-founder Jimmy Wales called «an incredibly constructive dialogue», the foundation proposed several alternatives that volunteers considered more accurate and in keeping with the tone that should be maintained in such cases. For example, one appeal read: «The non-profit organisation that runs Wikipedia is asking for your support (...). If you can afford it this year, please join readers who are donating».

And while «some of the top editors do not even want the site to set aside money because they immediately associate it with corporate abuse and malfeasance», reports the Washington Post, the money Wikimedia raises actually goes to pay its staff and support the technical costs of its projects. And not only that: it makes it possible, for example, to organise events and conferences for the encyclopaedia's huge community of readers. Finally, just as much funding is allocated to the project's expansion goal planned until 2030 - namely, that Wikipedia should become «the essential infrastructure of the free knowledge ecosystem». Despite the fact that Wikipedia's communication sometimes degenerates into demands that border on pleading, the economic strategy of the foundation to which it belongs remains admirable. As the Washington Post notes, «this kind of financial situation is far from unusual for large nonprofits, which instead hope to protect themselves from future shortages by amassing assets».